Was The ‘Preindustrial Period’ Of 1850-1900 An Era Of Perfect Climate?

Global climate policy has evolved from an emphasis on reducing risks associated with altering the climate to one focused on seeing the global average surface temperature as an indicator of the quality of life on the entire planet that we can fine-tune through energy policy. [emphasis, links added]

This singular focus is clear in the figure below from the most recent assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR6 WG2 Figure FAQ16.5.1), which summarizes “reasons for concern” about “climate-related hazards” — these include “extreme weather events” and “large-scale singular events.”

IPCC AR6 WG2 16.5.1

The figure is a bit complicated. It shows five different “reasons for concern” as the shaded bars, with the white parts at the bottom of each bar indicating [that the impacts are “undetectable” at these levels.]

The colors yellow, red, and purple indicate successively greater risks and impacts as a function of global temperature on the vertical axis, which goes from zero to 5 Celsius. Near zero Celsius there are no detectable risks, and as temperatures increase everything quickly gets worse.

The figure is only the latest version of what is called the “burning embers” diagram, which has a 30+ year history. In 2012, Mahoney and Hulme argued that the diagram serves “much like an expressionist painting,” and explained:

“. . . the “burning embers” diagram seeks not to figuratively represent a phenomenon (the changing climate), but rather its intangible effects. These effects, be they heightened levels of danger or risk, are quickly translated into affect through the use of literary and visual conventions such as the emotionally charged colour palette… The “burning embers” diagram feeds certain anxieties about the future; we can sense ourselves walking powerlessly into the red heat, a fate made all the more inevitable as the red zone creeps towards the colourless safety of the baseline.”

There is a lot that we could unpack here about science, politics, belief, and the pathological collapse of the climate discourse into the notion that global average surface temperature provides a single, reliable indicator of human well-being and planetary health — what Hulme calls “climatism.”

Today, I’ll pass on those deeper issues and instead take an empirical look at the IPCC’s 1850-1900 “preindustrial” period that has come to represent a time before climate change — the white parts at the bottom of the “burning embers” diagram.

The Paris Agreement’s 1.5C and 2.0C temperature targets are anchored on this period of zero Celsius.

Climate activists claim that every increment of warming over the historical “preindustrial baseline” results in more harm to people and the planet.

For instance, upon the recent release of the Fifth U.S, National Climate Assessment, Katherine Hayhoe of The Nature Conservancy and lead author of the report, claimed:

“This report says every 10th of a degree of warming matters. Every bit matters. It clearly shows that per 10th of a degree of avoided warming, we save, we prevent risk, we prevent suffering. And that’s pretty powerful.”

Let’s set aside the fact that we can’t measure global average temperature to 0.1°C (e.g., for 2020, the IPCC AR6 provided a 90% confidence range of 0.25C as you can see in the figure below) or that we have no ability to distinguish climate impacts with any meaningfulness at 0.1°C differences.

Source: IPCC AR6. The grey zone is climate safety. Make note of the late 1870s as you read the text below.

One important reason that the period 1850-1900 serves as a useful baseline of climate utopia is that almost no one has any idea what the climate looked like back then, much less the climate impacts experienced.

Most modern climate records start in the 20th century, and to the extent that the IPCC considers pre-20th climate it is in terms of physical quantities and not impacts or risks (e.g., as in the figure immediately above).

Most attention these days in climate research is focused far into the future through the lens of climate models — there are very few old-school Changnons, Lambs, Kelloggs and Diazes left in the climate community.

Over the past few weeks, I have read Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (Amazon link), by Mike Davis.

During my time as a scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I spent a lot of time researching impacts of and responses to El Niño and La Niña under the guidance of the one and only Mickey Glantz.

I was aware of the 1877-78 El Niño event and its profound impacts, but I never connected its significance to the contemporary climate discourse until recently.

Davis compiles estimates suggesting that more than 50 million people died in the mid-1870s related to extreme weather and climate — that equates to about 4% of the global population.

Today, that same proportion of the world’s population would be over 320 million deaths or almost the entire population of the entire United States. We cannot even imagine this magnitude of human suffering.

The proximate cause of the 1870s massive climate impacts was a very strong El Niño event in 1877 and 1878, but that event was also perhaps comparable to strong El Niño events in 1997/98 and 2015/16.

What accounts for the massive loss of life in the 1870s? Davis explores this in-depth, and the simple answer is colonial rule informed by Malthusian impulses.

For instance, Davis quotes Sir Evelyn Baring, UK finance minister at the time, who justified the unwillingness of the British Empire to ameliorate the impacts of drought on its subjects in explicit Malthusian terms:

“[E]very benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from over-population.”

The U.K.’s 1878-1880 Famine Commission concluded:

“The doctrine that in time of famine the poor are entitled to demand relief … would probably lead to the doctrine that they are entitled to relief at all times, and thus the foundation would be laid of a system of general poor relief, which we cannot contemplate without serious apprehension…”

The figure below shows estimated decadal deaths related to weather and climate extremes for four decades, each separated by a half-century, starting with the 1870s.

Estimated decadal deaths related to weather and climate for four decades: 1870s, 1920s, 1970s, and 2020s (estimated based on deaths over the past decade). These estimates are highly uncertain and 1870s and 1920s numbers are certainly underestimates. They should be interpreted as orders of magnitude and not as precise figures. Sources: Davis 2017, Our World in Data

Beyond the massive impacts associated with the 1877/1878 El Niño, there were also many other extreme events with impacts well beyond those of recent times, such as the Great Midwest Wildfires of 1871 which killed as many as 2,400 people, the 1872 Baltic Sea flood, an 1875 midwestern U.S. locust swam of an estimated 12.5 trillion locusts, the 1878 China typhoon that killed as many as 100,000 people, and the U.S. experienced 6 landfalling major hurricanes in the 1870s, compared to just 3 in the 2010s.

This cursory overview of various events of the 1870s indicates that the notion that the period 1850 to 1900 was somehow safer or less extreme in terms of climate extremes and impacts is simply false.

If the weather gods offered me the opportunity to replay over the next decade the weather and climate of the 1870s instead of the uncertain future before us, I’d take the uncertain future for sure.

The 1870s were one of the most extreme climatic decades in modern human history.

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Top photo of the Great Flood Of 1862. (Wikimedia)

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