It may well turn out that George W. Bush's greatest service to the country won't involve terrorism or Iraq at all, but his steadfast refusal to be buffaloed into joining the panicky consensus on global warming.
Rumor had it that Bush intended to embrace the warming thesis at last in his State of the Union address. Instead Greens nationwide went into depressed tailspins as he called for an attack on the problem by means of technical advances, a curve ball very much in the old Bush mode, of a type that we've seen too little of recently. Bush is acting in defiance of much of the civilized world, led by a former vice-president and including the media, the entertainment community, the Democrats, most of the policy elite, that peculiar and never-before-encountered group known as "mainstream scientists", and now even corporations, eager to clamber aboard the Kyoto wagon while there's still room.
As James Lewis recently put it on these pages, global warming is most likely a crock. Some of us are old enough to remember similar hysterics over air pollution, overpopulation, and universal famine, none of which ever came to pass. The science behind warming is so full of lacunae, speculation, and outright fraud (e.g., the famed "hockey stick chart" purporting to show temperature levels over the past millennium while conveniently dropping both the medieval warm period and the Little Ice Age) to be in any way convincing.
One curious element involves certain facts that, on first consideration, would appear to be crucial but never seem to come up in debate. I have spent several years trying to track down the actual values of two numbers - the annual amount of carbon dioxide emitted by all human activities, and the amount of carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere. There are as many answers as there are sources, the first ranging from 3 billion to 28 billion tons, the second from 750 billion tons to 2.97 x 1012 tons, a number so large that there's no common English word for it. Variations of this size - up to three orders of magnitude - suggest a serious lack of basic knowledge. The fact that it never comes up suggests that scientists are well aware of this. (It's doubtful we'll see the question addressed in this week's IPCC report either.) So it's something of a relief to turn to history. Despite the insistence of Al Gore and friends, this is far from the first time the Earth has ever passed through a climatic warming period. In fact, one occurred relatively recently, the medieval warm period, more commonly known as the Little Climatic Optimum (LCO), a period stretching roughly from the 10th to the 13th centuries, in which the average temperature was anything from 1 to 3 degrees centigrade higher than it is today. Several years ago, I covered the LCO in an article detailing the climatic history of the last millennium. But it's worthwhile to cover the highlights once more, to help put the contemporary panic into perspective.
* How warm was it during the LCO? Areas in the Midlands and Scotland that cannot grow crops today were regularly farmed. England was known for its wine exports.
* The average height of Britons around A.D. 1000 was close to six feet, thanks to good nutrition. The small stature of the British lower classes (and the Irish) later in the millennium is an artifact of lower temperatures. People of the 20th century were the first Europeans in centuries to grow to their "true" stature - and most had to grow up in the USA to do it.
* In fact, famine - and its partner, plague -- appears to have taken a hike for several centuries. We have records of only a handful of famines during the LCO, and few mass outbreaks of disease. The bubonic plague itself appears to have retreated to its heartland of Central Asia.
* The LCO was the first age of transatlantic exploration. When not slaughtering their neighbors, the Vikings were charting new lands across the North Atlantic, one of the stormiest seas on earth (only the Southern Ocean - the Roaring 40s - is worse). If you tried the same thing today, traveling their routes in open boats of the size they used, you would drown. They discovered Iceland, and Greenland, and a new world even beyond, where they found grape vines, the same as in England.
* The Agricultural Revolution is not widely known except among historians. Mild temperatures eased land clearing and lengthened growing seasons. More certain harvests encouraged experimentation among farmers involving field rotation, novel implements, and new crops such as legumes. While the thought of peas and beans may not thrill the foodies among us, they expanded an almost unbelievably bland ancient diet as well as providing new sources of nutrition. The result was a near-tripling of European population from 27 million at the end of the 7th century to 70 million in 1300.
* The First Industrial Revolution is not widely known even among historians. Opening the northern German plains allowed access to easily mined iron deposits in the Ruhr and the Saarland. As a result smithies and mills became common sights throughout Europe. Then came the basic inventions without which nothing more complex can be made - the compound crank, the connecting rod, the flywheel, followed by the turbine, the compass, the mechanical clock, and eyeglasses. Our entire technical civilization, all the way down to Al Gore's hydrogenmobile, has its roots in the LCO.
But in the late 13th century, it all came to an end.
The climate closed down. Rains ruined crops and washed away entire seacoast towns. Far to the north, the great colonies of Iceland and Greenland faltered and began to fade away. Famine returned to Europe, and with it the plague, in one of the greatest mass deaths ever witnessed by humanity. The bright centuries were replaced by the dance of death and a dank and morbid religiosity. The focus of culture shifted to the warm Mediterranean. It remained cold, within certain broad limits, for six hundred years. The chill only lifted in the 1850s, when our current warming actually began.
We look back to a world that was a far more pleasant place at the turn of the last millennium, with a milder climate, plentiful food, a healthy populace. A picture, needless to say, at some variance with the Greens' prediction of coming universal disaster. It also undermines one of one of the basic environmentalist tenets - that nature is in delicate balance that can destroyed by a hard look from any given capitalist, and that any such change leads inevitably to catastrophe.
The LCO suggests that a warmer world may well be more desirable than the one we have now. To go a step further, my research implied that the planet is in fact meant to be somewhat warmer than it is today, that the life-forms we see around us are in fact adapted to a warmer climate. The earth is, after all, stuck within a three-million-year glacial epoch whose origin and cause remain a mystery. (We're now in a brief "interglacial" - a warming period! - that began only 12,000 years ago and could end tomorrow.)
I brought this up with a friend, a noted NASA scientist -- who, due to the tenor of the times, shall remain nameless - and he responded, ‘Of course - there's more life at the equator than at the poles." (This, by the way, is a perfect example of how a capable scientific mind operates, an immediate, undistracted focusing on the most critical elements. It doesn't seem to work that way with the Greens' "mainstream scientists".)
If warming were currently the case, we'd more than likely be seeing an LCO situation unfolding - meliorating weather, fewer storms, and moderating temperatures. But instead we're enduring massive blizzards across the Midwest, single-degree temperatures in Central Park, cold currents embracing Australia (bringing with them a plague of great white sharks), and killer storms across Europe. Not at all what we'd expect from either the medieval or the environmental scenario. Whatever is happening to the climate, it appears that the scientists, mainstream and otherwise, have not yet put their finger on it.
Which is why we need to keep our options open, harboring our resources rather than blowing them on some wild-eyed Gore plan that may end up doing the exact opposite of what is required. And why GWB deserves a lot more credit than he's ever likely to get.