We’ve Known About Climate Change For 200 Years

Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl-era “Migrant Mother” was another warning Americans ignored.

Rising sea levels threaten to drown over 13,000 American historical sites up and down the east coast over the next century. That’s according to a new study from the Panel on Climate Change, which found that in addition to displacing millions of people, engorged oceans may soon swallow the Kennedy Space Center, an historic North Carolina light house and, perhaps most ironically, Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Why is this ironic? Because the destruction of Europeans’ first permanent home here would be the culmination of America’s long and very willful ignorance on climate change.

While the term “climate change” is relatively new, warnings about environmental abuse in the States are not: President James Madison warned in 1818 that “injurious and excessive destruction of timber” would result in atmospheric calamity;  Zachariah Allen wrote in 1832, “the pioneer of the western forest seems to have taken a pleasure in devoting to destruction every noble tree… These, if spared, might have furnished him refreshing shade to himself and his children after;” and Congressman George Perkins Marsh raised the specter of climate change in 1847: “It is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.”

Most damning, perhaps, is the Interior Department’s 1861 warning about Americans’ widespread “ruthlessness” and “utter disregard” for the forests.

“It is lamentable in view of present ruthlessness, and the demands of posterity, to observe the utter disregard manifested by the American people, not merely for the preservation of extensive groves, but the indifference which they exhibit for valuable trees, the destruction of which is not necessary to good cultivation, and the existence whereof would not only add greatly to the value of their property, but contribute vastly to the health, the fertility of their farms, and the comfort of their livestock.” Deforestation produces “injurious consequences, not only to the present, but to future generations.”

And Rev. Frederick Starr made similar pleas in an 1869 Agriculture Department report: “There are few subjects so closely connected with the wants of society, the general health of the people, the salubrity of our climate, the production of our soils, and the increase of our national wealth, as our forests.” Our “improvident waste,” he said, will be our undoing. Again, as Allen nearly forty years earlier, a lack of foresight was at play, lending itself to an “impending national danger.” We knew the dangers at hand and yet we went blithely along the path of self-destruction, blindly laying waste to forests, farm lands and even our own atmosphere. Now we’re facing the consequences.

Last year there was an article about how people in the island town of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, must flee rising tides, making them, according to reports, America’s “first climate refugees“. That’s not entirely true, though: thousands were displaced during the Dust Bowl, forced to find new homes in new parts of the country. While an uncontrollable drought no doubt contributed to the Dust Bowl, a natural disaster that was and remains unprecedented, over-farming of soil also depleted natural minerals and other goodies that would have kept the soil fresh.

Even after generations of farming, and learning about alternating crops from Indians way back in colonial days, Americans were still abusing the land. We hadn’t learned the lesson then, and we obviously haven’t learned the lesson since.

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