In Assisi, Italy, the mountaintop town where St. Francis lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the inside walls of a beautiful church from that era are painted entirely white. Colorful murals originally covered the walls until the Black Plague swept through in the 14th century. Officials became convinced the sickness somehow came from the paint, so they ordered the walls whitewashed.
Unfortunately, this destroyed most of the murals. Only fragments survive. Of course, it did nothing about the plague. The rush to fight the sickness with every possible means caused irreversible damage to priceless art.
The Black Death was a recurring feature of the cold period called the Little Ice Age — i.e., approximately AD 1300 to 1870. We now know the highly contagious plague incubated in crowded, unhealthy living spaces infested with flea-ridden vermin. In the context of primitive 14th-century medical understanding, stopping the Black Death was impossible. The legendary town of Hamelin came closest to a true solution when it hired the Pied Piper to clean out the rats. (The town cheated him after he did the job. In retaliation, he lured the town’s children away.)
In that pre-technological age, people were only vaguely aware it had grown colder since the previous Medieval Warm Period (AD 900-1300) when food was plentiful and people led healthier, outdoor lives. There were occasional measurable indications of how cold the LIA was — glacier expansion, for example.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, glaciers threatened some Alpine villages. Alarmed residents asked the church to intercede with God to arrest the grinding advance of the ice. Priests prayed and incanted, and for a time the ice slowed or even stopped. Later, the glaciers again advanced until late in the 19th century.
LIA glaciers also encroached on Greenland where Viking settlers had farmed at the warm era’s zenith. Cold weather brought poor harvests, starvation and eventual extinction by the 15th century. Arctic explorers who “rediscovered” Greenland a century later found only unpopulated remnants of the former settlements. (Until well within my lifetime, scientists puzzled over Greenland’s fate. We now know it simply froze over.)
In Assisi, where rats were not yet suspected of complicity in the plague, officials did only harm in their haste to “do something.” (Only the whitewashers’ union came out ahead.) Alpine church officials might (or might not) have stopped the glaciers’ advance, but at least they did no harm.
These are cautionary tales for us. Clearly, the climate has warmed before — most recently during 1870-1940, when industrialization was far below present levels — and actually cooled during the highly industrialized period, 1940-1980. Despite these facts, a wave of environmentalism has now convinced much of the industrialized world (except for growing industrial powers India and China) that carbon dioxide emissions are causing the current warming that began around 1980.
Dissenting scientists who argue that warming and cooling are directly related to greater and lesser sunspot activity are vilified and shouted down. Their research funds — and, in some cases, their lives — are threatened.
Al Gore — riding high as doom-is-nigh environmental preacher — wants new taxes and draconian changes in Americans’ lifestyles (except his own). The “dream scenario” of a problem that can’t be solved, no matter how much is spent on it, lures big corporations to join the global-warming crusade. Prospective billions in transnational carbon-taxes have visions of world control, including deconstruction of Earth’s industrial powerhouse (the U.S.A.), dancing in the heads of United Nations officials.
A cadre of preachers — including mega-church guru Rick Warren — insist the greenhouse science is “settled” and that reducing our “carbon footprint” is a moral issue. A retro-primitive lifestyle is seriously pushed in some circles as the responsible solution to the global warming “crisis.”
All but the truest of true believers in the greenhouse-gas story privately admit that reducing CO2 cannot cool the climate. But this is not their aim. The global-warming story is only the means to convince a gullible public to pay higher taxes and relinquish more control over their lives to experts who will “save” them. (Environmental extremists want the Earth’s population reduced to about 300 million people. Do all those nice, religious people know that?)
The rush to put draconian emissions-measures in place quickly has an obvious political motive: When the climate again cools, environmentalists will claim credit for averting disaster. High taxes, artificially costly fuel, irreparable damage to our industrial base, reduced living standards, and arrested Third World development will be cited as the sure prescription for climate-stabilization.
We shall hear that the greenhouse theory was correct: Humans were indeed warming the planet. Activists will ignore actual data showing CO2 levels are still increasing as the climate cools. (Climate scientists like Dr. Tim Ball say this is already happening.) With the desired policies in place, the data won’t matter.
It is hard for Americans to get aroused about these issues, having long felt secure in their political leaders’ sensible resistance to radical environmental actions that might injure the nation. Even liberal Bill Clinton didn’t ask the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Treaty, recognizing its protocols would harm the economy. Mr. Bush has similarly resisted, until recently. After Democrats won a new congressional majority, Mr. Bush signaled he would support “climate control” initiatives. (We already spend more than $4 billion a year on climate research.)
If Democrats take the presidency and retain the Congress in 2008, Americans could find that the stalking horse of radical environmentalism has become a ravening beast — poised to gobble up wealth, livelihoods and comfortable lifestyles.
The results will be a lot more serious than a few murals whitewashed away. If it happens, it will be because we were too ignorant to stop it.
Author of a weekly column, “At Large,” in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, an Internet newspaper (www.ahherald.com).