Monday, January 09, 2006

History Channelling

The French have been cool before.

f(X)=0. It seems like a little thing. How many of us watch the History Channel to add an interesting drib or drab to our general education? Not as many as tune in to Desperate Housewives, no doubt, but those who do watch probably expect to be treated like intelligent adults -- say, a cut or two above the audience for the old "In Search of" series narrated by Leonard Nimoy. That show at least had a standard disclaimer acknowledging that there might be other interpretations of the material presented. No such luck with last night's History Channel offering called Little Ice Age, Big Chill. Here's the description from the network's website:

Of course, the news that the Little Ice Age amounted to a few degrees drop in average temperature didn't make it into the promos or the first dramatic scenes of the show itself. We did get to see a band of monks laboring their way up to an alpine glacier to exorcise (Fools!) the "demon" ice flow that was threatening a 17th century mountain village. We saw microscope slides of what purported to be Black Plague germs and illustrations of violent activity in the French Revolution accompanied by assurances that these events were precipitated or exacerbated by the Little Ice Age. We were also told that the leaders of the day (you know, church idiots) had no way of understanding the vast climatological forces arrayed against them before we were informed that these forces had contrived to lower temperatures by approximately three degrees celsius. Then just to make sure we didn't underestimate the impact of three degrees, the narrator plunged into a description of just how hard life was for the medieval peasants of the time, who had no FEMA or other government agencies to look after them when disaster struck.

Is it petty to point out that the narrator was Edward Herrmann, whose voice has become synonymous in TV land with FDR and the golden age of New Deal liberalism that the evil corporatist Christian Republicans keep trying to repeal? Okay, so it is petty. But it may be fair to suggest that the refined tones of an old school Bucknell Phi Beta Kappa do add a ring of credibility to a script, whether it's presenting documented history-slash-science or mere speculative propaganda.

And it's definitely not petty to suggest that Little Ice Age was put together so sloppily and disingenuously that it provokes many more questions than it could possibly have intended.

The producers' intentions aren't at all hard to decipher. The climate alarmists have been busy for some time now redefining global warming as global climate change. Too many of us commoners have been too unreasonably resistant to the idea that global warming is responsible, as we've been told, for colder than average winters as well as warmer than average summers. The real objective of the smart people is to pass worldwide laws reducing CO2 emissions, since these are the primary component of climate conditions that can be attributed to human beings. Therefore, the "emergency" that has to be sold to the populace is rapid climate change -- up, down, or sideways -- which mandates handing power over to scientists and globalist bureaucrats who know better what's good for us than do tainted nationalist institutions like the Bush administration and, well, the Bush administration.

So the message we need to understand is that rapid climate change can happen and when it does happen it's disastrous. There aren't too many avenues open for proving that point. In fact, there's only one: finding instances when rapid climate change has already happened in recorded history and demonstrating that those changes had enormous impacts on society and the general welfare. It's also helpful if you can make it look like you're not shilling for the global warming crowd, which makes people suspicious. That's why the Little Ice Age is so perfect. If you can make them believe in sudden cooling, they're more likely to believe in sudden warming, too, and then you can always explain later on that even sudden cooling is simply a regional permutation of sudden warming. Or could be the next time it happens. Or something.

The Show

Anyway, Little Ice Age gives us a twofer, because apparently it followed another odd period called the "Medieval Warming," which was actually responsible for the emergence of European civilization from the Dark Ages. All those beautiful cathedrals  erected by the evil Roman Catholic church were not so much symbols of cultural renaissance as manifestations of the natural optimism created by balmier days and more luxuriant crops. Can you start to see how helpless the old-fashioned institutions are in the face of climate change?

Well, if you can't, that's why it's so important to understand the catastrophe of the Little Ice Age. For example, if you thought the French Revolution was caused by a series of incredibly bad kings who raised taxes to the stratosphere (that's NEVER the problem, is it?), you're wrong. It was caused by colder temperatures that eliminated the tiny margin of crop surpluses on which the peasants lived. That's why they responded by dreaming up all those ridiculous notions about liberty, equality, and fraternity and killing every aristocrat in sight.

There's also a complicated argument about how the cooling caused the rampant spread of the Black Plague, which is very convincing if you didn't see the History Channel's earlier documentary about how Black Plague probably wasn't Bubonic Plague, which means we don't really know what it was, where it came from, or why it died out eventually.

And to drive it all home, we can even see how the Little Ice Age lasted almost all the way to the 20th century and froze up New York harbor, which we have honest-to-(er)goodness photographs of, so are you convinced yet?

Don't forget that anything which has happened once can happen again, even if it happens for different reasons this time around. What you should all be asking yourselves is, who can protect us this time around and keep all the bad things from happening. Can they do it soon, please, or before that even?

Uh, not so fast

Okay. Let's say that there was a Little Ice Age which lasted, as the History Channel tells us, from c. 1300 to 1850 A.D (er, A.C.E.). And let's say, before that, there was a "Medieval Warming," which lasted from c. 900 to 1300 A.C.E. The warming wouldn't have been caused by CO2 emissions because of the relatively low incidence of SUVs during the late middle ages, and the cooling wouldn't have been caused by the Kyoto protocols of 1295 because there weren't any.

This creates a twofold problem right out of the box. First, these are -- in human terms -- quite lengthy periods of climate change that more or less have to have been caused by natural phenomena rather than human screw-ups.

Second, it doesn't take advanced mathematics to calculate that the current normal -- i.e., non-warmed, non-cooled -- climate ideal we're so desperate not to destroy with CO2 emissions is at most about 150 years in duration. Couldn't it, in fact, be something other than "normal" -- i.e., a blip, a transition, an aberration in the natural dynamics of the earth's weather? And how can we possibly claim that our historically recorded temperature data, which began sometime toward the end of the Little Ice Age and ended sometime this morning, is telling us anything significant about "trends" we're trying to project 100 or more years into the future? Further, if the weather is really changing again, it's the third time it's done so in the last 700 years, and what possible basis do we have for believing that we have the power to alter the cycle? What exactly would constitute stability in this timeframe -- how would we know for sure that we'd either secured it or lost it in the first place?

Are you laughing yet? Well, wait. It gets better. If you look beyond the History Channel and the gentle authority of Edward Herrmann's narration, it turns out that there's reason to doubt whether there ever was a "Little Ice Age" or (ta-da!) a "Medieval Warming."

With respect to cooling, there's this (just for one example) at

In the climatological literature the LIA has now come to be used to characterize a more recent, shorter recent interval from around A.D. 1300 to 1450 until A.D. 1850 to 1900 during which regional evidence in Europe and elsewhere suggest generally cold conditions. Variations in the literature abound with regard to the precise definition, and the term is often used by paleoclimatologists and glaciologists without formal dates attached...  The utility of the term in describing past climate changes at regional scales has been questioned...  A number of myths or exaggerations can still be found in the literature with regard to the details of this climate period... These include the citation of frost fairs on the River Thames as evidence of extreme cold conditions in England. Thames freeze-overs (and sometimes frost fairs) only occurred 22 times between 1408 and 1814 when the old London Bridge constricted flow through its multiple piers and restricted the tide with a weir. After the Bridge was replaced in the 1830s the tide came further upstream and freezes no longer occurred, despite a number of exceptionally cold winters. Winter 1962/3, for example, was the third coldest winter recorded in instrumental records extending back to 1659, yet the river only froze upstream of the present tidal limit. It is also sometimes claimed that the extreme cold of the "Little Ice Age" impeded the navigation of a Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic during the early 19th century. However, an exhaustive study of 19th century explorer logs for the region yields no evidence of conditions that would be considered unusually cold by modern standards.

And the same source has this about warming:

Period of relative warmth in some regions of the Northern Hemisphere in comparison with the subsequent several centuries. Also referred to as the Medieval Warm Epoch (MWE). As with the 'Little Ice Age'(LIA) no well-defined precise date range exists. The dates A.D. 900–1300 cover most ranges generally used in the literature... As with the LIA, numerous myths can still be found in the literature with regard to the details of this climate period. These include the citation of the cultivation of vines in Medieval England, and the settlement of Iceland and southwestern Greenland about 1000 years ago, as evidence of unusual warmth at this time. As noted by Jones and Mann (2004)... arguments that such evidence supports anomalous global warmth during this time period is based on faulty logic and/or misinterpretations of the available evidence.

It's not our place to say that these arguments prove the History Channel wrong. What's far more important is that scientists are apparently still not in complete agreement about what was going on with weather and temperature in the period between 1300 and 1900. That's kind of a large gap if you're pretending to know what's been going on between 1900 and 2005, especially when you're planning to reengineer the entire global economy based on what you think you know about weather and temperature today.


So there may have been protracted but stable warm and cool periods during the past 700 years. Or not. The climate in the period from 1900 to 2005 may represent a third such period of relative stability. Or not.. Alternatively, the past 100 to 150 years may represent a period of gradual warming. Or not. If the climate is warming (or cooling) (or just getting more extreme), then the cause of whatever it's doing may be CO2 emissions from our factories and SUVs. Or not. Therefore we should just trust the scientists who are so rigidly sure of themselves that they're willing to overlook the nonexistence of valid economic prediction models and bet the farm on long-term weather prediction models, of which not one has ever been proven accurate. And we should be unfailingly grateful to the slightly confused but highly self confident seers -- and their minions -- who keep swallowing their exasperation to help all us dummies understand this particular science of doom.

Why does this remind us vividly of an excerpt from the Mark Steyn column we referenced at InstaPunk last week?

One way "societies choose to fail or succeed" is by choosing what to worry about. The Western world has delivered more wealth and more comfort to more of its citizens than any other civilization in history, and in return we've developed a great cult of worrying. You know the classics of the genre: In 1968, in his bestselling book "The Population Bomb," the eminent scientist Paul Ehrlich declared: "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." In 1972, in their landmark study "The Limits to Growth," the Club of Rome announced that the world would run out of gold by 1981, of mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and gas by 1993.

None of these things happened... In fact, quite the opposite is happening. We're pretty much awash in resources, but we're running out of people--the one truly indispensable resource, without which none of the others matter. Russia's the most obvious example: it's the largest country on earth, it's full of natural resources, and yet it's dying--its population is falling calamitously... The default mode of our elites is that anything that happens--from terrorism to tsunamis--can be understood only as deriving from the perniciousness of Western civilization. As Jean-Francois Revel wrote, "Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself."

If we wrote a letter to Edward Herrmann, do you think he'd explain it to us?

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