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A Historian Looks At Climate Change

07 Jul 2020 | Backgrounders



John Robson

Have you ever wondered why the great cathedrals of Europe were built when they were? Or why the Vikings in the Middle Ages were able to create vibrant communities in places you sure wouldn’t want to try and farm today?

Have you ever wondered why some periods of history became known as “dark ages” when the crops fail and the invaders swoop in?

Well, these are the kinds of questions that historians ask. And the answers of course are always complex. They involve wars, they involve natural disasters, they involve natural blessings, they involve inventions and institutions, they involve the courage and determination that humans are capable of, and also the cruelty and the stupidity.

And they involve climate. Which is where I come in. I’m John Robson and I welcome you to the Climate Discussion Nexus video “A historian looks at climate change.”

In the period of time that we’ve been making CDN videos and newsletters, periodically someone will ferret out the apparently scandalous information that I’m a historian and wave it about in triumph. Like this guy who commented on one of our YouTube threads that

He said he was a Dr but never said in what, why is that ? Ohhh I checked His doctorate is in history, I guess he didn’t want us to know that.

Well, if not I must be pretty stupid, because I put it on my online biography, I talked about it at length in my 2017 documentary called “The Environment: A True Story” and I foolishly announced it in our first CDN video whose YouTube description starts “Welcome, I am Dr. John Robson, a Canadian historian and journalist”.

Now, I’m not one to hide my credentials. I’m not actually embarrassed that I’m a historian. But I’m also not one to lord it over you because of it. I have no interest in wagging my finger and saying “I have a Ph.D. in history so I’m an expert and you have to believe everything I say.”

We’ve learned, and re-learned, a few things about experts during the coronavirus crisis. And one of them is that in the face of real uncertainty, experts can be as wrong as everyone else. Or even more wrong, because they’re more sure of themselves. Another thing that we’ve learned is that experts and computer models are a dangerous combination.

A third, and this to me is the most important, is that when it comes to making major decisions about laws and policies and how we’re going to be governed, and how we’re going to operate as a society, whether it’s on climate change, whether it’s dealing with a pandemic, how you set up your constitution, experts can offer advice, but the decisions need to be made by the ordinary people whose lives will be affected by the decisions. We need to weigh the relevant factors, we need to think about the alternatives, and we need to apply our own common sense.

This whole thing about experts, frankly, is a bit fishy. I mean, nobody ever seems to object that Al Gore isn’t a climate scientist, or Elizabeth May isn’t, or Barack Obama, or Leonardo DiCaprio, certainly not Greta Thunberg. It’s highly selective. Because they also don’t say not to have an opinion on the budget because you’re not an accountant, or not to have an opinion on taxes because you’re not an economist, or not to have an opinion on the rise of China because you’re not a diplomat or a general or not to have an opinion on Hitler because you’re not a historian.

On the contrary, just about everybody wants citizens to be engaged, ideally after taking some trouble to inform themselves. And that’s exactly right. If it weren’t, democracy would be a terrible idea in principle, because neither voters nor politicians can possibly have an advanced degree on almost any of the subjects that they’re expected to make decisions and judgements about, so if we really believed in this business about experts, we’d turn everything over to the professoriate instead.

Relying on common sense as the essence of self-government instead is a far better idea. And it’s an old one. There’s something that William Pitt the Elder said in the British Parliament in 1770 that I’d like to bring up here. And yes, it’s the sort of things historians know, like being able to tell you that Millard Filmore was the 13th president of the United States, and that after leaving office turned down an honorary degree from Oxford because he said he didn’t have the sort of distinction that merited an Oxford degree and moreover it would be in Latin and, he said, “no man should accept a degree he cannot read.” Remarkable degree of humility that we could use more of in politicians, by the way.

As you see from that example, we historians are a barrel of laughs at parties. But never mind. The point here is that, in 1770, Pitt said

There is one plain maxim, to which I have invariably adhered through life: that in every question in which my liberty or my property were concerned, I should consult and be determined by the dictates of common sense. I confess, my Lords, that I am apt to distrust the refinements of learning, because I have seen the ablest and the most learned of men equally liable to deceive themselves and to mislead others. The condition of human nature would be lamentable indeed, if nothing less than the greatest learning and talents, which fall to the share of so small a number of men, were sufficient to direct our judgement and our conduct. But providence has taken better care of our happiness, and given us, in the simplicity of common sense, a rule for our direction, by which we can never be misled.

Now in case you’re not a historian, or a climate scientist, I should explain that Pitt Sr. was known as the “Great Commoner”. He took the side of the colonists before the American Revolution, he exposed corruption in government, and he had a son who, as Prime Minister himself, helped save Britain from Napoleon and under whom Parliament, inspired by William Wilberforce, abolished the slave trade. And yet amazingly enough, neither of the Pitts, nor Wilberforce, had a PhD in Political Science, or Applied Ethics, or any other such discipline, so they just had to muddle through.

And speaking of muddling through, one virtue of historical training is that you get some understanding of what has been dangerous to self-government in the past and what has helped to save it and preserve liberty. And unfortunately, rule by experts tends to be in the dangerous-to-self-government column. You might think, well, why not put the best and the brightest in charge? But “best” in Greek is aristo and rule by the best is called aristocracy. Does anyone really want to go back to that system?

I would rather take my stand with another historian here, William F. Buckley, who once famously remarked

I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.

Nowadays it probably helps to have a history degree to know what a “telephone directory” is. But you get his point. Let me now address the question of why a sense of history, and a PhD in the stuff, is not an impediment to thinking clearly about climate change specifically, but rather is a desirable asset.

As historians we are trained to seek the key to the present and to the future in the past. As so, as soon as man-made global warming became a “thing”, and I was told that CO2 was going to overheat the planet, I asked myself a natural historian question. I said is there anything in the past record of the planet to suggest that CO2 drives temperature?

If there is, it’s reasonable to think it will continue to do so. If not, this is kind of an odd view to take. And I was told CO2 has been stable for thousands of years before industrialization but temperatures kept changing. So I naturally concluded that there’s something else causing them to fluctuate, probably a number of things.

And it’s not just thousands of years. Look back 50,000 years, look back 5 million, 50 million, half a billion, it doesn't matter on what scale you look, there just doesn’t seem to be any connection between CO2 and temperature. Which makes it very fishy to claim that it suddenly became the dominant factor right around the time that Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada.

I’m not alone in thinking the past matters, by the way. It’s something you’re also likely to hear from geologists and Earth scientists. For instance, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Ian Plimer, when he was registering serious doubts about climate orthodoxy, began by saying “I’m a geologist. And the one thing that we miss out on in looking at climate change is the past.”

I heartily agree. And leaving out the past is not a small thing. How would we try to judge anything, from politics to geopolitics to our own personal conduct, if we had no knowledge of what had happened in the past?

So this whole notion of CO2 as the climate control knob, as NASA once really did put it, strikes me as very suspicious because it hasn’t been that way before. And incidentally, it’s too bad Al Gore’s not a historian because, in An Inconvenient Truth, he famously laid two charts of CO2 and temperature over the last 700,000 years atop one another, and he went gotcha. But it was actually a horrendous gaffe.

They do correlate, more closely than one normally finds, at least in the sense of being small waves on top of bigger ones. But the problem is, in those small waves it’s temperature that moves first, and CO2 follows with a lag of around 800 years.

And on that basis let me toss out an intriguing possibility for more research rather than a dogmatic claim: If it is true that a warming earth tends to “degas” from the oceans and a cooling one tends to absorb CO2 into the oceans, well, what was happening 800 years before the present? Right. The Medieval Warm Period.

So what we could be seeing now is the carbon cycle going into a long accumulating phase as a typically delayed reaction to that warming. It’s just speculation. But if it is true, it would be consistent with what we know of the past, unlike Al Gore’s view that CO2 drives temperature changes 800 years after the fact. You’re not going to find a lot of scientists thinking that effect can precede cause any more than you will historians.

Now speaking of the Medieval Warm Period, again as a historian, the moment I saw Michael Mann’s infamous “hockey stick” I said hey, what happened to the Middle Ages? I've known ever since I was just a small historian, and by the way if being a historian is a shame it's a family shame, because my mother was a historian and so was my grandfather, so I’ve known since I was quite young that the Middle Ages was characterized by warmth, by abundant harvests and by the kinds of cultural and geopolitical conditions that led to a flowering of arts and other institutions. That’s when the great cathedrals were built, that’s when universities were invented, that’s when hospitals appeared.

And it’s also, earlier in that period, when the Vikings made their voyages of “discovery”, which I grant you were a mixed blessing to the people they “discovered” and then stole their stuff and burned down their villages. But it also got them to “Iceland” and “Greenland” before falling temperatures wiped out the settlements in the latter. And there’s more here.

You see when it became cold in the 14th century as the Medieval Warm Period started giving way to the Little Ice Age, and this cooling is captured in the paintings of Peter Breughel the Elder and a number of other artists, the crops failed, the Black Death came and it was a disaster. So again I looked at Michael Mann’s hockey stick and I said where’s the Medieval Warm Period and why do we think warming is bad?

On which subject, a few years ago when I was making “The Environment: A True Story” I had the good fortune to be able to interview Princeton University physicist Will Happer, who’s well-known for his path-breaking work in atmospheric science and for his dissent from global warming orthodoxy.

I discovered in addition to being a distinguished scientist, he also knows a lot about the historical evidence for the Medieval Warm Period. He talked about the records of tithing to monasteries which give you ideas of where crops were being grown and in what quantities. He talked about where tree lines were in the Middle Ages versus where they were centuries later. And in both cases, it was clear that warmth meant that plants grew better, including food crops.

Which means, you know, whatever you think about crop failure, there really is no question of the Medieval Warm Period having existed. As a historian I know it’s not even controversial. Books on Art History talk about the Medieval Warm Period. Just as it is essentially uncontroversial that the Dark Ages were colder, and it’s one reason they were dark. Or that before that there was a Roman Warm Period. There was also a Minoan Warm Period. There was a Holocene Climate Optimum. And then, if you go back into the Pleistocene and you look at the glaciations, you see a cycle of brief warm periods, which are nice, and long cold ones that aren’t.

So yes, history tells us that temperatures fluctuate. And it tells us yes, they have been rising since Victorian times. But again a historian says well of course they have. It’s a natural rebound from the Little Ice Age, it’s part of a cycle of these coolings and warmings, and so it’s illogical to attribute all the warming since 1860, or 1970, to human influence, as though the Thames would probably still be freezing if it weren’t for that wretched Henry Ford.

And here’s another historically based question about climate change. Whenever I hear people saying we’re seeing levels of atmospheric CO2 unmatched in the last two and a half million years, my inclination is to say, OK, well, what happened last time they were at this level? They’re telling me its going to lead to run away warming, but I look back and see that last time it happened, the warm and lush Pliocene abruptly gave way to the chilly barren Pleistocene, a prolonged “Ice Age” that we’re actually still in (because the definition of an ice age is significant polar ice).

Fortunately, we’re in one of those hospitable interglacials called the Holocene. Though, again judging by past patterns, the Holocene is winding down not up, and if it is we’re in a world of hurt that we can’t fix by spraying CO2 around because it’s just not the control knob on the global thermometer. The historical record makes that abundantly clear.

Now, as a historian, I employ my expertise to caution you here that reconstructions of temperature and atmospheric CO2 become increasingly speculative and unreliable as we go back. But this chart, which I used in my documentary, shows what we think temperature and CO2 might have been like going back essentially to the Cambrian Explosion, the appearance of multicelled life on Earth. And let me tell you no historian, no scientist, no intelligent lay voter, would ever look at these lines and say ah yes well clearly the red one is driving the blue one. And, yes, even if you’re neither a historian nor a climate scientist, don’t let anybody tell you you lack the qualifications to look at this chart and see the obvious.

Now I will concede one point here about the role of experts. If a question is purely technical, if it doesn’t have political or social implications, and it really is settled, then I’m all in favour of deferring to them. If we want to know the hundredth digit of pi, let’s ask a mathematician or some high school kid who’s memorized the thing. If we need to know how far it is from Earth to Jupiter, let’s ask an astronomer. But climate science is not in that category.

It’s a field that’s wide open to debate, in which there is massive disagreement, and in which both scientists and activists know that various people’s views on how CO2 affects the climate have big implications for public policy. It’s a prize worth capturing.

Let me say this bluntly. Far too many climate scientists spend their days on Twitter making their political views known for the rest of us to believe they’re just neutral. And, when climate alarmists tell us “believe the scientists” what they really have in mind is that we should believe the scientists who share their political views and make it clear that they share them on social media.

And if you somehow don’t believe that scientists have political views that can affect what they research, and how they do their science, well that’s a history lesson for another day. I won’t mention Lysenko here.

Meanwhile, the next time some Sherlock discovers that I’m a historian and says “Ha! Gotcha! You shouldn’t have an opinion on climate change”, I answer with William Pitt that everyone should have an opinion on climate change.

It doesn’t matter what kind of formal training you have, because you’re being asked to make judgements and major decisions on it as a voter and as a citizen.

If you think your opinion is no good, try harder. Because we need you to think, talk and vote sensibly on it.

By all means listen to the experts, including historians like me, and make a point of listening to people on all sides of the debate. But when you’ve done that, think for yourself, make up your own mind, and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t come in because you don’t have a PhD in Physics.

For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson, I’m a historian and I’m proud of it.

20 comments on “A Historian Looks At Climate Change”

  1. I've always said it! They are asking the wrong people Climatologists with vested interests. They should ask Historians who will say it's all happened many times before,just as fast and often much more extreme.
    Geoff Evans

  2. Excellent video! You vocalized how I've been feeling about the Business of Climate for quite some time and I thank you for it! I also have a degree that is not atmospheric in nature, but it is one that focuses on logic. The logic of man made warming has not sat well with me for quite some time and I am surprised at how many people accept the science without thinking about it at all. I would make a poor politician, unlike Dr. Mann.

    This is a video I will share with those who I think will be somewhat open to the idea of non CO2 driven warming. And perhaps those who aren't!
    Thank-you again

  3. Dear Dr. Robson,
    Your engagement in this issue, or rather pseudo-issue, is remarkable and very much welcome. You make very useful, very professional contributions that highlight the numerous inconsistencies of the theory of man made global warning. However, making reference to the historical geophysical record is irrelevant to the debate. The pundits of global warming claim that it is the increased emissions of CO2 by humans which causes the warming by the so called 'greenhouse effect'. This is the issue that needs to be addressed directly and not with sideline arguments of past climates, etc. Thus the merit of their claim rests on whether the earth's temperature is really increasing and whether it is due to the increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. I think that to counter the global warming claim one should simply deal with the validity of these claims, i.e. keep it simple.

  4. Yes, I liked the little Viking too! A bit like the ones in Bernard Cornwell's 'Last Kingdom' series of books.

  5. I rather like Dr Robson's ironic and sardonic 'we are all going to die' humour, if only because it points up the total lack of balance shown by those of a catastrophist persuasion (i.e. Grater 'Doom Goblin' Toonbuyer).

  6. I'm neither a scientist nor an historian but I am a little confused. If CO2 molecules are preventing radiation from escaping into the atmosphere, wouldn't those same molecules prevent radiation form the Sun getting through to the surface as well?

  7. It's a good question and the answer is that the spectrum of light (i.e. the frequencies) reaching the earth from the sun does not contain much if any infrared, what is released back to space from the earth as it cools is in the infrared. Note that not all infrared light, or radiation as it is often called, is reflected back to earth by C02, some is indeed reflected to space, 50/50. Moreover CO2 does not absorb all infrared radiation emitted by the earth, it is a narrow portion of the infrared spectrum that is absorbed by C02, you can look up these frequency ranges. That's basically it ...

  8. John,
    As always, a great video.
    Near the end you urge us to listen to all sides of the debate. I'd like to do that.
    Who is your anti-particle? That is, who in your opinion is the most credible proponent of man-made climate change, in the same way that you're (IMO) a credible opponent of it.
    I assume that a debate between the two of you would be very instructive (and probably great entertainment).
    If you could point to a video or article by this person, that'd be great.
    Keep up the good work.

  9. Dr Will Happer is an expert on the physics of CO2. How could someone who's been deeply involved with high powered CO2 lasers not understand how CO2 behaves? If people would listen to him and similarly qualified physicists like Dr Richard Lindzen, the whole "Man Made Global Warming Because Of Carbon Dioxide Pollution" hoax would collapse.

  10. John, as a litigator for 30 years, I can tell you that when your opponents can't attack your facts, they attack you. It's as old a rhetorical device as the Miocene.
    Take it as an admission that you're correct.
    Keep up the good work!

  11. Common sense is not so common anymore and the world has gone mad.Keep up your great work John.
    You did allude to it but this hoax has prominent proponents who are so arrogant that they readily admit the purpose is to change our political system in the free world to that of socialism .
    And Socialism has never worked anywhere.The people I love need smart ,intelligent people like you to keep winning.I can feel a gradual change happening.

  12. Well done, John. I have never believed in man made global warming. I HAVE believed that it is just another con by the Establishment to drain more money out of the ordinary man. Our civilization is self-destructing through wokeness and silly ideas. I recommend "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change" by Marc Morano which puts the facts clearly as well as showing how we have all been conned....

  13. Finally somebody looking at climate history. As an earth scientist, I have always been amazed at how these climate predictions are made without looking at the past.
    Thanks for bringing sense to this debate!

  14. WADR, you fail to appreciate the diversity (a word prostituted by the so called politically correct) of opinions out there. I used to think as you do, just attack the lack of logic/evidence in their argument but we have to appreciate that most people switch off as the detail gets more intense. This in essence is the problem, people don't want to think too hard. Yes, a great shame. There are a few who can be won over by logic/evidence/time however for the others we have to simply give then one idea at a time and let them go away and digest or investigate further. There are many good points raised by geologists like Ian Plimer that provide evidence of the past. Within my family I have a number of climate alarmists. I ask them to address one question at a time then when we meet again ask for the answer. They know they have to do the homework! The first question is why were temperatures higher thru the Medieval Warming Period (when there were no CO2 emitting industries) than now? Why?

  15. Ah the joys of technology. My comment above was in response to Dr Capaday's comment above which concludes with "I think that to counter the global warming claim one should simply deal with the validity of these claims, i.e. keep it simple." Hope this helps re context.

  16. My comments above are in relation to a previous comment by Dr Capaday ending in "I think that to counter the global warming claim one should simply deal with the validity of these claims, i.e. keep it simple."

  17. Erratum:
    The phrase in my first sentence '... the spectrum of light (i.e. the frequencies) reaching the earth from the sun does not contain much if any infrared, what is released back to space from the earth as it cools is in the infrared. ' is incorrect as stated. The sentence should read 'It's a good question and the answer is that the spectrum of light (i.e. the frequencies) reaching the earth from the sun does not contain much if any infrared at wavelengths that can be absorbed by C02 , what is released back to space from the earth as it cools is at longer infrared wavelengths which can be absorbed by C02.'
    I apologize for the error.

  18. Bravo.
    I happen to be another Ph.D. physicist who believes the CO2 warming effect is saturated (that is, adding more will make little difference). That is certainly the case in the lower atmosphere where convection dominates vertical heat transport (and that is accepted climate science since the 1930s), so the argument is all about what happens above 10km, or so, and how that might influence the lower levels where we live.

    I have a question that an historian has greater expertise than I to explore. How much evidence is there for human agriculture having a net warming effect? Anecdotally, I have flown in a light aircraft over ploughed fields and green. There are updrafts over the ploughed fields (implying more sunlight converted to heat) and downdrafts over the green.

    I have seen it suggested that the current interglacial is unusually long because of the onset of agriculture. How plausible is this?
    The black death was triggered supposedly by a cold spell in the early 1300s and is believed to have reduced the population of Eurasia by 30%-40%. Surely that must have reduced the amount of land under cultivation. Is it possible that the depopulation could have prolonged the little ice age? Is it a coincidence that the population of Eurasia had returned to pre-plague levels by about 1800, just as the little ice age was ending?

    Since 1800, world population has exploded by at least an order of magnitude. Apart from CO2 burning in the industrialised world, what other things accompanying that population growth (say, land use changes) might plausibly contribute to climate warming?

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