One question we periodically attempt to pose to climate activists, and suggest you do the same, is that if we really can control global temperature, if atmospheric CO2 does determine it and our emissions determine CO2 levels, what’s the ideal temperature and how do they know? Roger Pielke Jr. just weighed in on this one, asking “Was the global climate of 1850-1900 really so great?” And it’s a good question given the obsessive focus on limiting temperature increases since 1850, a year inexplicably labeled “pre-industrial times”, and given that as Pielke Jr. notes, “Climate activists claim that every increment of warming over the historical ‘pre-industrial baseline’ results in more harm to people and the planet.” They do indeed say that, even in tenths of a degree, an imperceptible rise. But would they really prefer we had the climate of the late 19th century? And how would they know?
Our first complaint might seem trivial, namely that the Industrial Revolution had been under way for three quarters of a century by 1850, though if people don’t know things that basic you may legitimately wonder what else they don’t know. The second is more significant, especially in the present context. It is that we have yet to be told why the climate of the late 19th century should be regarded as so ideal that any departure above it is a calamity to be avoided at all costs.
If you really did have your finger on the control knob of the global thermostat, you’d have a very wide range of times and conditions to choose from. So why choose 1850?
It isn’t easy to find an answer. As Pielke Jr. notes about the habitual alarmist combination of certainty with ignorance:
“One important reason that the period 1850-1900 serves as a useful baseline of climate utopia is that almost no one has any idea what the climate looked like back then, much less the climate impacts actually experienced.”
Oh dear. You mean all this talk of storms getting more severe, floods and droughts ditto, snow disappearing only to fall in massive quantities due to warming and so forth is based not just on a misreading of modern conditions but of total unaware absence of a baseline for comparison?
Yup. Pielke Jr. goes on that “Over the past few weeks I have read Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis.” Say what?
“Davis compiles estimates suggesting that more than 50 million people died in the mid-1870s related to extreme weather and climate – That equates to about 4% of global population. Today, that same proportion of the world’s population would be over 320 million deaths, or almost the entire population of the entire United States. We cannot even imagine this magnitude of human suffering.”
Try blaming that one on Henry Ford. Actually Davis apparently blames it on colonialism, as if nations under British rule were wealthy and resilient until the Union Jack was raised. But everyone has their blind spots. And Davis and Pielke Jr.’s certainly don’t include overlooking that mid-19th-century weather could be very nasty. As in:
“many other extreme events with impacts well beyond those of recent times, such as the Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871 which killed as many as 2,400 people, the 1872 Baltic Sea flood, a 1875 midwestern U.S. locust swam of an estimated 12.5 trillion locusts, the 1878 China typhoon that killed as many as 100,000 people, and the U.S. experienced 6 landfalling major hurricanes in the 1870s, compared to just 3 in the 2010s.”
What little we know about earlier weather suggests that it wasn’t better and may have been worse especially in colder periods. The Medieval Warm Period probably saw nicer and more stable conditions than the cold ones on either side, while the Little Ice Age appears to have been both the coldest period since the last glaciation and exceptionally nasty in terms of weather. Meanwhile the Holocene Climatic Optimum, certainly warmer than today despite all this angry prattle about 2023 being the warmest in 125,000 years, saw not disaster and extinction but the invention of agriculture, pottery, writing and metallurgy, while the parts of northern Africa that are now desert were largely lush and fertile. As late as the Roman Warm Period that region was the “breadbasket” of the Empire.
OK, there’s a lot of history to know. But you need to know it if you want to have any hope of estimating when you’d have wanted to live, or how you should wish things were now. And they don’t. Indeed, they regularly tout models full of “tipping points” and runaway this and that at temperatures that certainly did occur during the Holocene without producing any such outcomes. And they do it without offering any explanation of the difference because frankly they aren’t aware of it and don’t even know what they don’t know.
Epistemic humility is clearly not an alarmist “thing”. But Pielke Jr. nevertheless concludes by attempting to school them that:
“A careful look at history tells us that the global average surface temperature is not a control knob that we can set to a preferred value to ‘prevent suffering.’”
We’d go further and say it’s not one we can set to a preferred value at all. But certainly if someone claims otherwise, or even expresses a wish that we could, they should be asked to explain where they’d set it and why. And if they can’t, or won’t, discount any further climate-related remarks they might make as wilfully ignorant babble.