A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

'Global warming' and the curse of presentism.....

Farmers and country folk know about the weather. Their lives and livelihoods depend on it. They witness its diurnal and seasonal patterns on the farm and in the field. By contrast, in modern cities, existence tends to be insulated against such harsh realities through an urban heat island and by a semi-troglodyte existence in shopping malls and pedestrian parades. But weather, and longer-term climatic change, remain at the heart of the story of Britain’s once and future countryside.

During the so-called 'Medieval Warm Period', some 800 years ago, Britain was a rural island and the population revelled in summer temperatures probably between 0.7 to 1.6 degrees Celsius higher than even the average today. From 1100 to 1300, frosts in May were a rarity; there were bountiful harvests and enough to eat for all. From exquisitely illustrated medieval manuscripts, we can see that hunting with dogs and fishing flourished. Moreover, crops could be grown even on the marginal lands of Dartmoor and the Pennines, while vineyards graced the mellow slopes of the rolling hills around Hereford and in the Welsh Borders. As the climate archaeologist, Brian Fagan, has written, "...the Medieval Warm Period was an unqualified blessing for the rural poor and small farmers." Yet, the period was as warm as, if not warmer than, today, even with our much-hyped ecochondria about current 'global warming'.

But then it all changed. By 1309/10, Europe had entered what is known as the 'Little Ice Age'. The harvest of 1315 was a disaster. Dogs slithered after skinny hares on the icy Thames, bread froze indoors, even when wrapped with straw, shipping from the Baltic was disrupted, and the wines soured, the English vineyards becoming abandoned and derelict by the C15th. Seeing their once blessed land so afflicted, local chroniclers were wont to lament along with Isaiah 5.25: "Therefore is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them." The renowned Flemish artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder (c.1524/30 – 69), 'Peasant Brueghel', as he is known, caught the icy reality in his highly atmospheric genre and biblical panoramas, like 'Hunters in the Snow’' of 1565 and 'The Cencus (sic) at Bethlehem' of 1566. Intermittently, therefore, for some seven centuries, bitter cold, wild surging westerly storms and dire famines would engender death and disease well into the 1800s, ending with one of the most dreadful of all occurrences, the 'An Ghorta Mór', the Irish potato blight and famine of the 1840s.

Why then do we all now fear a little 'global warming'? Since around 1800, thank goodness, we have been warming by some 0.7 degrees Celsius, thus taking us out of the 'Little Ice Age' and away from the apocalypse of cold, disease, famine and death. Yet, our temperatures probably remain lower today than those that brought about such ripeness in the countryside of the 'Medieval Warm Period', the rich produce of which was able to support the master craftsmen who created the triumphant vaulting of Lincoln Cathedral and who constructed the mighty choir of Canterbury.

In assessing the significance of climate change, history is always of seminal importance. We can too easily become wrapped up in the myths and narrow concerns of our own brief age, in the curse of presentism, losing a true sense of the ever-changing Earth. And the myth of 'global warming' is currently one of the most powerful and pernicious of all the drivers of political policy, especially when one remembers that cold is nearly always worse for the countryside, for agriculture, for disease, and even for animal and plant biodiversity.

Philip, lamenting the arrogance of current presentism and its PC obsessions. Off to the Great Wen to talk energy with our politicians. Coffee first.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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