Guest essay by Jim Steele, Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University
In “Years of Living Dangerously” Hollywood’s Don Cheadle partners with Christian climate scientist Katharine Heyhoe to convince fellow Christians that they should trust the climate scientists who blame the misery brought by a Texas drought on rising CO2. Indeed in times of natural climate calamities, people suffer and become insecure as they confront nature’s awesome power.
Unfortunately that is when charlatans exploit their misery, making it truly a time of living dangerously. Quick interviews with ranchers who still believe the drought was caused naturally or by God was a feeble attempt to suggest it is religion that has blinded ranchers to the purported “science” of catastrophic climate change. Instead the documentary evoked memories of the 1956 movie “The Rainmaker.” Rancher Noah Curry tells Burt Lancaster (who is playing the Bill Starbuck the rainmaker), “We don’t believe in rainmakers!” Lancaster snaps back, “What do you believe in mistah? Dyin’ cattle?” Cheadle and Heyhoe were employing the age old rainmaker’s trick of exploiting natural catastrophes and human misery. I have documented similar ploys here, here, here, here and here.
The ranchers’ belief in natural drought cycles actually grew from life long experiences, and most will tell you the 1950-1957 drought was likely much more devastating. Even Heyhoe admits the cycle of floods one year and droughts the next is the norm for Texas. The research by ten NOAA climate scientists also supports the ranchers’ belief, and their climate models indicated that at least 80% of Texas’s drought was due to the cooling of the eastern Pacific Ocean associated with La Nina and the natural cycles of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.1 In fact most climate scientists have shown that droughts and floods in the American southwest are the result of ocean cycles,2,3,4,5 but Cheadle and Heyhoe did not share such research. Climate models driven by CO2 had predicted extreme drying in the southwest during the 80s and 90s. But those model predictions failed due to misunderstanding ocean cycles.2 Actual observations revealed a trend of increasing precipitation during the 80s and 90s due to more El Ninos. The most recent drought has occurred as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) reversed again to its cool phase, just like devastating Texas droughts of the 50s that happened when the PDO entered its cool phase and promoted more La Ninas.
The NOAA’s models did suggest that perhaps 20% could be blamed on human caused climate change but researchers warned:
“There are various difficulties in interpreting such an analysis and assessing its relevance to understanding observations. First, no summertime warming over Texas in the long historical record has been detected, and we emphasized in this paper that the CMIP5 model-simulated Texas warming over the last century is inconsistent with observations…based on CMIP5 experiments, these estimates of changes in event probability drawn solely from CMIP5 must be viewed with great caution.”1 [emphasis added]
Instead of driving to west Texas, Cheadle merely had to look at the Plainview TX temperature trends found online from the US Historical Climate Network to confirm that had been no climate warming.
Instead, to counter the beliefs of those Christian ranchers who had actually experienced those natural drought cycles, Heyhoe and Cheadle highlighted a statistical virtual reality – a “hockey-stick graph” of global warming. But the global average temperature is a chimera of many different climate dynamics and artificial adjustments. Droughts and heat waves are not global, but regional phenomenon. It is disturbing that Heyhoe, who has been hailed as a Christian committed to the truth in both science and faith, committed major sins of omission. The truth is there has been no climate warming in Texas. If Heyhoe was truly promoting objective climate science, she should have included the science of natural cycles and addressed why Texas had been getting wetter in the 80s and 90s and why it had not warmed during te 20th century.
But perhaps her misleading presentation was not all Heyhoe’s doing. One of the chief science advisors for this fearful climate documentary is the rabid CO2 advocate Joe Romm. Romm has previously teamed with the advocacy journal Nature to publish opinion pieces that CO2 is causing global “Dustbowlification”. Romm also uses his blog ClimateProgress to attack those scientists who have demonstrated that in fact natural ocean cycles have driven most droughts. That would explain the slanted drought presentation.
It is also the only reasonable explanation for the outlandish attempt to marry the civil war in Syria to rising CO2. Natural climate change does create insecurity. However Romm’s concern about the Dustbowlification proves slightly schizophrenic. While climate scientists have shown that the ocean surface temperatures are the best predictor of regional droughts, the extremes of the American Dust Bowl can only be explained when degradation of the landscape is also taken into account.6 Likewise the drought in Syria can not be understood without understanding how politics have altered the Syrian landscape. I thought NY Time’s journalist Thomas Freidman who has studied Middle East conflicts for decades would provide that historical background. But Freidman’s role was to marry the current Syrian drought to the simplistic notion that CO2 had caused climate change and thus the war, and landscape and political causes of stressed farmers were never brought to light.
The Syrian revolution has indeed been led by hungry displaced farmers. But to blame CO2 is simply climate fear mongering. To understand the enormous complexity of the problem I suggest reading “Unsustainable land use in Syria: Drivers of Unsustainable Land Use in the Semi-Arid Khabur River Basin, Syria”7 by Yale University’s Dr. Frank Hole. Scientist know this region’s climate is highly variable and we know from “archaeology and history that settlements in this semi-arid steppe have expanded on cycles of 200–300 years of good weather and retreated on cycles of 1000 or more years of poor weather and political instability.” Recently multiyear droughts happened in 1968–1971, 1997–1998, 1999–2000 and 2000–2001. “A drought in 1961 resulted in the loss of 80% of the camel population and nearly50% of sheep.” 7
“In 1940, the Khabur could be considered a self-sustaining steppe [a semi-arid grass and shrub land] for the pasturing of camels and sheep, with highly productive rain-fed agriculture, and equally productive gravity irrigation along stretches of the river. Fishing and hunting of wild gazelle were important contributors to the diet. Both are now extinct, with no foreseeable possibility of regeneration.” 7
A dramatic drying of this region began during the Little Ice Age, forcing many tribes to abandon fixed settlements and adopt a nomadic lifestyle. The vast steppe then became controlled by migratory tribes who pastured camels and sheep seasonally, holding the land in common according to well-established customary tribal law. The tribes migrated with sheep and camels to fresh pastures on an annual cycle, which allowed vegetation to regenerate and also support herds of gazelle. The closing of the border between Syria and Turkey in the 1940s curtailed some of the traditional movements of Syria’s nomadic tribes, which once migrated into the pastures of Turkey’s Taurus Mountains during summer.
The American DustBowl had been created in part when the government subsidized wheat prices to meet the demand during World War I. This resulted in a loss of native buffalo grass that sustained the semiarid American west. An area the size of state of Ohio was quickly ploughed to plant wheat. When prices fell and governments no longer guaranteed farmers a high price, many abandoned the land. Without natural vegetation to hold the soil, when the natural cycle of droughts began the Dust Bowl ensued. Similarly the “demand for grain during the Second World War encouraged expansion of Syrian agriculture. In the early 1950s, when the new Syrian State abolished tribal land tenure, that agriculture, supported by mechanical ploughs, expanded on to virgin steppe but most proved to be unproductive.” Much of the land degradation has been the result of deep that ploughing that removed native vegetation and exposed soil to wind and water erosion, as well as destroying much of its organic content. It is no coincidence that many of Syria’s revolutionary leaders are failed cotton farmers who once depended on the whims of government subsidies.7
Syria’s Khabur River is a principal tributary of the Euphrates and flows entirely within Syria. However it is largely fed from limestone springs that are recharged by precipitation that falls in the adjacent Turkish mountains. Huge increases in the use of groundwater for irrigation in both Turkey and Syria have left the fields dry that depended on drawing irrigation water from the springs and upper course of the Khabur River. Furthermore recently built dams in Turkey now control the flow of water into Syria and the amount of water allowed to reach Syria and Iraq is now wielded as a political weapon. 7
As refugees dramatically increased Syria’s population, they added greater and greater stress on a landscape already in serious decline. While regional strife increased the flow of refugees into Syria, it also limited the flow of incoming water. “In 1987, Turkey guaranteed a minimum water flow of 500 cubic metes per second and Syria, in return, promised to cooperate in security matters. A few months later, Turkey complained about terrorist activities and accused Syria of supporting. Turkey allegedly hinted at a cut in the flow of Euphrates water to Syria over Syrian support for Kurdish terrorists. In January 1990, Turkey completely stopped the flow of the Euphrates [emphasis added]. The official justification for the interruption was to fill the lake behind the Ataturk Dam and the interruption was intended to be only for one month. Behind the scenes, this interruption was an indirect threat to Syria for its continued support of the PKK. Turkey did not care about Iraq’s reaction as Syria and Iraq were bitter enemies; however, Turkey’s actions united both Iraq and Syria against it.”10
The myriad of factors stressing the revolutionary farmers is very complex. Obviously blaming Syria’s water woes on CO2 is a simple-minded ploy. But one could still argue that “unprecedented climate change” had exacerbated any problems created by bad government and landscape abuse. However as in Texas, there are no unprecedented climate trends other than those created locally by landscape abuse. Historical records of droughts in Turkey’s Anatolia and neighboring countries corroborate the data furnished by tree-ring widths to indicate that cycles of major droughts and famine events have occurred in 1725, 1757, 1887, 1890–1891, 1893–1894 and 1927–1928, long before rising CO2 could play a role. As seen in Fig. 5 the lack of recent precipitation is a minor bump in the road when compared to records over the past 350 years.9
And as in Texas, based on proxy data there has been no “global warming” in this region either. Tree ring researchers striving to put recent temperatures into a historical context concluded, “Low-frequency variations, which were associated with the medieval warm period and the little ice age, were identified in the winter-to- spring temperature reconstruction, however, the twentieth century warming trend found elsewhere could not be identified in our temperature proxy record.”8 [emphasis added]
The third segment of the documentary exposed how government corruption was destroying the Indonesian ecosystem. However anyone concerned about deforestation should ask why Harrison Ford failed to mention the most powerful driver of Indonesia’s disappearing rain forests and the endangerment of the Orangtuans. It is not climate change, but climate fear mongering. Politicians have used climate fear to justify government handouts in the form of subsidies for planting more corn in America, sugar cane in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia. These subsidies have upset world food markets and destroyed efforts to protect wild lands. In the 2013 research article “The EU Biofuel Policy and Palm Oil: Cutting subsidies or cutting rainforest?” by The International Institute for Sustainable Development, they report the European Union alone has provided $11 billion dollars in biofuel subsidies and the bulk of that has subsidized palm oil for the biodiesel industry. I loved Harrison Ford for his ability to provide such gripping Hollywood illusions as Indiana Jones, but I am deeply troubled by his current role in distorting climate reality.
The emotional, virtual realities created by modern technology can indeed be dangerous. The speed of modern communication and the ease by which our fears can be exploited demands that we become better critical thinkers. The baby boom’s motto of the 60s to question authority is more important now than ever. We all can fall victim to our own predilections and be blinded by our beliefs. Only respectful debate can free us from our illusions. Unfortunately people like Joe Romm who are pushing climate catastrophe, also argue that the debate is over. Increasingly alarmists demand that skeptics should be banned from public forums and seek to “deny the deniers the right to deny”. They want us to only believe that the Hollywood illusions presented in “Years of Living Dangerously” are the real truth. Yet their sins of omission and the distortion of published science illustrates why, now more than ever, more climate debate is needed.
1.Hoerling et al (2013) Anatomy of an Extreme Event. Journal of Climate, vol. 26
2. Dai (2012) The influence of the inter-decadal Pacific oscillation on US precipitation during 1923–2010. Climate Dynamics, vol
3. Seager, R. et al. (2008) Drought in the Southeastern United States: Causes, Variability over the Last Millennium, and the Potential for Future Hydroclimate Change. Journal of Climate, vol. 22, p. 5021-5047.
4. Cook, E., et al., (2004) Long-Term Aridity Changes in the Western United States. Science 306, 1015-1018.
5. Herweijer,C., et al., (2007) North American Droughts of the Last Millennium from a Gridded Network of Tree-Ring Data. Journal of Climate, vol. 20, p. 1353-1376.
6. Cook, B., et al., (2011) Atmospheric circulation anomalies during two persistent North American droughts: 1932–1939 and 1948–1957. Climate Dynamics, vol. 36, p. 2339–2355
7. Hole (2009) Unsustainable land use in Syria Drivers of Unsustainable Land Use in the Semi-Arid
Khabur River Basin, Syria. Geographical Research March 2009 47(1):4–14
8. Heinrich (2013) Winter-to-spring temperature dynamics in Turkey derived from tree rings since AD 1125. Clim Dyn 41:1685–1701
9. Akkemik (2005) A preliminary reconstruction (A.D. 1635–2000) of spring precipitation
using oak tree rings in the western Black Sea region of Turkey. Int J Biometeorol 49:297–302
10. Hipel (2014) Strategic Investigations of Water Conflicts in the MiddleEast. Group Decis Negot (2014) 23:355–376
11. (2013) The EU Biofuel Policy and Palm Oil: Cutting subsidies or cutting rainforest?” The International Institute for Sustainable Development