Saturday, March 2nd 2013, 5:16 PM EST
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History By William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman 352 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99.
As the ghastly weather of 1816 persisted, observers naturally tried to divine the cause of their distress. The favored explanation among the learned was Sunspots.
When a massive volcano exploded in 1816, it plunged temperatures around the world. Mark Hertsgaard on the eerie parallels between this catastrophe and climate change in our own time.
The terms “global warming” and “climate change” never once appear in this book, but in relating the history of a literally earth-shaking event that occurred 200 years ago, the authors of The Year Without Summer - Amazon Link: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History By William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman 352 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99. -The Year Without Summer have described a past that resembles our present in ways so uncanny, so numerous and fundamental, that the reader can only hope that Marx’s dictum—history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce—will turn out to be wrong this time around.
The earth-shaking event in question? Not a military battle, not the overthrow of a government, the invention of a revolutionary technology, or any of the other human-centric themes that preoccupy most history books. No, this event’s protagonists were natural forces: a volcano whose eruption was the most powerful in recorded history, and the many changes that the volcano’s smoke and ash triggered on this planet.
The volcano, named Tambora and located on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, exploded on April 5, 1816. As superheated liquid rock and gas gushed down the mountainside, an estimated 12,000 local people perished within 24 hours.
But a far greater, and distant, death toll was yet to come. As the eruption’s detritus rose into the sky, it cohered into an aerosol cloud the size of Australia. Winds then blew this cloud westward across the continents, over Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Invisibly small, the droplets of sulfuric acid that formed this cloud were too light to fall to earth through gravity’s pull yet had enough mass to reflect some of the sun’s incoming rays back to space. The result was a dramatic shift in global temperatures. Before the year was out, weather on much of the planet had turned strange, nasty, brutal, and, above all, extremely cold.
Cold? Come again? Doesn’t that repudiate any linkage to global warming? On the contrary: it highlights the first parallel between the Tambora eruption and our own day’s experience with climate change, including a long-running misreading of what is actually taking place in the physical world we inhabit.
The concept of man-made global warming was decisively put on the public agenda 25 years ago this June, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the U.S. Senate that an increase in greenhouse-gas emissions, begun by the extensive burning of fossil fuel during the 18th century Industrial Revolution, had significantly raised average global temperatures. After The New York Times reported Hansen’s testimony on the front page, “global warming” became a common phrase the world over. Even conservative politicians such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President George H. W. Bush urged action, with Bush pledging to “counter the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”
But behind the scenes, fossil-fuel companies were mobilizing to defuse this threat. They invested millions of dollars in a disinformation campaign that aimed to “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact,” according to an internal strategy memo. Attacking the science was key, which is where volcanic eruptions enter the story.
In 1991, a volcano in the Philippines named Pinatubo erupted. Like Tambora, Pinatubo unleashed an aerosol cloud that blocked some of the sun’s rays from entering the atmosphere, thereby lowering global temperatures. It turned out to be a very convenient development for deniers of climate change, for they could then point to an apparent flattening of global temperatures in the early 1990s to discount Hansen’s assertion that man-made global warming had begun.
Of course, scientists explained that Pinatubo’s aerosol cloud was merely masking the underlying warming trend temporarily. And sure enough, the trend reappeared in the mid-1990s, after Pinatubo’s cloud had dispersed. By then, however, the disinformation campaign had planted enough doubt that denial of climate change was established as a valid point of view in the U.S., especially in Washington, D.C., where it continues to thwart government action to this day.
Parallel No. 2: One of the deniers’ favorite talking points has been that even if the “alarmists” are right and greenhouse-gas emissions raise global temperatures by a few degrees, so what? Well, tell that to the victims of Tambora’s weather-shifting eruption. The Year Without Summer describes in meticulous, sometimes heartbreaking detail how even a small change in average temperatures can profoundly affect the day-to-day weather that humans encounter.
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