by Sydney Williams
Billingsgate Island once comprised fifty acres and was home to thirty homes, a school and a lighthouse. The island was part of a chain off Wellfleet on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. In the early 1940s, Billingsgate Island, like Atlantis before it, disappeared under the sea. In 1872, erosion was first noticed. By 1912, the island’s residents had left and the lighthouse abandoned. Today it is but a sandbar at low tide. Its sinking beneath the waves was never thought of as a “man-caused” disaster; it was seen as a manifestation of the power of “Mother Nature.”
Thousands of representatives from 190 nations descended on Lima, Peru over the weekend for the 20th “Conference of Parties” to discuss measures that UN negotiators hope will lead to a legally enforceable global climate pact in Paris next year.The goal of this UN sponsored meeting is to keep global temperatures within 2° Centigrade (3.6° Fahrenheit) of the pre-Industrial period. To achieve that end, all fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – would have to be phased out by 2050. In many respects, the gathering is reminiscent of Bill Murray’s “Ground Hog Day,” except for the costs and the fact it dispels more hot air and other waste products into the biosphere.
No one but an idiot would claim that man has had no effect on climate. But, also, no one but a numbskull would say that natural factors like continental drift, volcanoes, ocean currents and the earth’s tilt have had no impact. Thus, we should be able to place “climate deniers” and the most mulish of climate-change advocates – like, for example, the New York Times and Al Gore – outside the room, so that an intelligent conversation and debate can be had within. Unfortunately, the decibels of the discourse on this subject have risen to such levels that there are very few left to quietly and civilly discuss climate change and to debate what actions man should take to limit emissions, but also to prepare for a changing future. In his 2007 classic, Cool It, Bjorn Lomborg made the same point: He asked: “Why [has] the debate over climate change stifled rational dialogue and killed meaningful dissent?”
The unknown in the equation has always been: How much of the change in climate is due to man and how much is due to nature? What about storms, droughts, floods and fires? Have their frequency increased? Has man been responsible? The truth is no one knows. Words like “most” or “a lot” should not satisfy. We should strive to live in a cleaner environment – and history suggests that that is the natural tendency of man, as he becomes wealthier. But we must also be prepared to adapt to a climate that can change regardless of our efforts to control emissions. A storm destroyed the Mongol fleet in the Sea of Japan in 1274. Another one dumped several feet of snow on New York City in the “Blizzard of ‘88” – 1888 that was. Katrina slammed into New Orleans in late August 2005. Was the fault man’s, God’s, nature’s, or some combination of all three? Climate has changed over the millennia; it will do so in the future, no matter the steps we take today or tomorrow. Coral Davenport, writing about the UN negotiators in the New York Times, noted: “Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans” (Emphasis mine). I retort: If man does not adapt, he is doomed.
Whatever our differences, there are things we do know and about which we should all agree. We know that climate and the Earth are not static. Growing up in New Hampshire in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a common adage: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes!” We also know that man, as a species, blossomed after the Industrial Revolution. It also does not escape observers that the most fervent defenders of climate change are those nations that are the richest, and within those nations, individuals who are the wealthiest. We have ours; now people in China, Africa other developing nations, and the poor within our own borders want theirs. Extremists, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere in the developed world seemingly ignore the benefits that fossil fuels provided. We are far richer in comforts than anything our grandparents could have imagined, and a good part of the reason has been the abundance of cheap fossil fuels. It is why the Chinese did not “agree” to anything in their recent meeting with Mr. Obama, so widely touted by the liberal media. They are not stupid. They said they “intended” to cap emissions “around” 2030. They did not say they would.
The single most important consequence of the Industrial Revolution was the extension of life. Between the time of Christ and the year 1800, Earth’s population tripled, reaching one billion. It only took 160 years to reach three billion. And, if Pew Research is right, it will take less than 90 years to triple again. When one looks at a chart of the Earth’s population, the line appears almost flat until 1800 when it moves up exponentially. The reason: the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution raised standards of living for millions. It allowed us to travel and communicate far more cheaply. The coal and oil that were produced and converted to energy allowed manufacturers to build better housing, produce cheaper clothing and provide more abundant food items, all at lower prices. It extended lives. Yet in parts of Africa, the situation remains dire. A woman born in Sierra Leone in 2004 can expect to live to be 36; a man born in Zimbabwe, in the same year, might reach 38.
There were (and are), of course, downsides to industrial development. Life is a balance between good and bad. Many of the jobs created by the Industrial Revolution were monotonous, dangerous and involved very long hours. In early days, they incorporated child labor. As in all of life’s endeavors, not all fared equally. Fossil fuels used to generate power to operate factories did release greenhouse gasses. Nevertheless, apart from a few nuts, no one wants to return to life in the 18th Century. Additionally, we must keep in mind that, while carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it is also a necessity for the metabolism of plant life, through the process of photosynthesis.
In that regard, when one looks at photographs taken in the last quarter of the 19th Century of New England, one of the most notable features is the absence of trees. Forests were denuded for fuel. Today, flying from New York to Boston, one marvels at the extent of the woods along one of our most densely populated corridors, a visual manifestation of nature’s resurgence and of the need for greater amounts of carbon dioxide. As societies become wealthier, things inevitably happen regarding the environment: Emissions become reduced; rivers, oceans and streams become cleaner, and better land management allows for re-forestation. It is economic growth that should be our focus.
I am not against gatherings such as the one in Peru. It is always better to talk than to not. But I am against hyperbole born of hypocrisy. It is not only the earth’s temperatures that need cooling; it is the rhetoric of the participants and the media that covers them.