May 8, 2007


Not the End of the World as We Know It: How bad is climate change really? Are catastrophic floods and terrible droughts headed our way? Despite widespread fears of a greenhouse hell, the latest computer simulations are delivering far less dramatic predictions about tomorrow's climate. (Olaf Stamp, 5/08/07, Der Spiegel)

Svante Arrhenius, the father of the greenhouse effect, would be called a heretic today. Far from issuing the sort of dire predictions about climate change which are common nowadays, the Swedish physicist dared to predict a paradise on earth for humans when he announced, in April 1896, that temperatures were rising -- and that it would be a blessing for all.

Arrhenius, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, calculated that the release of carbon dioxide -- or carbonic acid as it was then known -- through burning coal, oil and natural gas would lead to a significant rise in temperatures worldwide. But, he argued, "by the influence of the increasing percentage of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, we may hope to enjoy ages with more equable and better climates," potentially making poor harvests and famine a thing of the past.

Arrhenius was merely expressing a view that was firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness of the day: warm times are good times; cold times are bad.

During the so-called Medieval Warm Period between about 900 and 1300 A.D., for example, the Vikings raised livestock on Greenland and sailed to North America. New cities were built all across Europe, and the continent's population grew from 30 million to 80 million.

The consequences of the colder temperatures that plunged civilization into the so-called Little Ice Age for several centuries after 1300 were devastating. Summers were rainy, winters cold, and in many places temperatures were too low for grain crops to mature. Famines and epidemics raged, and average life expectancy dropped by 10 years. In Germany, thousands of villages were abandoned and entire stretches of land depopulated.

The shock produced by the cold was as deep-seated it was long-lasting. When temperatures plunged unexpectedly once again in the 1960s, many meteorologists were quick to warn people about the coming of a new ice age -- supposedly triggered by man-made air pollution. Hardly anyone at the time believed a warming trend could pose a threat.

It was not until the rise of the environmental movement in the 1980s that everything suddenly changed.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2007 2:06 PM

What you don't understand, is that the danger lies not solely in the extremes of warming or cooling, but in the sheer volatility of climates that could shock to death every ecosystem on the planet.

Posted by: gupta at May 8, 2007 2:50 PM

Of course extremes could--that's a truism.

Posted by: oj at May 8, 2007 3:14 PM

You got your terrible drought in my catastrophic flood!
You got your catastrophic flood all over my terrible drought!

sorry, i had to do that.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 8, 2007 3:27 PM

The entire climate change debate is reaching the level of absurdity. Scaring the bejesus out of the scientifically illiterate, small children and old ladies. If Al Gore believes his tripe he belongs in a rubber room where, if behavior is any guide, is exactly where he's heading.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at May 8, 2007 3:42 PM

"the sheer volatility of climates that could shock to death every ecosystem on the planet."

Huh. And here I was thinking that you were pretending to be someone who knew what the heck he was talking about. My mistake. Thanks for playing, though.

Posted by: b at May 8, 2007 3:50 PM

Well, we can just implement the Sagan solution and set off a few hundred nukes in deserted areas around the plant to induce nuclear winter - problem solved!

Posted by: Mike Earl at May 8, 2007 3:56 PM

A must read, must bookmark blog.

The top article is called:
A heretic with vast experience: "The father of the science of modern climatology."

(I have no idea who this person is. I do not know him, but the blog is interesting.)

Posted by: Bonzo at May 8, 2007 5:29 PM

Climates are supposed to be "volatile". Not everyone wants to live in the Altacama Desert.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 8, 2007 10:51 PM