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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

The Man Who Predicted Climate Change

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, March 15, 2013/Categories: climate change

By Reilly Capps

One of the real challenges of life is gaining a proper perspective on your own size and importance. Not to walk around too cockily, believing you're the center of the universe, but also not diminishing yourself to the point of insignificance. 

When thinking about climate change, deniers often fall into the latter camp -- without really meaning to. Their argument continues to be that "man is too small to change the climate of this gigantic Earth." 

And that's a mistaken way of looking at people -- as small. True, we are all small, and individually we can't do anything to this world. But, together, we can change a lot. 

That's easy for anyone with open eyes to see today. All you have to do is fly over Houston, Atlanta, or London, and see the massive concrete sprawl. Or travel, on a hot summer day, from the wilds of New Jersey into the concrete jungle of Manhattan to notice how much hotter the city is than the country, due to all the concrete. 

What's remarkable is that at least a few people saw humans in the proper perspective more than 150 years ago, when there were far fewer people, far less concrete, and no cars puking up poison gas. 

But here's a remarkable write-up in the Guardian about George Perkins Marsh, one of the founders of the Smithsonian, who saw, in 1847, some of the changes civilization was bringing. He noticed, for example: 

The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country

That's the urban heat island effect, now a well-understood phenomenon, but new(ish) in 1847. And he believed that forests were important, at a time when clear-cutting was common practice: 

Forests serve as reservoirs and equalizers of humidity. In wet seasons, the decayed leaves and spongy soil of woodlands retain a large proportion of the falling rains, and give back the moisture in time of drought, by evaporation or through the medium of springs. They thus both check the sudden flow of water from the surface into the streams and low grounds, and prevent the droughts of summer from parching our pastures and drying up the rivulets which water them.

He also predicted climate change, to an extent. 

He didn't know about the effects of CO2 and methane, he didn't know about greenhouse gases. But he figured out that forests keep the world cool. In his book, he quotes from previous work: 

Becquerel, on the other hand, considers it certain that in tropical climates, the destruction of the forests is accompanied with an elevation of the mean temperature, and he thinks it highly probable that it has the same effect in the temperate zones. The following is the substance of his remarks on this subject:--
"Forests act as frigorific causes in three ways:
  • "1. They shelter the ground against solar irradiation and maintain a greater humidity.
  • "2. They produce a cutaneous transpiration by the leaves.
  • "3. They multiply, by the expansion of their branches, the surfaces which are cooled by radiation.
  • "These three causes acting with greater or less force, we must, in the study of the climatology of a country, take into account the proportion between the area of the forest and the surface which is bared of trees and covered with herbs and grasses.
    "We should be inclined to believe à priori, according to the foregoing considerations, that the clearing of the woods, by raising the temperature and increasing the dryness of the air, ought to react on climate. There is no doubt that, if the vast desert of the Sahara were to become wooded in the course of ages, the sands would cease to be heated as much as at the present epoch, when the mean temperature is twenty-nine degrees [centigrade,=85° Fahr.]. In that case, the ascending currents of warm air would cease, or be less warm, and would not contribute, by descending in our latitudes, to soften the climate of Western Europe. Thus the clearing of a great country may react on the climates of regions more or less remote from it.

    It takes an amazing sense of proportion and perspective to recognize man's place in this world, and our impact on things. It takes a tremendous vision to see what is happening before everyone else does. In this, Marsh was nearly an oracle.

    the full text of his book, "Man and Nature; or, Physical geography as modified by human action." In it, he sung the praises of being...

    "... awakened to the necessity of restoring the disturbed harmonies of nature, whose well-balanced influences are so propitious to all her organic offspring, of repaying to our great mother the debt which the prodigality and the thriftlessness of former generations have imposed upon their successors--thus fulfilling the command of religion and of practical wisdom, to use this world as not abusing it." 

    He writes: 

    Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.

    (I had to look up "usfruct," but it's a wonderful legal concept -- the "right of enjoyment, enabling a holder to derive profit or benefit from property that either is titled to another person or which is held in common ownership, as long as the property is not damaged or destroyed." That's a pretty good description of most things that truly matter, and how we should treat them, no?)

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