Temperature Change Is Natural, Not Man-Made
* In The 21st Century We Will Take Better Care Of Nature Than We Did In 1900 When There Were Fewer People
April 2, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues
March 23, 2001
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Sometimes it's worth looking back at yesterday's worries as a guide for dealing with those of today. Let's compare desertification--the change of arable land into desert--to today's concern about global warming.
Twenty years ago, the world was terrified of "marching deserts." Millions of square miles of the African Sahel, the strip of countries just below the Sahara Desert, were in the grip of severe drought. People were starving and cattle were dying of thirst.
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute made headlines by stating the drought was due to overpopulation and overgrazing, which, he claimed, had altered the whole African climate. Brown strongly suggested this African climate change might cascade onto the rest of the world.
Activist Jeremy Rifkin declared overgrazing and desertification "the single greatest threat to the ecology of the (African) continent and the survivability of its human population." U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called an international summit on African desertification.
The world was saved from major policy blunders only because nobody could think of anything to do: The Sahel is remote, roadless and without effective governance.
Today, the Sahel is still in one of the most persistent droughts ever recorded by the entire global meteorological record. Now that we've had time to look closely, is this a case of humans altering nature? No.
Researchers took core samples from a lake bed in northeast Nigeria and discovered a pattern of long droughts. The results were published in the Journal of the Geological Society in 1997, with results that, according to the researchers, "show convincingly that the present drought is not unique and that drought has recurred on a centennial to interdecadal timescale during the last 1,500 years."
Archeological records support these findings, showing the Sahel has been virtually uninhabited for centuries at a time. If the drought pattern goes back 1,500 years, it's surely not related to the population surge brought to Africa by modern medicine in the last 50 years.
Instead of desertification taking over the world, we have the same 2 million square miles of African marginal land shifting back and forth between desert and pasture, depending on recent rainfall.
The same scare industry is in full attack mode about global warming. Lester Brown's report "State of the World 2000" warns that global warming may raise sea levels by three feet, drowning low-lying countries and "altering every ecosystem on earth."
Jeremy Rifkin and the environmental group Greenpeace echo the danger call. They want us to give up cars, air conditioners and meat. But we know two important things about global warming, and it doesn't take a doctorate to understand them.
First, there hasn't been any significant rise in world temperatures in 60 years. All the hype can't alter that basic fact.
The modest increase in official temperatures is due to the urban "heat islands" surrounding our official thermometers. Over the last 22 years, the most accurate temperature readings in history (from satellites and high-altitude balloons) show a slight temperature decline.
Second, the world's temperature was warmer 1,000 years ago than today and also warmer than the computer models now predict it will get in 2100. We know this from historic evidence in both Europe and Japan, as well as from ocean bed sediment, stalagmites and tree rings.
The medieval warming did not melt the polar ice caps, raise the sea level or submerge low-lying countries.
Why would the scare industry claim that perfectly natural events are urgent warnings of overpopulation and overconsumption? Because they truly want us to believe there are too many people living too well. They get fame and power by demanding we go back to sandals and mud huts. We're vulnerable, partly because we feel guilty about our own wealth and longevity.
Relax. The population surge brought on by modern medicine is nearly over, and economics is not a zero-sum game.
Not only will the 21st century have enough goodies to go around, it will take better care of nature than we did in 1900 when there were fewer, poorer people.
After all, it was primitive man who hunted the woolly mammoth to extinction. It was the early industrialists who cut most of the First World's trees in the 19th century to smelt iron in crude little furnaces.
It's slash-and-burn farmers who have destroyed half the world's tropical forest to grow low-yield crops. It is primitive communities in Southeast Asia still selling monkey meat to passing ships. High-tech is the hope for both our kids and nature.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.