Believers in Climate Change Before They Were Skeptics

Fred Clark takes Senator Inhofe to task for his argument that a literal reading of Genesis tells us that climate change is impossible. Most notably, Sen. Inhofe, who grew up in Oklahoma, ought to remember a thing we now call the “dust bowl:”

A 77-year-old man from Oklahoma cannot deny human-caused climate change

[...]

Inhofe doesn’t just deny any human contribution to climate change, he denies that such a thing is even possible. He claims the Bible tells him it isn’t possible.

And yet for the past 26 years, Inhofe has represented the state of Oklahoma in Congress. Oklahoma was the heart of the Dust Bowl, one of the worst “anthropogenic” ecological disasters of all time.

The Dust Bowl proved that human activity is quite capable of altering the climate. It proved that Inhofe’s reading of Genesis is hogwash.

There’s an added layer of irony here. It was a belief in anthropogenic climate change that led to the Dust Bowl. Let me just quote a paragraph from Marc Reisner’s classic history/polemic, Cadillac Desert: the American West and its Disappearing Water:

This enormous gush of humanity pouring into a region still marked on some maps as the Great American Desert was encouraged by wishful thinking, by salesmanship, that most American of motivating forces, and, most of all, by natural caprice. For a number of years after 1865, a long humid cycle brought uninterrupted above-average rainfall to the plains. Guides leading wagon trains to Oregon reported that western Nebraska, usually blond from drought or black from prairie fires, had turned opalescent green. Late in the 1870s, the boundary of the Great American Desert appeared to have retreated westward across the Rockies to the threshold of the Great Basin.

Such a spectacular climatic transformation was not about to be dismissed as a fluke, not by a people who thought themselves handpicked by God to occupy a wild continent. A new school of meteorology was founded to explain it. Its unspoken principle was divine intervention, and its motto was “Rain Follows the Plow.” Since the rains coincided with the headlong westward advance of settlement, the two must somehow be related.

Professor Cyrus Thomas, a noted climatologist, was a leading proponent. “Since the territory [of Colorado] has begun to be settled,” he announced in declamatory tones, “towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and travelled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture…. I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases the moisture will increase.” Ferdinand V. Hayden, who was Thomas’s boss and one of the most famous geographers and geologists of his time, also subscribed to the theory. (Hayden happened to be a notable rival of John Wesley Powell, who believed otherwise.)

The exact explanations varied. Plowing the land exposed the soil’s moisture to the sky. Newly planted trees enhanced rainfall. The smoke from trains caused it. Vibrations in the air created by all the commotion helped clouds to form. Dynamiting the air became a popular means of inducing rain to fall, Even the Secretary of Agriculture came out for a demonstration in Texas. “The result,” he reported, “was—a loud noise!”[originally all one paragraph]

The idea that “Rain Follows the Plow” gave an intellectual underpinning to the mad dash for farm land in the American Midwest. In other words, everyone was banking on “anthropogenic climate change” to alter the climate of states like Iowa, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Unfortunately, in this case, the skeptics were correct. Rain does not follow the plow.

The title “Dust Bowl” was coined after April 14, 1935, also known as Black Sunday. High winds following a prolonged drought picked up an estimate 300,000 tons of topsoil and carried it across the plains. By April 19, the soil that had been lifted up to the upper winds made it all the way to Washington D.C.

A group of senators were meeting to discuss the proposed Soil Conservation Act when they noticed that it was getting dark in the middle of the day. According to legend, several senators from the midwest had been passionately arguing against the bill. When it got dark, they stepped outside, and watched their states pass overhead. If one of the senators berated the soil in the name of the Bible, no one recorded it.

  • vasaroti

    Just another historical note: I learned about global warming in Earth Science 101, at Illinois State Univ. in 1972. It was presented as uncontroversial, with no political implications.

  • Noelle

    We learned about various man-made changes in school in the 80s and 90s too. (black moth/white moth, rainforest depletion, etc). When and why did it become all politically incorrect to understand earth science? That’s like the first science thing kids learn in school. It’d be like getting all huffy about counting or finding something to bring to school that starts with the letter A.

    • Elemenope

      I started noticing serious push-back against AGW around 2001-2002 as Al Gore became a lightning rod for the issue.

  • mb

    Inhofe clearly believes that god told man to be a good steward of his creation. I’d like to hear Inhofe explain what it would mean to be a bad steward of god’s creation.

    • UrsaMinor

      My guess is that “bad stewardship” probably means preventing species extinctions, minimizing soil erosion, protecting watersheds and preventing the introduction of toxic industrial byproducts into the environment.

  • LRA

    Hey!

    I just graded 86 essays on the Dust Bowl for a class I’m TAing…


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