Over the past decade, climate change has been a permanent fixture in the headlines, and its implications are frightening. Depending on whom you believe, the earth might be on the verge of a warming trend that could devastate much of human civilization. If this is even partially true, we might need to consider radical solutions, even some kind of authoritarian global socialism.
As I am not a climate scientist, I felt like a spectator in this debate, trying to read arguments on both sides critically. And then, last year, we had Climategate, the exposure of confidential e-mails by global-warming activists who showed themselves so desperate to silence any rival voices that they would suppress inconvenient evidence. And that was when I decided that actually, as an historian, I could make a valid contribution to the debate—rather more valid, in fact, than some of the scientists involved. Because so much of what they claim assumes an historical vision that is, simply, wrong.
Let me begin with the definition of terms. However often you see the phrase, the problem we face is not “climate change.” Climates change all the time, and saying you oppose that fact is rather like proclaiming yourself against geological change. If you want to see a world without climate change, there is one conveniently within sight, and we call it the Moon.
Nor, necessarily, is global warming as simple and apocalyptic an issue as sometimes appears. We have in recent years framed the problem as a foolish dichotomy: Either you believe in global warming, or you do not, and if you do, then you accept all the consequences—massive government intervention, control of carbon emissions, etc. In fact, another position is possible. You can believe in current global warming, as I do, and worry about its consequences, but you do not have to believe in the role posited for human intervention in the process.
And that brings me to the role of history. According to the scientists involved in Climategate, global temperatures had been relatively constant throughout the past few millennia, and only in very recent times had they begun to soar. The long-term graph, therefore, resembled a hockey stick, flat along the base and sharply curved at the end. Hockeystickism is so important ideologically because it suggests that we are presently living through changes that are unprecedented in all history. Some new factor must be involved, and the only candidate is human misbehavior. Humans caused the problem, and humans must fix it by changing their behavior—and in the process, all their social and political arrangements. And as we are told, only expert climate scientists are qualified to pronounce on these matters.
The problem here is that the hockey stick just does not work, and most of the scandalous passages in the leaked e-mails dealt with attempts to conceal that fact. Yes, today, temperatures probably are climbing, and it is quite possible that—as we are told—the world was warmer over the past decade than at any point “since records began.” But reliable record-keeping began only in the 1850’s, which hardly counts as the mists of antiquity. If we go back much further—and climate change occurs over long periods—we can find planetary conditions very much like what we are facing now and in the imminent future. And if that is true, then modern-day humans have not launched the present crisis.
Anyone who knows anything about global history realizes that through the Middle Ages, roughly between 800 and 1200, the world was a very warm place. Although the details are hard to quantify, we can demonstrate this by many changes in society, agriculture, and economic life that could only have occurred in a significantly warmer world. We know for instance that the Vikings sailed ice-free seas to Greenland and Labrador. English regions like Gloucestershire turned out respectable wines of a kind that would not be possible at those latitudes today. Warmer climates made possible the vast expansion of cultivation across Europe and Asia. Historians know, in short, that a Medieval Warm Period existed, a large bump in the temperature graph that makes nonsense of the hockey stick, and of most current theories of global warming.
Almost certainly, that particular warming cycle resulted from the effects of fluctuating sunspot activity, as did the subsequent waves of cooling that preceded our own age. And logically, that is the causal factor to which we should look to explain our changing current situation.
Global warming, in other words, is something that happens on our planet from time to time, and we have to live with its consequences. But we don’t have to abandon our freedoms, our national independence, and all the fruits of Western political culture.