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OpEdge: Ignoring the Climate in the Past Has Always Led to Disaster

Marc Jampole
November 3, 2017

by Marc Jampole

IN A COLD WELCOME, Ohio State historian Sam White reminds us that the 21st century is not the first time that Europeans in North America have ignored the climate and thereby created human disasters.

In the century after the second European discovery of the New World by Columbus in 1492, several European nations founded a number of settlements in North America, yet any attempt to colonize north of Florida ended disastrously, with crop failures, deaths from freezing, famine, cannibalism, retreat. Professor White lays much of the blame on the Little Ice Age, a global cold spell that lasted from the late Middle Ages through the end of the 19th century but peaked in the 16th century. The first wave of the Little Ice Age probably led to the decline of Viking colonies established on Greenland in the 9th century.

But White also documents how European arrogance and ignorance contributed to the many failed attempts of Europeans to settle in what later became the United States and Canada in the 16th century, and to the extreme hardships endured by the first settlers in Jamestown, Santa Fe and Quebec. Following the Greeks and Romans, the European science of that time postulated that all geographic regions at every latitude would have the same weather. In other words, New York’s weather would be the same as Madrid’s, Quebec’s weather would be the same as Paris’, and the weather in the north of Canada would be the same as London and Berlin. In every case, of course, the weather in North America was and is much colder and subject to more extremes than in the European city at the same latitude. It was not until the 20th and 21st centuries that climatologists began fully to understand the subtle interplay of winds, heat, carbon monoxide levels, large bodies of water, the Earth’s position vis-à-vis the sun, and humanity’s own actions, that forms weather conditions around the world.

Europeans also arrogantly assumed that same crops and domesticated animals they cultivated in Europe would transfer readily to the New World and that they could grow the crops at the same time of year. Thus attempts by the Spanish to grow winter wheat and barley and raise goats and sheep in Florida ended in complete failure. Failing crops led to cannibalism during the “starving time” that the English colony at Jamestown endured later in the century.

BUT EUROPEANS learned the way humans have always learned: through observation of empirical phenomena and the accumulation of evidence. With an assist from the warming climate, Europeans applied the knowledge gained from observation and learned how to survive and thrive in North America, building permanent encampments from the beginning of the 17th century onward.

The contrast with today’s situation is stunning. We have the knowledge we need to tame an increasingly unhospitable land, made less livable by own machinations. In Europe, Africa and Asia, leaders are willing to do what it takes both to reduce the impact of human’s on climate and to address the extreme weather and its potential disastrous impact on human settlements that global warming has and will continue to cause. Everywhere, humans are rising to the challenge, if a bit more slowly than climate scientists and environmentalists want.

Everywhere, that is, except in North America, where Americans, primarily of European descent, want to ignore science and impose their own ignorant beliefs on MotherFather Nature.Donald Trump and the GOP don’t just ignore science, but like a spoiled child who refuses to yield to reason, they give a mean-spirited raspberry to the pursuit of knowledge. Look at the anti-intellectual carnage wrought in less than a year since the Electoral College turned its back on its constitutional responsibility to make sure that a madman or tyrant is not inadvertently elected America’s leader (note that I continue to come up with clever ways to avoid using “Trump” in the same sentence as a certain word that begins with the letter “p”): walking away from the Paris Accord, rescinding Obama Administration environmental regulations, dismantling government website pages referring to climate change, censoring scientists and scientific reports and replacing scientists with industrial leaders.

Ignorance and false science stand at the heart of most Trump/GOP proposals. Scientists, social scientists and economists keep shouting many truths other than human-caused global warming at the right. Truths like:

  • Lowering taxes on the wealthy does not lead to job growth, wage growth or economic growth.
  • The number of gun fatalities in a population is a direct result of the number of guns owned by the population. The more guns, the less safe we are, and the fewer guns, the more same we are.
  • When adjusted for poverty and disabilities, U.S. schools outperform most other industrialized countries and public school students do better than private schools students do.
  • Immigrants, even illegal ones, lead to job and wage growth for those born in the country; immigrants also have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

I could go on, but you get the point. A major political party is trying to impose its irrational, childish will on reality, and we know that never works. What’s worse is that right wingers have created a network of mass media outlets and privately-funded think tanks to spew out and publicize false research and theories.

The early European settlers didn’t know any better and so believed their garbage science. They soon learned better, though. It’s ironic and tragic that their ancestors who do or should know better are ignoring the much more developed and detailed science of our current age.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer and retired public relations executive. He writes the “Left is Right” column in Jewish Currents.