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Sunday, July 24, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth: Thomas Jefferson Style

Dr. John Fea posted a link on his blog to an interesting article by Smithsonian Historian Joshua Kendall entitled, America's First Great Global Warming Debate. In the article, Kendall points out the fact that our colonial forefathers argued and debated issues like climate change long before the Al Gore's and Glenn Beck's of the world found ways to capitalize on the the fear of others. I found the article of particular interest and thought I would share some highlights.

As the 19th century began under the watch of Thomas Jefferson, Americans of all ages were witness to a changing world. The budding infancy of the new republic along with the swift changes that would be brought on by industrialization and capitalism, caused many of our ancestors to wonder how the world might be different for their children. In one such case, President Thomas Jefferson, an avid fan of all things relating to nature and science, began to take note of how weather patterns had begun to change and the possible role that humans might have played in the change. Kendall writes:

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.”

Jefferson was affirming the long-standing conventional wisdom of the day. For more than two millennia, people had lamented that deforestation had resulted in rising temperatures. A slew of prominent writers, from the great ancient naturalists Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder to such Enlightenment heavyweights as the Comte de Buffon and David Hume, had alluded to Europe’s warming trend.
And though Jefferson's tedious note taking and personal observations of the supposed climate change of his day managed to convince some, others were not buying it. Among the naysayers was Daniel Webster, whose main claim to fame was the creation of the American Dictionary of the English Language. In addition, Webster had been a powerful advocate for the American Revolution and the creation of the federal Constitution. And though on the surface it would look like Webster would have much in common with his president, on this issue he wasn't drinking the Jefferson Kool-Aid. Kendall writes:

This opinion had been uttered for so long that it was widely accepted as a given—until Webster. Today Webster is best known as the author of the American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), but his “great book” was actually his retirement project. He was a pioneering journalist who edited American Minerva, New York City’s first daily newspaper in the 1790s, and he weighed in on the major public policy issues of the day, cranking out essays on behalf of the Constitution, a 700-page treatise on epidemics and a condemnation of slavery. He would also serve in the state legislature of both Connecticut and Massachusetts. 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.”


Webster concluded by rejecting the crude warming theory of Jefferson and Williams in favor of a more subtle rendering of the data. The conversion of forests to fields, he acknowledged, has led to some microclimatic changes—namely, more windiness and more variation in winter conditions. But while snow doesn’t stay on the ground as long, that doesn’t necessarily mean the country as a whole gets less snowfall each winter: “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….This will explain all the appearances of the seasons without resorting to the unphilosophical hypothesis of a general increase in heat.”
So, in other words, it really isn't much different than today. Granted we have a far better understanding of scientific methodology and better technology to conduct research, not to mention that people on both sides seem to profit more nowadays by proclaiming/denouncing climate change. Despite these differences, I enjoyed this article. Sometimes it's nice to see that we aren't as detached from the founders as we often think we are (or are let to believe).

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