America’s First Global Warming Debate

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.

Smithsonian article

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?)

94 responses to “America’s First Global Warming Debate

  1. Judith Curry’

    Thanks for this great history story!

  2. In one link in this thread, I found the words:
    we have learned that tropical deforestation is linked to as much as 15 percent of the world’s global warming pollution, largely due to the release of carbon dioxide, one of several “greenhouse gases” that trap and re-radiate terrestrial heat.

    These kind of statements are found everywhere.

    It is not a fact that it is proven that greenhouse gases have caused the warming. It is more likely that natural warming, like we have had in many other periods of warming that have occurred in the past thousands and millions of years, has caused this warming.

    One molecule of man made CO2 per ten thousand molecules of other gases in the atmosphere is too little to have such a huge effect.

    • But if we could restore and conserve ecosystems, reduce black carbon and tropospheric ozone, restore carbon levels and the productivity of agricultural soils, facilitate development such that population increase slowed and invest in the massive new sources of cheap energy required this century – this is a better world and minimises both climate, health, security and ecological risks.

      These are very similar goals to the Copenhagen Consensus priorities (Bjorn Lomberg) and the Millennium Development Goals.

      This is part of a US submission on the MDG.

      Monterrey Consensus—Addressing Systemic Issues (key commitments)
      • Coordination of macroeconomic policies among major industrial
      • Improve global economic governance and strengthen the UN’s
      role in promoting development
      • Enhance developing countries participation in international decision
      making, norm setting
      • Strengthen IMF surveillance
      • Strengthen the effectiveness of the global economic system’s support
      for development
      • Good governance at all levels and steps to fight corruption, money
      laundering and financing of terrorism

      There is no reason not to do this.

      • Wow. I think there are a great many reasons not to do any of those things. Calling George Orwell!!

      • ian (not the ash)

        I’m sure there are numerous people you could call but I’m not sure why Orwell tops your list.

        For some years past I have managed to make the capitalist class pay me several pounds a week for writing books against capitalism. But I do not delude myself that this state of affairs is going to last forever … the only régime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a Socialist régime. If Fascism triumphs I am finished as a writer – that is to say, finished in my only effective capacity. That of itself would be a sufficient reason for joining a Socialist party.

        From Orwell’s 1938 essay “Why I joined the Independent Labour Party”

      • Orwell was prescient in many things, but he did not have the benefit of the next 70 years of history in choosing which party to join.

        Does the world he envisioned in 1984 remind you more of the U.S. or the Soviet Union? Beijing or Taiwan? North or South Korea?

        Orwell and Hayek are both oft quoted for their rejection of “conservatism.” But that was the conservatism as the term was understood at the time, not the one now informed by their own works.

      • ian (not the ash)

        Orwell became a staunch anti-Stalinist following the oppression of Catalonian anarchists by Soviet supported communists during the Spanish civil war. He was anti-totalitarian regardless of the stripe. According to one of his biographers, John Newsinger:

        …crucial dimension to Orwell’s socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist — indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.

      • I agree with Orwell.

        Capitalism is a form of economics.

        Socialism is a form of economics.

        Totalitarianism is a dangerous form of government that could develop under either economic system.

        A totalitarian government is the danger we face today, brought on by manipulation of economic and scientific information since 21-28 Feb 1972. For details, see the second post above.

      • “Totalitarianism is a dangerous form of government that could develop under either economic system.”

        A basically true statement that entirely misses the point. A capitalist society “could” develop into totalitarian one, although I can’t think of a single instance where it happened other than by force. Whereas a country with a socialist economy almost inevitably will unless the citizens retake power over their economy. Just look at the increasing centralization of political (as well as economic) power in the unelected EU bureaucracy.

        Capitalism is about devolution of power away from the state. Socialism is about centralizing power in the state. Which is more likely to lead to totalitarianism? A capitalist state can be forced into totalitarianism by outside events or interior rebellion. A socialist state is designed to centralize power.

        “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a truism for a reason. A Stalin, Mao, or a Hitler would have had a much more difficult time assuming total power if they were operating in functioning capitalist economies.

      • I am pretty sure that J P Sartre lived long enough and surely must have witnessed more than enough to change his opinions about Communism.

      • Thank you for that interesting post. I was thinking more in terms of Orwell’s great book “Animal Farm” published in 1945. While Orwell may have considered himself socialist in 1938, he was definitely not a totalitarian by 1945. I cannot help but wonder what Orwell thought of socialism after he learned how easy it is to corrupt into communism. Perhaps I will study the issue some day.

      • Capitalist markets depend on the rule of law and a functioning civil society. Strengthening democracies and free trade globally are hardly the route to an Orwellian dystopia.

        I realise that the US has it’s problems at the moment from neglecting the basic principles of economic management in balancing budgets, managing interest rates, prudential oversight and corporate governance but this will pass too.

        In all spheres the consent of the governed is best sought through democratic processes. See for instance the paper at –

        ‘Under what conditions do stakeholders consent to a regime of corporate governance? We propose that consent by the governed in corporate governance cannot be satisfactorily explained without reference to the collective value of procedural fairness that underlies markets. Drawing on the social psychology of justice and the political economy of social choice, we highlight the critical role played by democratic procedures in achieving consent by the governed in modern society. This line of reasoning leads us to suggest that the evolution of corporate governance, too, can be understood in terms of Tocqueville’s well-known hypothesis that democracy eventually prevails in all spheres of organised activity. Examining the historical record of institutional reform in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, we find that corporate governance has indeed evolved to make increasing use of democratic procedures. Viewed over the long-term of two centuries of capitalist development, corporate governance is seen to have successively incorporated enfranchisement,separation of powers and representation. In conclusion, we consider the implications of basing the study of corporate governance on the question of stakeholder consent and the practice of corporate governance on the procedures of democracy.’

        The fact is that developed counties – including the US – have committed to increasing aid to 0.7% of GDP. The question of how this is best directed is a question for individual countries. It is a problem of focusing already considerable and growing funding strategically. The London School of Economics 2010 Hartwell Paper, the Copengagen Consensus (they should stop using that word) priorities and the MDG are good places to start.

        The energy problem is one dimension of a problem involving development, agriculture, health, education, population and the environment. It recognises the need to increase massively energy resources and food supplies in this century – while at the same time conserving and restoring ecosystems. And the fact is that to do this will require the availability of cheaper energy supplies. It suggests on this ground alone that great changes in energy development investments are required.

        But the ‘Orwellian’ and ‘motherhood and apple pie’ quips put me in mind of the essential deficit of modern western culture – the lack of an optimistic and expansive narrative for the evolution of human societies in this century.

      • Yes, and yes again, to your last para. The more I study this AGW issue the more I am confronted with an essentially gloomy outlook in the disposition of developed countries. Why? That is the question. I had a go at answering it in a recent thread, but I don’t think I nailed the answer. And a second question pops up: how can we engender again the optimistic attitude of the 1960s — when, it should be remembered, the the big issue was the possibility of nuclear holocaust.

      • Jack Hughes

        I’ll raise you – we should do motherhood and apple pie for all as well.


      • Much of that is “code” for extraction of climate destruction compensation $$ from north to south. There is no truth in these UN planners.

        See bullet points 2 & 3.

      • Chief,

        “There is no reason not to do this.”

        If you like authoritarian nanny gubmint interfering in every area of your life.

      • My, what a target rich environment.

        • Coordination of macroeconomic policies among major industrial

        The developed countries are currently running their own economies into the dirt because central planning of economies is a bad idea. On a global scale, it is a globally bad idea.

        • Improve global economic governance and strengthen the UN’s
        role in promoting development

        Same response as to the first point above. Global governance? Heaven help us.

        • Enhance developing countries participation in international decision making, norm setting

        While we’re at it, let’s put the borrowers of sub-prime mortgages on the boards of the banks lending to them. (This may be the dumbest idea of them all.)

        • Strengthen IMF surveillance

        Not sure what is meant by “surveillance,” but it is irrelevant because the IMF is currently run by socialists who have even less of a clue how to change a corrupt socialist economy to a functioning capitalist economy than capitalists do (and they don’t know how either).

        • Strengthen the effectiveness of the global economic system’s support for development

        No amount of “support for development” will cure the combined diseases of central planning, corruption and incompetence in the countries so desperately in need of such “support.”

        • Good governance at all levels and steps to fight corruption, money
        laundering and financing of terrorism

        OK, one I can agree with, I also favor good governance. But I suspect my definition of the term is 180 degrees different from the Chief’s, given the previous points.

        And I thought the Chief leaned libertarian.

      • Gary,

        I would demand the Hayek model of economic management. Manage interest rates to prevent asset bubbles, governance in terms of market fairness and the rule of law, prudential banking oversight to avoid the pitfalls of a 2009 style credit crunch and balanced government budgets at 20% to 30% max. of GDP. Why would you assume anything else from anything I have said?

        If we spend $150 billion a year on this – we may as well get some bang.

        I assume you’re American? The points you are objecting to are the US talking points in a review of the Monterrey Consensus (that word keeps popping up). But most of the world has signed up and I suggest that you keep your own governments honest.

        The best we can do is open up trade, provide models for democracy and economic management and make strategic investments in health, education, conservation, energy and agriculture.

        Sounds simple? Knee jerk anti socialist reactions don’t do justice to the need to focus more on codifying and promulgating successful models of capitalism and democracy. We do acknowledge that the US is a bit behind the 8 ball here – but we hope they get better soon.

        Unfortunately the way forward is through democratic processes – so the right will need will need to get a lot better at formulating a positive agenda than we have seen in decades.


      • “Why would you assume anything else from anything I have said?”

        How about “balanced government budgets at 20% to 30% max. of GDP.”

        And if you equate “global economic governance” with “the Hayek model of economic management,” I suggest you go back and re-read Hayek. Global regulation of capital markets is something you think would further capitalism and free markets? Have you read or watched any news in the last 40 years?

        Hayek would agree, as would any modern conservative, that some regulation of markets is necessary. But the suggestion that it be done on a global scale is a recipe for disaster and would result in the type of centralization of control Hayek would have rejected out of hand. The EU right now is a classic example of the folly of attempting to manage monetary and fiscal policy on an international scale. Governments screw up their own economies bad enough. Why give them the chance to do the same on a global scale?

        And while I agree that the U.S. under progressive leadership (in both parties), has been straying too far to the left, we are still miles behind the socialism of Europe, let alone Asia, or the economic basket cases in Africa and South America (who you apparently want to give leadership roles in this new global governance.).

        This post looks like something BartR would love. Use words like capitalism, drop Hayek’s name, and then propose more centralized planning, and redistribution of wealth on a global scale. At least Bart was only arguing to do so on a national scale. Funny that in suggesting what appear to be pro-capitalist policies, you refer to “knee jerk anti socialist reactions.” Maybe you have to stop and think every time someone suggests a new socialist program, but I think 93 years of consistent failures of that system is enough. I would have the same type of reaction if my doctor prescribed leeches for my cold.

        Oh, and since you are concerned with how far the U.S. is behind the 8 ball in its concern for those in other countries, please let me know the dollar equivalent your country spends on foreign aid, the IMF, World Bank, UN budget, peace keeping expenses around the world, not to mention keeping the Soviets from hegemony over Europe, the Chinese over the Pacific, etc. At least this country has a genuine conservative movement, people who want the government to actually be restrained in a way Hayek, Smith and Friedman could support.

        Not to mention that the majority of the countries you claim to be concerned about, don’t enjoy the very democratic processes you correctly see as the only way forward. The answer to the various global problems of poverty, corruption and land use, lies in supporting the growth of democracy, the opening of our markets (done by individual nations through treaties, not some idiotic centralized global government), and otherwise leaving them the hell alone. The last thing they need is a committee of Chief Hydrologists setting global financing and “development” policy for them, and sending massive checks (of other people’s money of course) to their kleptocratic dictators.

      • Chief Hydrologist

        ‘Borrowing a graphical technique popularized by Arthur Laffer, Representative Richard Armey, an economist by training, developed what he termed the Armey Curve. In a state of anarchy, output per capita is low. Similarly, where all input and output decisions are made by government, output per capita is likewise low. Where there is a mix of private and government decisions on the allocation of resources, however, output often is larger. The output-enhancing features of government dominate when government is very small, and expansions in governmental size are associated with expansions in output. At some point, however, further expansion of government no longer leads to output expansion, as the growth-reducing aspects of government grow larger, and the growth-enhancing features of government diminish. Further expansion of government contributes to economic stagnation and decline.

        Why is this so? In a world without government, there is no rule of law, and no protection of property rights. Bullies and strong people can steal the assets of weaker persons with impunity. There is little incentive to save and invest because the threat of expropriation is real and constant. Moreover, without some collective action, there is no protection from bigger bullies, namely foreign nations, or pirates on the high seas. Collective action also facilitates the creation of roads that improve transportation and lower trading costs. Government can also create a reliable medium of exchange, further developing the gains from trade. Thus, the establishment and early growth of government is associated with rising levels of income and positive rates of economic growth.

        As governments grow, the law of diminishing returns begins operating. While the construction of roads initially assists output expansion, the construction of secondary roads and upgrading primary roads start to have less added positive impact per dollar spent. Moreover, the taxes and/or borrowing levied to finance government impose increasing burdens. Low tax rates become higher. New taxes, such as income taxes, are added to low consumption levies, with increasingly adverse effects on human economic behavior. Tariffs are raised, thwarting trade. New government spending no longer enhances economic growth.’

        ‘Government has an essential role to play in a free and open society. Its average contribution is positive; but I believe that the marginal contribution of going from 15% of the national income to 50% has been negative.’ Milton Friedman, If Only the U.S. Were as Free as Hong Kong, Wall Street Journal, July 8, 1997, p. A14.

        US tax as % of GDP – 26.9% and gov. spending – 38.9%
        Aust. tax as % of GDP and 30.8% and spending – 34.3

        The optimum gov. size for economic growth is said to be somewhere between 20% AND 30% – and budgets should be balanced over a reasonably short period.

        Perhaps ‘global economic governance’ means less and more than you think. It was as I explained a term used by the US in relation to the the Monterrey Consensus. It incoporates free trade as an essential basis, international financial reporting requirments, the movements of hazardous waste across borders, prohibitions on the trade in endangered animals, etc. In other respects it involves encouraging by something less than open warfare – democracy and the rule of law in individual nations.

        Australia spends nearly twice as much on aid as the US. The US is at this very moment landing troops at Shaolwater Bay – about 50km north of where I live. They seem like very nice chaps and chapesses. We have in this century been responsible for peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, we have paid our dues to the IMF, the World Bank and the UN. We stand ready to defend the treaty with the US with the lives of our sons – and have on every Godforsaken global battlefield for 70 years.

        But I was actually more concerned with the US being behind the 8 ball in respect of self regulation – the enormous structural deficit and printing money (not something Friedman would approve of). I expect a raincheck on the US increasing aid from 0.18% of GDP to 0.7% – as agreed to by the 2nd Bush administion – is in order.

        You should take a few deep breaths – and lighten up. A committee of CH’s running the world is not on the cards. Although I am running for World President for Life – my vice-presidential running mate is Hugo Chavez. I even have a global warming policy. If we are – like – moving towards global warming – we just – like – need to move the other way. Follow me men. If the oceans are rising at – like – 2mm a year it will never catch us.

      • Anarchy has nothing to do with anything I wrote. I know this is a climate blog, but try to keep the straw men to a minimum. I was not criticizing the idea of governance, I was criticizing your specific call for “global economic governance,” “enhanc[ing] developing countries participation in international decision making,” and other follies.

        And the foreign aid comment?

        “Total U.S. official development assistance, known as ODA, rose to $26.8 billion in 2008 from $21.78 billion in 2007 and $23.5 billion in 2006.” (note this refers ti solely monetary aid, leaving out many other forms)

        Austrailian foreign “aid has doubled in the past five years, to $4.3 billion, and will double again in the next five years, to $8.6 billion.”

        Now I am as big a fan of Australia as anyone (its pedantic liberaltarians notwithstanding), but I am pretty sure 23 billion is more than 4.3 billion.

      • Chief Hydrologist

        I meant as a percentage of GDP – whoops. The doubling is needed to bring it up to 0.7% of GDP as everyone has agreed to in the Monterrey Concensus.

        But you were questioning the basis I believed for an optimum sized government sector – it lies somewhere between anarchy and communism. Purely descriptive and not related to anything you said.

        But I am looking for a form of words that doesn’t create an automatic reaction – so perhaps I shouldn’t quote the US review paper? Which is where the terms came from as I keep saying.

        And the essential problem remains – the right needs to regain the high ground or we risk further descent into economic madness.

        The trouble with Australian politicians is that they are pruely pragmatic – they will bribe anyone for a vote. Very dangerous when politics descends to bread and circus.

      • “Australia spends nearly twice as much on aid as the US” – Chief Hydrologist

        What? Maybe you aren’t aware that in the US, private voluntary charitable contributions dominate over govt. aid.

        Official Development aid: USA $23 billion, AUS – $1.5 billion
        Total Charitable giving: USA $291 billion, AUS – $2.4 billion
        International giving as per cent of GDP, USA – 1.7%, AUS – 0.7%
        “On an income basis wealthy Americans allocate 3.8% of income to charities while average wealthy Australians give less than one half of one percent.”
        Private Haiti earthquake humanitarian aid: USA – $1.2 billion, Australia – $12 million.

      • Opps. The figure of US 1.7% of GDP should be for National not International giving. Sorry.

        Note that the above figures do not include the recently approved $108 billion targeted to Greece through the IMF, ~ 1/2 total world-wide IMF assistance. (Not that it will do any good while Greece continues to increase spending.) Nor is military aid included.

    • “One molecule of man made CO2 per ten thousand molecules of other gases in the atmosphere is too little to have such a huge effect.”

      One drop of cyanide per thousand drops of water in the cup is too little to have any huge effect.

      • Straw, man.

      • explain

      • You’re equating C02 with cyanide – but you knew that. You must either be deathly afraid of carbonated beverages or are just (again) trolling. I’ll leave you to that and your falling skies.

      • andrew adams

        You’re equating C02 with cyanide – but you knew that.

        No, he really isn’t. The point is the logical fallacy in the original argument, which would exist even if CO2 emissions were entirely harmless.

      • You know something, just on this one occasion I agree with you – but don’t let it go to your head ;-)

  3. Thank you, thank you, Professor Curry for this great history lesson.

    A friend recently told me that winters were colder and summers hotter during the last ice age.

    Does anyone have data to back up that claim?

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

    • tempterrain

      No, but I could probably find you some data to show that winters were colder and summers were, er , colder too!

      Would that be of any use to you?

  4. Pooh, Dixie

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
    1787: three years to the beginning of the Dalton.

  5. Hi Judith

    Hi Judith

    Pleased to see you taking such an interest in history-as long as you realise all the quotes are anecdotal so don’t count as much as computer models of highly unlikely proxies :)

    Below are a few selected highlights from a much longer article of mine on the subject of climate change through the ages.

    1) Saint Cyrian was Bishop of Carthage around 250AD.* He was talking about the huge increase in Rome’s population which had caused wars against Carthage and the building of 500 towns in North Africa to satisfy the eternal city’s ever increasing needs for timber, cereal, and exotic animals for its gladiatorial contests. Here is an account of lack of sustainability and climate change caused by a variety of factors, with the hints of a decline in the warm climate that had sustained Rome now starting to work against them as it intermittently turned cooler.

    ‘The world has grown old and does not remain in its former vigour. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the suns warmth are both diminishing. The metals are nearly exhausted the husbandman is failing in his fields. Springs which once gushed forth liberally now barely give a trickle of water.”

    2) Around 1560 the Rev Schaller, pastor of Strendal in the Prussian Alps wrote;

    “There is no real constant sunshine neither a steady winter nor summer, the earth’s crops and produce do not ripen, are no longer as healthy as they were in bygone years. The fruitfulness of all creatures and of the world as a whole is receding, fields and grounds have tired from bearing fruits and even become impoverished, thereby giving rise to the increase of prices and famine, as is heard in towns and villages from the whining and lamenting among the farmers.”

    3) A brief breakdown in the cold trend in Britain was observed in the diary entry of Samuel Pepys for January 1660/61-the year the Royal Society was established- when he wrote;

    “It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all; but the ways are dusty, and the flyes fly up and down, and the rose-bushes are full of leaves, such a time of the year as was never known in this world before here.”

    We can date the coldest point of the LIA to around 1607 after the deterioration noted by Rev Schaller.

    4) From Hubert Lamb; “The remarkable turn of the climate of Europe towards greater warmth from soon after the beginning of the eighteenth century and affecting all seasons of the year in the 1730’s seems to have produced little comment at the time, though by then the temperatures were being observed with thermometers and entered into regularly maintained observation books in a number of places.”

    5) The following, condensed from the records of the Hudson Bay Company, also demonstrate that climate change is not a new phenomenon, and was not restricted to Europe.

    “Over the fifteen years between 1720 and 1735, the first snowfall of the year moved from the first week of September to the last.

    6) Our modern bouts of apparent short memory regarding previous climatic conditions can be seen to be nothing new by reading the comments from the annals of Dumfermline Scotland from 1733/4, when it recorded that wheat was first grown in the district in 1733. Lamb wryly observes that was not correct, as enough wheat had been grown further north in the early 1500’s to sustain an export trade.

    7) From America we have this contemporary comment;

    “The temperature of the winter season, in northern latitudes, has suffered a material change, and become warmer in modern, than it was in ancient times. … Indeed I know not whether any person, in this age, has ever questioned the fact.” —Noah Webster, 1758-1843 (founder- Webster’s dictionary)

    8) Following observations from whalers from the same port of Teignmouth, we have this from the annals of the Royal Society in 1817;

    “It will without doubt have come to your Lordship’s knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated….”

    9) From Russia. 1868: ‘the weather was murderous. It rained once during the summer. There was a drought. The sun, like a red hot cinder, glowed through the clouds of smoke from the peat bogs. Near Peterhoff the forests and peat workings burnt, and troops dug trenches and flooded the subterranean fire. It was 40 centigrade in the open, and 28 in the shade

    10) That the temperature dropped from the start of James Hansen’s’ famous Giss record in 1880 places it out of context to the warmer period that preceded it, and this is reflected in this intriguing reference from the records of the Canadian Horticulturist monthly of 1880 (page 7).

    “I do not know whether or not the climate of Ontario is really becoming permanently milder than formerly, but I do know that for the past 18 years or 20 years we have not experienced the same degree of cold as the seven years preceding.


  6. Wonderful context. They were just like we are.

  7. “Wonderful context. They were just like we are.”

    Only without government grant corrupted scientists, and the conflict of interest riddled IPCC to lead them astray.

  8. tempterrain

    So what is the message from all this? They were wrong about climate change in the late 18th century so we are wrong about climate change now? Nothing untoward can ever possibly happen once anyone has been shown previously to have been wrong in pointing out a particular danger?

    If true, we could all make good use of this . Would anyone like to predict that I’ll have fatal bike accident on my way to work today? I’ll just have to take extra care for the rest of the day but once I make it through, I’ll know that I won’t need to worry about being wiped out by a truck ever again!

  9. Marvelous! We find that global warming may be just an exaggerated (mis-)perception that causes a historically repeating urban legend–this century’s version backed by over-transmogrified unvalidated data and mis-applied statistical methods.

  10. I think “They were just like we are” is an extremely apt comment. Time tends to apply a gloss that obscures the fact that the players of that time were human. Politics were just as cutthroat, just as personal as the present. Corruption (according to our standards) was rife – there are anecdotes of Washington handing out alcoholic beverages at the polls when running for the House of Burgesses. plus ça change…

  11. Jack Hughes

    Maybe the changed climate is why policemen all look so young nowadays ?


  12. tempterrain

    “They were just like we are”? Yes well that’s true in a way. Humans haven’t evolved to be any different in six or seven generations.

    However, we do have a very different world view to our 18th century forebears. That’s changed largely due to over 2 centuries of scientific progress. We, at least some of us, do have very different beliefs than they did; and, isn’t it largely because of that increased knowledge?

    They would have worried about the future of the Earth , like we do, but they had no scientific guidance to advise them on what to worry about and what not to worry about.

    They would still have been concerned that God was displeased with them, for whatever reason and therefore was causing their rains to fail and their winters to be colder. Some no doubt what have argued that they just weren’t burning enough witches any more and it was just a big mistake to have stopped doing that in the 17th century.

    Of course, there are still people around who think that God smites humanity from time to time with plagues because we have all been sinful. But aren’t they the ones now who are saying that it is arrogant of humanity to even think that we might have the capability of changing the Earth’s climate?

    • Wow…slept through history class, huh?

    • No, Peter Martin, that’s one of your stupid stereotypes. The only religious fools in this argument are the Gaians, who think humanity is to be smitten for messing with Her ideal atmospheric mix, miraculously determined to be that pertaining at about 1900.

    • temp,

      “but they had no scientific guidance to advise them on what to worry about and what not to worry about.”

      This is quite a stretch. Acid rain was a boondoggle. Acid ocean is a boondoggle. Green energy is a boondoggle. Suppressing Nuclear power is a boondoggle. Locking up huge areas of land as wild areas allows excessive growth of underbrush leading to firestorms that sterilize the ground surface and kills the trees and animals, another boondoggle. Mercury pollution, another boondoggle. CFC’s causing an ozone hole, another boondoggle. DDT, another boondoggle. The list of junk science is extensive.

      Claiming that we are better at making decisions than our ancestors just doesn’t appear to meet the smell test.

      • I’m sure you must have missed out a few others. Lead poisoning from plumbing and petrol additives? Another Boondoggle! Arsenic in paint? Another boondoggle! Smoke from coal fires in cities? Another boondoggle! Vaccinations and immunisations against infectious diseases polio, tetanus, TB etc . Totally unnecessary and another boondoggle! Maybe a plot to inject mind altering chemicals? Seat belts in cars? Totally unnecessary! Speed limits on the roads? A communist plot to slow the pace of capitalism!

        This is fun. I think I’m getting the hang of it now!

      • Kuhnkat,

        Oh yes, I nearly forgot. What about smoking? I must admit I’m an ex-smoker and I was possibly conned into giving it up by the corrupt medical establishment. Of course that was junk science too, eh? If they’d really thought that cigarettes were bad for you they’d have encouraged people to smoke to attract more custom, wouldn’t they?

      • andrew adams

        HIV/AIDS, asbestos…

        And despite what kuhnkat says the CFC/ozone layer issue, acid rain and ocean acidification are/were not boondoggles.

    • We’ve lost our fear of hellfire, but put climate change in its place

      “Billions will die,” says Lovelock, who tells us that he is not normally a gloomy type. Human civilisation will be reduced to a “broken rabble ruled by brutal warlords”, and the plague-ridden remainder of the species will flee the cracked and broken earth to the Arctic, the last temperate spot, where a few breeding couples will survive

  13. “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.

    That sure sounds like grampa going on about how he used to walk barefoot five miles uphill in the snow each way to get to school. Does this tell us anything about climate, or merely psychology?

  14. This is an interesting juxtaposition. There actually was a minor increase in temps, if we can believe the data and paleoclimatology from then, going on as it was an upturn in the LIA. It didn’t last.

    Many lessons to be learned such as anthropogenic effects having nothing to do with CO2 and exagerations for a political purpose intimated by the desire to make the New World be attractive to immigrants.

  15. 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.

    How delightful to learn that there were warmists 223 yeas ago!

    Thank you.

  16. Throughout history, serendipity or unanticipated coincidences has frustrated many secret designs and plans.


    I don’t know.

    In the East they call it “Karma.”

    Some say “that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

    Some say it is “God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

    Solar activity waned soon after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” warning.

    Two of the most basic clues to the origin, composition and energy source that heats planet Earth were discovered and reported in 1972 – the first within a couple of weeks after Nixon and Kissinger returned from their meeting with Chairman Mao in China on 21-27 Feb 1972.

  17. What a great topic. Love the fight over “uniformitarianism” v.s. “catastrophism” ( long and slow v.s. sudden ).
    Charles Darwin used the principles of “uniformitarianism” and Lamarck’s unlimited organic change as the underlining base for his Origin of the Species that he published in 1859. Darwin totally rejected “catastrophism” with its sudden mass extinctions and leaps of new species coming suddenly into existence.
    Darwin: “..That natural selection generally acts with extreme slowness I fully admit…I do believe that natural selection will generally act very slowly, only at long intervals of time…Slow though the process of selection may be… As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favorable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modifications; it can act only by short and slow steps…” London: The Hutchinson Publishing Group, 1985, p57
    Darwin: “..Everything is “random”. “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed in numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down…” Alberta report, January 3, 2000 v26 i45 p54
    The fossil record supports the view that new species arise in small, localized areas, in a small geographical area, and having a small population size that would have little chance to either leave, or be able to find, a fossil record.
    So…..Darwin was wrong.
    I guess that makes me both a “Climate Denier” (aGW not AGW) and an “Evolution Denier” ( Stephen Gould over Charles Darwin)

  18. In case you missed it, Vaclav Klaus gave some strong words on governments and climate change in Australia yesterday. Lord Monckton was also in the audience. He related government actions to communism and was especially scathing of Stern’s and Gaurnaut’s use of very low discount rates in pushing action now. In the long view of history, nothing has changed.

  19. Well that’s ancient history. Now for some updated science, Scientific American has a report on the study of the last great rapid warming: the Paleolithic-Eocene Thermal Maximum. During that period, 2 [units] of carbon per year were put into the atmosphere and ocean, caused primarily by volcanic emissions related to the separation of the continents. During the current period of warming, we are putting out 9 [units] of carbon per year because of human activity. As well, the last warming happened over a period of 20,000 years. This current warming is happening 5 times faster. The last warming was reversed by the earth’s own negative feedback loops that stopped the warming and returned it to a cooler climate, but that process took 200,000 years, well beyond the limits of human civilizations.

  20. Couldn’t Jefferson have been right? Between 1700 and the late 1700’s, the sun came out of the Maunder Minimum and sunspot activity was gradually growing in the whole period. Some warming would be expected.

  21. He probably was right but then came the Dalton minimum.

  22. “As the Danes settled down for the winter, however, Charles sprang to life. On the night of 9 February 1658, having waited impatiently for the right conditions, he led his army across the frozen waters of the Little Belt at the narrowest point. …. Although only 5,000 men came over the Belts, the unexpected appearance of Swedish units in the Copenhagen suburbs, on 25 February was too much for Frederik. Caught completely unawares, he hurriedly signed the humiliating peace of Roskilde (8 March), which stripped Denmark of Scania, Bohuslan, Blekinge, Bornholm and Trondheim, breaking trhe Danish grip on the Sound and driving a wedge of Swedish territory through the middle of Norway.” The Northern Wars, 1558-1721, Robert I. Frost.

    A couple of years ago I asked a guide of a little tour boat about Copenhagen sea ice, and he quickly dismissed my question, saying that ice didn’t form that far south. I suspect if he had been Swedish, he might have known more history.

    • My Danish grandfather, late in the 19th century, belonged to a club of hearty chaps who styled themselves “Vikings”. One of their rituals was to swim in the Oresund on New Years’ Day. On occasion this involved breaking a hole in the sea ice.

  23. Socrates is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities. ~Plato (Apology)

  24. tempterrain

    They were not “wrong about climate change” in the late 18th century, i.e. they observed that it was warming generally, i.e. the “climate was changing”

    The same is true today, more than 200 years later, i.e. we are observing that it is warming generally, i.e. the “climate is changing”.

    We have better methods of measurement, data analysis and record-keeping today – although this is still a long way from perfect….

    Is this gradual change we have seen (admittedly in multi-decadal fits and spurts, as it has turned out) part of a long-term trend?

    Is it because we are emerging from a generally colder prior period called the Little Ice Age?

    It would appear that the answer to these questions seems to be “yes”, regardless of what anthropogenic factors one wants to introduce for part of the latest warming..

    TonyB has checked older records and could probably tell us much more, but the CET record shows a period of sharp warming of almost 2°C over the 50-year period 1690 to 1749. The warming occurred at a linear rate of 0.36°C per decade, or around 3x the rate we have seen over the last half of the 20th century.

    This was followed by a period of slower warming. Over the next 50 years (1740-1799) it warmed at a rate of only 0.06°C per decade.

    So, if the (eastern) North American record was anything like that of England, the gentlemen would have, indeed, remembered colder periods in the past.


  25. Peter Davies

    Climate happens, just like the weather. There is nothing that we can do about it and I don’t believe that anything we humans have done have ever or will ever have any measurable effect on it. What never changes, however, is the human predilection for talking about it :)

  26. Joe Lalonde


    Our theories of the past are based on no changes to the planet and that at the planets creation, there was no water. Just chemical soup.

    So far all the areas I have looked into differs very differently from this and we had a greater abundance of water that was more concentration with salts due to the increased speed of the planet. This was needed to hold the water to the planet from centrifugal force and inhibited volcanic activity by the shear weight of pressure. The circulation was faster to stir the planets waters as well. The massive craters of meteor impacts were softened by how water can transfer energy and the atmosphere being denser. Ash and gases from volcanic activity then would be suppressed by the ocean weight , keeping gases into a liquid form and making ash a fine muck of burned, crushed rock. This also means that our planet was larger in circumference than today as well.
    Gravity is the forward momentum of our solar system which gives us the “bug on the windshield” effect.
    The age of dry salts on land is less than a billion years old and is younger as the waters receded.

  27. The articles that are quoted here:



    Have undergone a process of selective quoting to make it seem that the central point is that “history has a tendency to repeat itself”. The authors of these articles end with point that “The second great global warming debate poses a different set of scientific questions from those raised in the late 18th century….”.

    • Have undergone a process of selective quoting to make it seem that the central point is that “history has a tendency to repeat itself”. The authors of these articles end with point that “The second great global warming debate poses a different set of scientific questions from those raised in the late 18th century….”.

      Interesting. I found no such quote in the third link. In fact, I found this on the parent article:

      When I first came upon this article I couldn’t believe I didn’t expect it or foresee its discovery. Not that I am psychic or anything, but there’s that old adage that ‘history repeats itself.’

      • well, the quote is from the smithsonianmag-link

      • Yes, but Sean stated:

        The authors of these articles end with point that “The second great global warming debate poses a different set of scientific questions from those raised in the late 18th century….”.

        It’s rather rich to state that they’ve been selectively quoted and then attribute a quote from one to all three.

        By the way, from the Gelber 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.

      • I put links to all the articles the final points in all three have been selectively ignored. I do not like to copy and paste too much from other peoples content and prefer to post links instead. If find it rich that people advocate for heavily stealing others works..

      • Two of the three articles had the “history repeats itself” theme, in direct contradiction to what you stated.

        You had no scruples about pasting the sentence below when called on it (and as “distinctions” go, that was pretty thin).

      • Ends with a clear distinction between the past debate and the current one as well. “And by the way, all of this took place more than two centuries ago, long before the currently popular global climate change theory was created.”

  28. This is almost completely off topic, but it is one of my favorite papers which deal with observations from this era and describe the environmental impacts of the Laki eruption.

  29. Okay, I have a prediction:

    Since the 1960s the baby boomers have dominated western society and culture. They were teenagers in the 60s an 70s and we had the peace movement, free love, rock and roll.

    In the 70s and 80s they were young middle aged and we had Disco, environmentalism, save the everythings.

    90s and 00s late middle age menopause strikes and we have global warming, conservation and recycling.

    2010s, 20s and beyond the boomers are going to be geriatric. When that happens the world will suddenly become much colder. Global cooling will set in and the need to keep warm will become paramount. Everything will have to remain exactly as it was 20 years ago, no changes will be allowed.

    • sad, but i think you are right. i am 55 years old, and i see the arrogance my generation. it is breathtaking. everything revolves around them. pretty sick

      • Peter Davies

        The damned hubris of humankind, western; eastern and most cultures in between; never changes either. The baby boomers seem to be more influential in westernised economies.