Thursday, April 24, 2014

2014: The Year Without Summer

In their excellent book, The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, William and Nicholas Klingaman relate the history, causes, and effects of the record cold that gripped the northern hemisphere in 1816.  For most in America, Europe, and Asia, the winter of 1815-1816 was the coldest in living memory.  What followed in the spring and summer of that year was equally disastrous.  It was an entire year of cold rains, crop failures, hunger, and economic collapse.

There were multiple causes for the extreme weather of 1816, but all of them were natural, not man-made.  Chief among them, according to the Klingamans, was the massive eruption of Tamboro in present-day Indonesia.  The force of the explosion was ten times greater than that of Krakatoa, which took place in 1883.  Heightened volcanic activity sent ash particles into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and disrupting the northern hemispheric jet stream.  One after another, polar vortexes dropped south, not just in the winter, but throughout 1816, and to a lesser extent for years afterward.

The winter of 2013-14 bears a striking resemblance to that of 1815-16, and there is every reason to believe that what follows will repeat the pattern of earlier periods of extreme cold.  The consequences will not be pleasant.  As some have begun to realize, periods of extreme cold are far more destructive than periods of warming.

My prediction of a “year without summer” is based partly on the record of 1816 and other years of increased volcanic activity.  Like 1815, 2013 saw significant volcanic activity, with major eruptions in Indonesia, Alaska, Italy, Argentina, and Japan.  It was inevitable that this "particularly eventful year" of volcanic activity would be followed by a cold winter, just as it is inevitable that more cold will follow.

This prediction is backed up by the National Weather Bureau and other sources that predict an extended period of cold in the northeast and upper Midwest.  This cold may have consequences for farm production since it would likely disrupt planting in the crucial corn- and wheat-growing regions.
The effects of a poor harvest would be higher prices for nearly all foods – not just for Americans, but for consumers in the global marketplace.  And while affluent consumers in developed countries can accommodate higher prices, however painful that may be, the world’s poor cannot.  For billions of human beings, even a slight increase in grain prices results in hunger.  And along with hunger comes social unrest – the sort of unrest that helped trigger Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

While government can do nothing to change the weather, in regard to either cooling or warming, it can direct resources toward productive ends rather than squandering them on green energy boondoggles and other wasteful projects.  Most importantly, it can lower overall spending and thus lower taxes on individuals and corporations, thereby strengthening their ability to withstand economic shocks such as those brought about by weather events like that of 1816...and 2014.  By allowing the private sector to expand and prosper in good times, government could help prepare for inevitable climate cycles.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, estimates an 11% cost for current governmental climate policies.  Redirecting this 11% of GDP to the private sector would result in global economic growth adequate to address the effects of climate change, whether warming or cooling. Instead of following this common-sense approach, the latest report ("Fifth Assessment Report") from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urges spending many times more on green energy “solutions” such as those that have failed in Europe and the U.S.   

The greatest victims of such failed thinking, it turns out, are those at the bottom of the economic ladder.  The elite who fund environmental groups seem particularly callous to the fate of those struggling for survival – those for whom a slight increase in the cost of grain or energy can be a matter of life and death.  As Lomborg argues, it is simply irrational to focus on climate change, which even the IPCC admits is less predictable than previously thought, when countries are faced by so many other pressing issues.  Chief among these, I believe, is the need to safeguard and expand free markets that afford economic opportunity.

Instead of expanding free markets, the Obama administration has done all it can to suppress the primate sector and squander wealth, thus leaving the country vulnerable to the economic shock of weather events such as the current near-record cold.

Indeed, global warming alarmists display all the symptoms of “recentcy basis.”  Relative to 1850, global temperatures have indeed risen by some one degree Celsius, but that calculation compares current temperatures with those at the trough of a four-century cold spell.  Relative to longer-term global norms, today’s temperatures are not unusually warm.  They are comparable to temperatures that prevailed during the Medieval Climate Optimum of 950 through 1250 AD.  During this period, a Norse settlement thrived in Greenland and even reached North America.

Like the Medieval Climate Optimum, the past 150 years of warming has actually been highly beneficial: it is no coincidence that the greatest period of economic improvement in human history has occurred precisely during the period of warming since 1850.  The danger is that global temperatures may now be entering a new and ominous period of extended cold.   

The only way to prepare for this eventuality – a certainty at some point, given the long-term history of the earth’s climate – is to maximize economic expansion via the free  market.  Otherwise, the Earth’s population will be left without the economic resources necessary to ensure survival.  This warning was echoed in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, which argued that “[t]he best environmental policy is economic growth.”  With GDP growth of less than 2% – the average for more than five years now – there is no margin of error in the event of severe climate events.  And such events are inevitable, not because of human impact on the environment, but because of natural forces – the same forces that caused the great freeze of 1816.

The best response to climate change – the natural sort, as well as the sort purportedly caused by human industry – is to end green energy subsidies, lower taxes on individual and corporations, eliminate unnecessary regulation of industry, and allow the free market to operate on its own.  Adding 11% to global GDP each year would lift billions out of poverty and assure the well-being of all, no matter what challenges the climate presents.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
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