Lots of blogs assure me that the science is settled on global warming, and since questioning this in any way gets one labeled a “denier,” and I live in fear of being called names, I wouldn’t presume to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the science! But sometimes findings in this field can read a little like grasping at straws to even the most objective observer.
Take this one, which I picked up in Science News: Columbus Blamed for Little Ice Age. It’s about what the title says: the so-called Little Ice Age – a period of cooling that followed the Medieval Warming Period and lasting until close to the present day – long something of a mystery to climate scientists, is now being laid at the feet of Columbus’ landing in the New World.
If that seems implausible, it’s less so than you think. The proposed mechanism is the dramatic depopulation that followed on said explorer’s introduction of European diseases into the native population. By all accounts, the native population was decimated – the linked article claimig “by as much as 90%!” To put a rough number on that – which I’ll need again in a second – there were something like 40-80 million people living in “the Americas” (again, from the linked article). So that’s a lot of dead people! The proposal is that a period of rapid reforestation followed on this – which makes sense. If 90% of the population suddenly vanishes, and the population is involved in agriculture, then that’s a lot of land that is no longer being cultivated. Trees will pick up the slack. Not to mention, it’s also a lot of fires that are no longer getting burned. So, a huge carbon sink is created, in other words.
But while I can buy that there might have been a dramatic reforestation following on the decimation of the native population, I have a couple of questions.
(1) 90%. REALLY? I find that a little hard to believe.
(2) For the sake of argument, let’s take them at their word. 90% of the population died. And shit, let’s give them their upper bound estimate of 80 million people. So, 72 million people – POOF! – gone. That’s still a lot less than died in the Bubonic Plague, which killed over 100 million about 100 years before. So I would really like to know why 72 million people (and rmember, this is a REALLY liberal estimate – the real number is likely to have been much lower) dying in one area of the world can trigger a cooling period when something like 1.6 times that dying all over the world fails to?
(3) It isn’t just the Plague. There was also a famine in Europe in the years leading up to the Plague. And you know what supposedly caused the famine? The Medieval Warm Period – another mysterious climate change event. So, to recap for clarity, the world lost 110+ million peoeple to the Plague, and when you factor in the long periods of famine in Europe that preceded the Plague it’s even more than that, and this DIDN’T trigger a climate change event, but somehow the outbreak of disease in an isolated area of the world, which killed considerably fewer people, DID. I’m not saying there isn’t a way to square this circle, just that it isn’t included in the article I just read.
(4) Now, one cause that’s been advanced for the Medieval Warming Period is the population explosion in Europe following on several technological advancements in agriculture. OK, fair enough. If a lot of people dying can cause a global cooling, then a lot of people being born should cause a global warming. The problem with this theory is that the global cooling lasted from the 1500s more or less to the present day – which is to say, over the period of time when the human population exploded EVERYWHERE to a completely unprecedented degree. If 72 million people (again, let me stress 72 million at the outside most) can cause a cooling within 60 years, then just how in the hell does the cooling continue over a 500 year period after that when those 72 million people have been replaced by several orders of magnitude, more land is farmed than they ever dreamed of farming, and more trees are felled than they ever dreamed of felling, not to mention all kinds of supposedly-climate-changing industrial advancements are made to boot?
Does any of this seem remotely plausible to you? Because it really doesn’t to me.
To be fair, though, this diatribe only works if we’re looking at Columbus as the sole cause of the Little Ice Age. The title and tone of the article do encourage that impression – but of course this is an article in a pop science magazine. Hopefully, real climate scientists are only citing the Columbus expedition as one of a multitude of causes of the Little Ice Age. I would, of course, be interested in seeing a complete list.
But that said, let me just add …
I’m definitely not buying Columbus as the SOLE cause of the Little Ice Age. That seems like transparent nonsense – for the reasons I outlined. I’m willing to buy Columbus as one of many causes of the Little Ice Age, but I’m still a long way from convinced. It’s not just that I need to hear the other reasons – it’s more that I’m skeptical of the assumption that seems to be built into all of this that if the climate changed, then man had large and decisive role to play in that. That just doesn’t seem terribly likely for the technology level of the early 1500s, and even less so for the early 1100s (when, recall, there was a sudden inexplicable warming period). What I mean to say is that I wonder whether we’re not in a “when you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail” situation. The debate about global warming has gotten so acrimonious that I can well believe that people on BOTH sides are grasping at straws.
Saying that tens of millions of people here and there make a dramatic difference in global climate is suspiciously convenient for the climate alarmist crowd: the more fragile the environment is, the more we need their lobbying efforts. It’s simultaneously suspiciously INconvenient for them: if the global climate were really that fragile, then the warming they’re so worried about should have started a long time ago. I’m not an expert on this, but the intelligent outsider’s view would be that the Earth’s climate just isn’t nearly that fragile, and that the causes are elsewhere. Note that this still leaves room for anthropogenic global warming to be real: one just has to believe that the man-made pressures have increased dramatically recently, which of course they have. But if it’s only recently that anthropogenic pressures have reached a critical mass capable of influencing the climate, then it’s also true that the global climate isn’t nearly as responsive to human pressure as a lot of people like to make it out to be.
Which is in fact what I believe.