The Climate Change Debate: The History and The Forefathers

To many of us it seems as though the climate change debate is only a recent phenomena, and indeed, we have been positively bombarded by the media coverage of global warming in the past decade. Surprisingly, though, climate change speculation and study have been taking place for quite some time. In his recently published article in Weatherwise, a non-profit weather magazine, professor of geological sciences and contributing editor Randy Cerveny points out that some unexpected characters were just as concerned with weather change as we are now.

Any self- respecting history buff might guess that the foremost of our founding fathers to study climate change would have been Benjamin Franklin. It all adds up—he discovered electricity, invented bifocals, and constructed the first lightning rod. However, although Franklin was an outspoken student of weather and nature, Cerveny classifies none other than Noah Webster, lexicographer and founder of the modern Merriam- Webster Dictionary, as “one of the most strident investigators on the subject of early American climate change.”

In his intriguing Noah Webster: Lexicographer, Climatologist, Professor Cerveny points out the low and high points of Webster’s career studying climate change. The lexicographer had many rivals in the scientific field, among whom were Thomas Jefferson and Harvard professor Samuel Williams, who hypothesized that local weather patterns changed with the colonization of American settlements as forest was cut down and converted to fields used for crop production. Webster built on this concept when he noted that “the clearing of lands opens them to the sun, their moisture is exhaled, they are more heated in summer, but more cold in winter near the surface; the temperature becomes unsteady, and the seasons irregular.” Among his successes in climate change study also include his prediction that orbital changes of the earth alter long- term climate, a theory he anticipated, notes Cerveny, almost 200 years before it became known as fact.

Webster may have not received the credit he deserved for the observation of the urban heat island effect, the phenomenon that describes how cities are warmer than their surrounding countryside. Traditionally, this discovery is attributed to Luke Howard, a famous amateur meteorologist who published it as a footnote in hi book The Climate of London. However, Webster described the same instance in New York City 21 years prior.

Perhaps his most striking misstep in the process of climate study was Webster’s belief that the temperature of the earth had remained the same since the time of the Bible, a falsehood. Because of these beliefs, Cerveny calls Webster a “literary climatologist,” a man who used ancient Greek and Roman writings to formulate his modern beliefs. To close, Cerveny notes: “perhaps those of us who make weather and climate our passion and avocation might want to remember that… Webster also knew a thing or two about climate change.” In all, the article gives a surprising history of climate study, intriguing insight into the mind and contributions of a forefather of weather sciences, and the perspective that what we fear now has been recognizable for centuries.

Professor Randy Cerveny is a contributing editor of Weatherwise, a President’s Professor of Geographical Sciences at Arizona State University, and the author of the recently published book Weather’s Greatest Mysteries Solved! by Promethius Books.

by M. Molendyke

  • Jul 1st, 2009 at 20:30 | #1

    In 1896, Svante Arrhenius wrote in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazne that “We are evaporating our coal mines into the air. [This must be causing] a change in the transparency of the atmosphere.”

    I have a problem with the expression “The Climate Change Debate,” which seems to have become fashionable in an effort to show willingness to listen to unreason. There is no debate in the classical sense, any more than there is debate about Evolution. There is a huge body of scientific data about which people with a vested interest in the status quo insist debate is needed. No one who understands the science is debating anything except how much worse it will be than we first thought, and how much sooner.

  • Molly
    Jul 1st, 2009 at 20:59 | #2

    Bill– I completely agree with you that in recent years people have fought to preserve the waning uncertainty surrounding climate change because they themselves resist making the lifestyle, economic, political, and perhaps even ideological changes necessary to combat the problems we face. I would also second your assertion that the vernacular of global warming is frequently misused, either for political gain or just as an excuse for inaction. These (likely deliberate) manipulations of scientific fact concern and frustrate me as much as they irritate you, trust me. However, I used the term “climate change debate” in the article about Noah Webster because he did literally debate the issues surrounding altered weather patterns with his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Williams, among others. It is perhaps in this historical context, then, that the term “debate” is most appropriately used, for at the time there was indeed much more real speculation over whether or not climate change was an actual phenomenon. This leads me to believe, sadly, that the politicians (many of whom doubled as scientists, instead of the businesspeople we have running our country today) of the eighteenth century, as we see in this article, perhaps had more respect for proven observation, the study of their colleagues, and pure data than the people we have vying for political power in our country today.

    Would you agree?

  • Doug
    Jul 1st, 2009 at 21:16 | #3

    I agree.

  • V. Mohan Reddy
    Jul 4th, 2009 at 08:55 | #4

    The forefathers seem to have prognosticated our thesis – the GR (Green Revolution) led desertification and the related climate change. Indian agriculture production in particular is a victim of the GR led climate change more than the GHG (green house gases)led climate change contrary to the claims made by the IPCC. Perhaps the GHG led climate change adds to the GR led climate change if only to make matters worse. It could be a case of double whammy.

  • Jul 19th, 2009 at 22:18 | #5

    The site looks great ! Thanks for all your help ( past, present and future !)

  • Jul 20th, 2009 at 15:01 | #6

    Hey I‘m the newbie here, just wanted to introduce myself, I’m Ken.

  • Molly
    Jul 20th, 2009 at 16:50 | #7

    Hey Ken! Welcome to the ENN Community! Please comment freely on previous, current, and upcoming blog posts– We (and your fellow readers) want to know what you think! We also want to know more of what you would like to see on the blog, so don’t hold back!

  • Jul 25th, 2009 at 01:07 | #8

    Rather interesting. Has few times re-read for this purpose to remember. Thanks for interesting post. Waiting for trackback

  • Sep 30th, 2012 at 23:39 | #9

    Even though I truly like this post, I think there was an spelling error close to the finish from the third sentence.

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