by Judith Curry
So, when do you think America’s first climate debate took place, and who were the participants? Here is a hint:
As the tumultuous century was drawing to a close, the conservative Yale grad challenged the sitting vice president’s ideas about global warming. The vice president, a cerebral Southerner, was planning his own run for the presidency, and the fiery Connecticut native was eager to denounce the opposition party.
The answer is not Al Gore and George W. Bush, but Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster.
The title for this post (and the previous quote) comes from an article in the Smithsonian Magazine with the same title. Some excerpts:
In his 1787 book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson launched into a discussion of the climate of both his home state and America as a whole. Near the end of a brief chapter addressing wind currents, rain and temperature, he presented a series of tentative conclusions: “A change in our climate…is taking place very sensibly. Both heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged. Snows are less frequent and less deep….The elderly inform me the earth used to be covered with snow about three months in every year. The rivers, which then seldom failed to freeze over in the course of the winter, scarcely ever do so now.” Concerned about the destructive effects of this warming trend, Jefferson noted how “an unfortunate fluctuation between heat and cold” in the spring has been “very fatal to fruits.”
This opinion had been uttered for so long that it was widely accepted as a given—until Webster [of dictionary fame]. Webster disputed the “popular opinion that the temperature of the winter season, in northern latitudes, has suffered a material change” in a speech before the newly established Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1799. Several years later, Webster delivered a second address on the topic. The two speeches were published together in 1810 under the title “On the Supposed Change of in the Temperature of Winter.”
In examining “the cold of American winters,” Webster focused on the numbers—and his opponents’ lack of hard data (Jeffersons recorded his own temperature readings in a private diary). “Mr. Jefferson,” Webster stated, “seems to have no authority for his opinions but the observations of elderly and middle-aged people.” Webster saved most of his ammunition for Williams, who had written the more extensive brief, replete with an array of temperature readings. Williams’ central contention, that America’s temperature had risen by 10 or 12 degrees in the prior century and a half, Webster asserted, just doesn’t make any sense. “The mean temperature of Vermont,” he writes, “is now 43 degrees…If we suppose the winter only to have changed, and deduct one half the supposed abatement, still the result forbids us to believe the hypothesis. If we suppose the heat of summer to have lessened in the same proportion…the summers formerly must have been intolerable; no animal could have subsisted under ten degrees of heat beyond our present summer temperature. On whichever side we turn our eyes, we meet with insurmountable difficulties.”
Webster concluded by rejecting the crude warming theory of Jefferson and Williams in favor of a more subtle rendering of the data. “We have, in the cultivated districts, deep snow today, and none tomorrow; but the same quantity of snow falling in the woods, lies there till spring will explain all the appearances of the seasons without resorting to the unphilosophical hypothesis of a general increase in heat.”
Webster’s words essentially ended the controversy. While Jefferson continued to compile and crunch temperature data after his retirement from the presidency, he never again made the case for global warming. Webster’s position was considered unimpeachable . . . until the second half of the 20th century.
Ben Franklin on climate change
If you guessed Ben Franklin in response to my original question, that would have been a good guess. A NYTimes article provides some additional context around the turn of the 19th century and also Ben Franklin’s thinking on the topic. Some excerpts:
But the primary goal of Jefferson and other colonials in the national climate discussion was to scuttle the European notion that the New World’s climate was too harsh and deleterious for settlement. From Mather to Williamson and Jefferson and many others, the debate was a reaction to European attitudes regarding the presumed rigorous and unhealthful climate of North America.
Instead, early American writers painted a far more favorable picture of the American climate and fauna. The notion took hold that manmade climate change, specifically clearing untamed land for cultivation, would prove beneficial, ameliorating health problems by draining standing water and wetlands thought to breed disease and lethargy.
Benjamin Franklin understood climatic forcing factors better than anyone, surmising in a 1763 letter to Ezra Stiles that “cleared land absorbs more heat and melts snow quicker.” Franklin, our meteorologist emeritus for his seminal work on everything from lightning to northeasters, later surmised (correctly) that a prevailing haze over parts of North America and northern Europe was associated with the eruption of the Laki volcano in Iceland in June 1783, and was possibly the source for the exceptional chill experienced in the winter of 1783-84 in the new United States.
Uniformitarians versus catastrophists
A fascinating article by medical historian Brian Altonen provides further perspective on the climate debate during this period.
In 1797, Reverend Samuel Williams wrote a book entitled Natural and Civil History of Vermont. In this book he provided a detailed description of the Vermont topography and climate, and made use of his astronomy skills to define the boundary of Vermont with Canada. Ten years before this book became famous, Reverend Samuel Williams of Massachusetts was a Harvard student who graduated and became a professor in philosophy and mathematics. In 1788, he was forced to remove to Vermont due to a financial scandal related to misappropriated funds.
At the time there were the Uniformitarianists led by James Hutton (1726 – 1797), who believed that the present world evolved at a fairly constant rate over very long periods of time. They liked to explain the changes in the earth’s surface based on its geological layering as the result of natural events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, rain, wind and erosion.
Opposing the uniformitarians were the Catastrophists headed by Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832). The catastrophists believed in creation, the Great Flood, Adam and Eve, and of course, God. Supporting the catastrophists’ theory was the discovery of the fossil beds, the more complex examples of which were found close to the surface. This theory suggested that a number of periods of drastic change or catastrophes had taken place–natural catastrophes like the Great Flood produced by God.
During this time, medical climatology was the ‘buzz word” for the medical profession. Disease was no longer a problem related just you as a person. It was now a product of the local environment and whether or not you were adapted to living in that environment, a product of Lamarckian philosophy and theory developed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). One of the most important questions a doctor could ask his patients at the time was: ‘Are you and your parents acclimated?’ If your parents were acclimated, than according to Lamarckianism you were also acclimated; if not, since it took a generation or two for someone to become acclimated and pass this on to the children, it was going to be a struggle to try to adapt to this new environment in the United States.
JC comments: In closing, here is a quote from the NYTimes article.
That these comments were actually tossed around back in the late 18th century by the Pennsylvania doctor Hugh Williamson, Thomas Jefferson and Noah Webster reminds us that history has a tendency to repeat itself. (One can imagine what television talk shows would have been like then. Would Jefferson have promoted “An Inconvenient Treatise” only to be acrimoniously contradicted by Webster on “Hard Quoits,” assuming either could get a word in amid the jabbering of the host?)