History Lessons on Global Warming

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Eye from Albany
May 2001

History Lessons on Global Warming
by Paul M. Bray

Global warming is about the human impact on climate. Our political leaders are badly stumbling by avoiding to curb carbon dioxide emissions. They forget the lessons learned in the 19th century about the menace of environmental misuse by humans.

In the mid-1860s Vermonter George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature, a book that reshaped attitudes towards conservation and led to the creation of the New York?s constitutionally protected ?forever wild? forest preserve. Looking back over the great civilizations like the Roman Empire to find out why they collapsed into barbarians, Marsh wrote that it was because of their abuse of their natural environment upon which their own prosperity depended. Destruction of forests, for example, sets off a chain of a chain of consequences that included climate change when rain became scarcer without the evaporative powers of forests.

Marsh?s message was heard by the New York legislature which stopped the forest degradation in the Adirondack Mountains in order to protect the watershed of the Hudson River and Erie Canal. What New York did was also done by Congress by enacting the Forest Reserves Act in 1891 to set aside large tracts of forest land at the headwaters of major rivers. Environmental historian, William Cronon observed that: ?Although not all of Marsh?s diagnoses have been fully confirmed by subsequent scientific research, in the main his arguments have held up remarkably well?.

Almost eighty years ago a young and up in coming State Senator, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spoke in Troy, New York about the political aspect of conservation and Marsh?s lesson. Roosevelt said that Americans had successfully achieved the benefits of liberty of the individual including freedom of speech and religion, but still faced the challenge of attaining liberty of the community. By that he meant the necessary policies and laws to protect our common environment.

Here we are again facing potentially disastrous environmental degradation. This time it is climate change and sea level rise caused by human generated green house gas emissions. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases pose a threat to ecosystems, water supplies, public health, coastlines and agriculture.

Now that President Bush has egregiously slammed the door on regulating the emission of carbon dioxide, the most damaging greenhouse gas, the ball is in the court of states like New York. Unlike other states like New Jersey, California and New Hampshire, we in Albany are only beginning to see the first stirring of interest in global warming.

Kirk Johnson in the New York Times reported that, ?In the New York metropolitan area and in other cities and state, ordinary people in corporations and government-engineers, teachers and bureaucrats-are quietly beginning to plan for a future in which climate and geography may be decidedly different?. I noticed recently in the trade magazine Outdoor Retailer that ski and snowboard retailers are worried about the ?threat of global warming? affecting their bottom line. Even utilities like Consolidated Edison have favored clear targets and timetables for reducing discharge of carbon dioxide.

In light of this it is curious how deaf the Albany political establishment has been to global warming while all around people and institutions are responding to the threats from entering a long, hot century.

Yet, there are many reasons why state and national politicians have been behind the curve on climate change including the great financial and therefor political clout of vested coal and oil interests and that carbon dioxide is a gas that is not dirty, toxic pollutant that rallies the public. Once the energy industry part of the equation is addressed, the much tougher target to get under control, the tail pipe, will have to be addressed with politically difficult solutions like a carbon tax affecting motor vehicle.

Look for global warming to move up on the political agenda chart in Albany. The Governor will increasingly tout his open space protection efforts, carbon sinks, and efforts to replace older oil burning generators with cleaner, natural gas burning generators. Bills will be introduced to regulate the discharge of green house gases and get the insurance industry to address the risks we are likely to face from climate change.

If Albany is really responsive, it will follow New Jersey in developing a greenhouse gas action plan with ?wide-ranging strategies involving energy efficiency, pollution prevention, innovative technologies, waste management, recycling and open space preservation?. Perhaps the stage will be set for global warming next year to be the environmental centerpiece of legislation that we always have preceding statewide elections.

Stay tuned to see whether Marsh?s 19th century lesson about the effects of human activity on the environment and Roosevelt?s thoughts about liberty of the community will guide us in the 21st century.