Early European settlers in North America ignored weather patterns with disastrous results. Lesson: government must address global warming

The Spring 2018 issue of Jewish Currents had my latest “Left is right” article that uses the latest research to show that the left position on environmental issues is the correct one: that the government has a role in addressing climate change and that the best way to do so is with regulation and not market solutions.

There are no current plans to post the article on the Jewish Currents website so I thought I would give you a taste of it in hopes that you will buy the issue to read the whole piece, and maybe even start a subscription. Jewish Currents is a leading left-wing journal of politics and the arts.

Here’s the excerpt:

Another recent book about how weather affects human history, historian Sam White’s (Ohio State) A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America, reminds us that the 21st century is not the first time that Europeans in North America have ignored the climate or tried to impose their will on it, thereby creating human disasters. In the 16th century, several European nations founded a number of settlements in North America, yet any attempt to colonize north of Florida ended disastrously with crop failures, deaths from freezing, famine, cannibalism, and retreat. White documents how European arrogance in reaction to the Little Ice Age, which peaked in the 1500s, contributed to their many failed settlement attempts.

Following the Greeks and Romans, the European science of that time postulated that all geographic regions at every latitude would have the same weather. The weather in New York would be the same as in Madrid, in Quebec as in Paris, in the north of Canada as in London. In every case, of course, the weather was and is much colder and subject to more extremes in the North American locale than in the European city at the same latitude. Despite the evidence before their eyes, however, European settlers and adventurers assumed and prepared for the milder European clime. Promoters of North American settlements who had experienced the harsh North American winters of the Little Ice Age first hand nevertheless painted a rosy picture of mild climes and long growing seasons for the folks back home. Royal governments, which commissioned and financed the settlements, tended to believe this nonsense.

Europeans also ignorantly assumed that the same crops and domesticated animals they cultivated in Europe would transfer readily to the New World, and that they could grow the crops at the same time of year. Thus attempts by the Spanish to grow winter wheat and barley and raise goats and sheep in Florida ended in complete failure. Bad harvest after bad harvest led to cannibalism during the “starving time” that the English colony at Jamestown endured later in the century. Like the Spanish, the English ignored the empirical truth of the weather they encountered — and the recommendations of Native Americans — instead arrogantly persisting in ideas disproved time and again.

Europeans finally learned the way humans have always learned: through observation of empirical phenomena and the accumulation of evidence. With an assist from the warming climate, Europeans applied the knowledge gained from observation and learned how to survive and thrive in North America, building permanent encampments from the beginning of the 17th century onward.

We are just at the beginning of studying how groups of humans have responded to climate change through recorded history. The examples of the Roman Empire and the European early experience in North America came during the only periods of sudden weather change in the 2100 years before the 20th century, and suggest that organized intervention under the aegis of government has often helped human populations adjust to the effects of climate change, while ignoring climate change leads to disaster. Other examples — the actions of the Egyptian government to combat the famine described in Genesis, the British and French governments’ differing responses to the Black Plague, and the lack of response of the Ming dynasty to the famine of the 1660s — all strengthen the premise that government intervention works a lot better than doing nothing. Keep in mind that until about 1800, human activity was not a major factor in causing temperatures to turn warmer or colder, and that it took another century to develop the tools to measure its impact.

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