Equal Climates

Friday, August 11, 2017


U.S. secretary of agriculture Sonny Perdue meets with German minister of food and agriculture Christian Schmidt, 2017. Photograph by Preston Keres / USDA Office of Communications. 

According to NASA, 97 percent of published scientists agree that global warming is occurring. Despite the evidence, climate-change deniers abound—including Scott Pruitt, the recently appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a 2016 National Review article, Pruitt and Luther Strange (then the Alabama attorney general and now a U.S. senator) wrote: “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming.” The issue intensified this year, when in February the USDA waged a linguistic strike, instructing employees to avoid using certain terms. The Guardian reports on the ban:

Under guidance from the agency’s director of soil health, Bianca Moebius-Clune, a list of phrases to be avoided includes “climate change” and “climate change adaptation,” to be replaced by “weather extremes” and “resilience to weather extremes.”

Also blacklisted is the scary locution “reduce greenhouse gases”—and here, the agency’s linguists have done an even better job of camouflage: the new and approved term is “increase nutrient use efficiency.”

It is true that the next year “unprecedented” coral bleaching blamed on rising temperatures destroyed vast swaths of the state’s reefs: from Key Biscayne to Fort Lauderdale, a survey found that “about two-thirds were dead or reduced to less than half of their live tissue.” Still, it’s possible that they simply need to increase their nutrient use efficiency.

At the federal level, the new policy has yet to show clear-cut success either. As the say-no-evil policy has rolled out in the early months of the Trump presidency, it coincided with the onset of a truly dramatic “flash drought” across much of the nation’s wheat belt.

350 BC

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) arguing in The School of Athens, by Raphael, c. 1509–10. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

While environmental scientists warn of rising sea levels in the twenty-first century, ancient Athenians worried that the sea was going to dry up. Any fluctuation in climate was understandably disastrous for an agricultural society, and natural philosophers took the issue seriously. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus discussed permanent weather change in On Winds, concluding that if the Cretans are correct about colder winters, a certain type of wind must be increasing in frequency. But Aristotle himself disagreed and argued against climate-change fearmongering in his geological treatise Meteorology, telling us we have nothing to worry about—climate is cyclical:

Anyone who thinks like Democritus that the sea is diminishing and will disappear in the end reminds us of Aesop's tales. His story was that Charybdis had twice sucked in the sea: the first time she made the mountains visible; the second time the islands; and when she sucks it in for the last time she will dry it up entirely. Such a tale is appropriate enough to Aesop in a rage with the ferryman, but not to serious inquirers. Whatever made the sea remain at first, whether it was its weight, or some other reason—clearly the same thing must make it persist for ever. They must either deny that the water raised by the sun will return at all, or, if it does, they must admit that the sea persists forever or as long as this process goes on, and again, that for the same period of time that sweet water must have been carried up beforehand. So the sea will never dry up.

This notion about the sea is derived from the fact that many places are found to be drier now than they once were. The phenomenon is due to temporary excess of rain and not to any process of becoming in which the universe or its parts are involved. Someday the opposite will take place and after that the earth will grow dry once again. We must recognize that this process always goes on thus in a cycle, for that is more satisfactory than to suppose a change in the whole world in order to explain these facts. But we have dwelt longer on this point than it deserves.