We refer here not to hypocrisy by jet-setting celebrities and even scientists or the silencing of dissent by environmental activists. Rather, there’s a long-standing question of how environmentalists tell whether something has changed for the better or worse. If, for instance, a valley becomes more verdant or a plateau more arid should we be happy? Normally the acid test used to be whether humans are causing it. A natural desert is beautiful in its simplicity, an artificial one a wound on the landscape. A lush lowland is glorious, an irrigated one a blight. With climate change, the mantra that all effects of man-made global warming are bad and all bad things are effects of man-made global warming seems to require a different standard so that we can tell if something is bad in order to blame it on AGW. But what if warming takes the Sahara back toward its former natural lushness? Do we cheer or boo?
The question is not hypothetical. We know, Eric Worrall observes, that during the much warmer Holocene Climatic Optimum the Sahara Desert wasn’t the Sahara at all (ṣaḥārā being the plural of the Arabic word ṣaḥra meaning “desert”) but a land of lakes, vegetation and iconic African wildlife like the hippo and the giraffe. Had modern greens been there at the time they would, we presume, have been suitably impressed.
As the place cooled, it desertified. Slowly. As late as the 2nd century AD North Africa was still the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Now of course it’s a wind-swept wonderland through which greens can take an ecotour, or could take before COVID, to savor the stark beauty of the desert landscape, the astounding adaptability of plants and animals under marginal conditions and the fragility of it all.
Now to the fragility. It seems the UN is very worried that man-made climate change might cause the desert to get more deserted and bigger, thus encroaching on modern Africa’s food-growing areas. Which is bad though the natural desertification was not. But the UN is also worried that it might get wetter and more hospitable, thus encroaching on something or other. Which is also bad though natural undesertification was not.
Of course, the UN says Africa is warming fast and bad stuff is happening. “Climate change has contributed to a jump in food insecurity, mosquito-borne disease and mass displacement in the past decade, and the rise in sea levels has led to unusual weather patterns such as Tropical Cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in 2019.” (That Africa’s population has risen dramatically in recent decades due to global greening should not distract you from the pattern of “a jump in food insecurity… and mass displacement”, to say nothing of a cyclone. Oh, and locusts.) But here’s the wacky bit: “Africa has been warming progressively since the start of the last century, and in the next five years, northern and southern Africa are set to get drier and hotter, while the Sahel region of Western Africa will get wetter”.
Got that? In some places it will get drier which is bad and in others it will get wetter which is bad too. What, then, would be good?
Unsophisticated observers might feel that as the Sahel is an arid, marginal farming region on the southern edge of the Sahara, if it gets wetter regardless of the cause it will be good for people, especially the poor ones mercifully better able to grow food thanks to the increase in rainfall. Certainly if it got wetter naturally we would praise Mother Nature. But if man does it, it’s bad water.
As Worrall notes tartly, “Carbon obsessed organisations like the United Nations only see the negative side of global warming. Imagine the benefits to Africa and Arabia, and other arid equatorial regions, if global warming restored the ancient Monsoons, which failed 6000 years ago after the end of the Holocene Optimum? Northern Africa and Arabia could once again be like the Garden of Eden.”
If it did, you can bet the UN would be there saying “Do not eat that forbidden fruit”.