That Time Climate Change Wasn’t Real
Imagine for a second that global warming isn’t real. Let’s say it’s just a myth made up by the climate control-industrial complex to sell more air conditioners. We wouldn’t have to worry about melting ice caps or extreme weather events. We could laugh at the stupid scientists for getting all worked up over nothing. And we’d have plenty of time to enjoy this brief interglacial period before the North American continent is once again buried beneath miles of snow and ice.
But alas, climate change is real.
We’ve had scientific consensus on the subject for over thirty years now. There’s no denying it.
But that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. In fact, the United States is ground zero for the climate change denial epidemic.
But we haven’t always been so against climate change.
About 140 years ago, Americans were lobbying for human-caused climate change. But it wasn’t real. It actually was a myth. And it had disastrous consequences for many who believed in it.
But it might explain why science hasn’t been enough to stop climate change denial today.
In the late 19th century, Manifest Destiny had taken a hold of the United States. Millions of homesteaders were moving westward, looking to stake a claim on their very own piece of America.
But an invisible boundary stood in their way — the 100th meridian west.
This was a line of longitude that ran through a region of the US that President Thomas Jefferson once described as “immense and trackless deserts.” Sitting between the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest, the area wasn’t really a desert — not in the way we think of deserts today anyway. It wasn’t all sand dunes and cacti but little rain and lack of trees for lumber made it an undesirable place to try and make a go of it. Most settlers passed it by in search of more promising farmland on the other side of continent.
This ran counter to everything Manifest Destiny stood for. The settlement of the West was not just a suggestion — it was a mandate from God. Every corner of this great continent was to be inhabited by hard-working American patriots. After all, the federal government had expended no small effort taking that land from the indigenous people who lived there. They weren’t about to leave it empty.
Luckily, some scientists found an answer.
Rain follows the plow.
This was the idea that human settlement in the West could actually change the climate. An area of the continent might at first appear too arid or dry for sustainable farming but the act of plowing the terrain and modifying the landscape for cultivation would actually cause more rainfall, and therefore, more favorable living conditions.
Hence, rain follows the plow.
This was not a new idea.
“Rain follows the plow” had been a myth almost as old the United States itself. Only toward the end to the 1800s did a handful of scientists and academic institutions (some of them even respectable) picked up on the idea and took it seriously.
But how the theory actually worked was hazy at best.
Some argued that the tilling of the soil released moisture locked in the ground. This made the air more humid and eventually contributed to an increase in precipitation.
But some hypothesized that just the mere movement of settlers into these lands — the very establishment of a human presence — was enough to make the heavens rain. Vigorous farm work and human activity caused vibrations in the air that somehow triggered the water vapor to spontaneously condense into rain. Some went as far to say that the construction of telegraph lines and the laying down of railroads was enough to boost rainfall.
This led to upstart rainmakers offering to dynamite the sky. They reasoned that, if the slight vibrations of human activity can make it rain, the enormous vibrations produced by an explosion would produce an equally enormous amount of rain — for the right price.
Whatever the explanation, evidence for “rain follows the plow” soon materialized.
In the 1870s and 1880s, some states that lay within the 100th meridian experienced more rainfall than usual. This happened to coincide with an influx of settlers to the region. Many scientists took this as proof that hard-working American patriots actually were changing the climate.
This elevated “rain follows the plow” from folk myth to scientific theory (I’m using the term theory very loosely here). The data was scant — it only covered a handful of years — but that didn’t stop scientists (and showmen masquerading as scientists) from lobbying for Rain Follows the Plow and presenting lectures to audiences who were primed to believe it.
But the biggest proponent was the railroad industry.
Since joining the West Coast with the East via the first transcontinental railroad, the railroad industry had been busy expanding its network of rail lines all throughout the country. But the construction of railroads wasn’t cheap — especially through the rugged, unforgiving American West. Banks often refused to give railroad companies loans for fear they’d never be able to pay them back. But the federal government was keen on expanding into the West so they gave the railroad companies millions of acres of public land, much of it smack dab underneath the 100th meridian. To help fund the construction of railroads, the railroad companies sold their property to land speculators.
But if your land is part of an immense and trackless desert, finding a buyer can be tough.
So the railroad companies started promoting “rain follows the plow” in their advertisements to land buyers.
And it worked.
Convinced that this worthless land would be in high demand in short order — and thus a profitable investment — land speculators began buying up the railroad’s land grants. These speculators then sold these as plots of farmland to prospective homesteaders.
But “rain follows the plow” didn’t just appeal to the avarice of railroad companies and land speculators. It was especially alluring to settlers. If Manifest Destiny told them they could remake an entire continent in the image of an ideal America, “rain follows the plow” said they could do the same with the climate.
So millions of emigrants from the East, Canada, and Europe flooded into the western Great Plains, where land speculators — scrupulous or not — sold them land unsuitable for cultivation. In Nebraska alone, over the course of the 1880s, the population more than doubled.
And soon disaster struck.
A series of prolonged droughts hit the region in the 1890s. Any evidence of increased rainfall disappeared. Crops died or failed to germinate. Instead of bringing rain, the plowed soil turned to dust, fueling sandstorms that inundated the landscape and blocked out the Sun.
Farmers were forced to import feed for their livestock. They then turned around and slaughtered them so their families didn’t starve. Many settlers abandoned their homes. Real estate values plummeted and the economy collapsed. Merchants went out of business and banks failed. Up and down the length of the 100th meridian, those who stayed faced severe poverty, homelessness, and hardship. The local economy didn’t begin to recover until the end of the century.
But “rain follows the plow” never recovered. It was done as a scientific theory. The idea of Manifest Destiny itself would disappear too as territorial expansion across the continent came to an end.
But the idea of human-caused climate change would return.
And this time it would be real.
Global warming was first proposed in the late 19th century but evidence that it was actually happening didn’t materialize until the 1950s. By the late 1980s, enough proof had been amassed that scientists were sounding the alarm.
Humans actually were changing the climate. But this time it wasn’t just the western Great Plains — it was the entire planet.
And unlike “rain follows the plow”, hard evidence for anthropogenic climate change spanned decades — centuries even.
Like the railroad companies that came before, the fossil fuel industry took a keen interest in the science of climate change. Most of the energy in the world comes from the burning of fossil fuels. But the revelation that the burning of fossil fuel could be disastrous for the climate threatened to be equally disastrous for their bottomline.
So they launched a campaign to dispute the science.
In a strange mirroring of the railroad industry’s efforts to promote “rain follows the plow,” fossil fuel lobbyists propped up contrarian scientists who disagreed with the consensus on climate change. Just as scientists in the 19th century presented rainfall data that suited their agenda, the fossil fuel industry cherry-picked climate observations that made it seem like global warming wasn’t actually happening.
Whether or not the railroad industry actually believed “rain follows the plow” is hard to know. There were certainly a fair number of esteemed scientists and academics espousing the theory to give it a modicum of credibility. But science back then wasn’t always an exact science so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the railroad industry accepted the dubious observational data behind the theory without question.
But it is evident that the fossil fuel industry did know that climate change was real. They were well aware that the burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming and had been aware of it since at least the late 1970s.
Yet they denied it anyway.
By sowing doubt among the general public, the fossil fuel lobby — in conjunction with conservative think tanks — impeded taking action on the global climate by influencing the overall political climate.
It didn’t help that the media gave them a signal boost, providing inordinate airtime to climate change denial and further clouding the science in the eyes of the general public
If the spread of telegraph lines across the old West was enough to coax rain out of the sky, the advent of the internet initiated a proverbial flood of websites, discussion forums, and blog posts spreading misinformation — even declaring global warming an outright conspiracy or myth.
And climate change denial exploded.
The fossil fuel industry poured a ton of money into their campaign against climate change. But it might not have been so successful if they hadn’t been telling it to an audience who was primed to believe it.
In the 19th century, settlers and scientists alike believed in climate change because it fit nicely within the national mythology of the time. Today, Americans and those who aspire to a supersized American lifestyle are inclined to deny climate change because it doesn’t.
To be fair, blaming humans for global warming isn’t quite accurate. A third of the surplus CO2 in our atmosphere right now was put there by less than 5 percent of the world’s population. So you could argue that most humans had very little to do with global warming. Much of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of a single country — the United States. Per capita, Americans contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere than any other nationality.
It might be more precise to call it American-made climate change.
This is largely because of our way of life.
Compared to the rest of the world, Americans own larger homes, drive more cars, and use more energy than every other nation except China — but China has more than four times our population. Throughout the 20th century, our very conception of what it means to be an American became irrevocably tied to a rampant consumer culture. Gone were the days of Manifest Destiny where the American Dream lay somewhere hundreds of miles away in the untamed Wild West. Now a hard working American patriot need only take a trip to the department store or dealership or real estate agency to obtain their piece of the American Dream. After all, the US has more shopping malls than high schools.
As the US became pitched in an ideological battle with Communism, the American way of life became a global export. Just as Manifest Destiny reshaped the American West, the American ideals of freedom, capitalism, and unbridled consumerism began to reshape the Western world. But as it turned out, tying your national identity to the amount of goods and services you consume burns a whole lot of fossil fuel.
Here’s where it becomes clear that global warming denial isn’t about whether or not the climate is actually changing — it’s about a refusal to accept that a certain way of life is changing. This is why climate change denial roughly breaks down along party lines. Conservatives are overwhelmingly more likely to deny climate change because the shear magnitude of societal and economic adjustment necessary to effectively combat global warming goes against much of their core ideology.
This makes climate change as much a cultural issue as an environmental one. And to fix it, we not only have to modify our behavior, we have to reevaluate some of our most cherished beliefs.
Not an easy prospect.
It took a disaster to bring an end to “rain follows the plow”. A serious enough climate catastrophe might be necessary to silence global warming deniers once and for all.
But even that might not be enough.
Even though “rain follows the plow” was rejected as a scientific theory by the end of the 19th century, it persisted as superstition and myth for decades after. The US Weather Bureau was fielding claims that farming was influencing the climate well into the 1930s. So as the effects of global warming become too great to ignore, climate change denial might recede into myth, but it could take a whole generation before it is completely wiped from our collective memory.
Public opinion is shifting though.
A Monmouth University poll showed that, over the last three years, the percentage of Republicans who believe in climate change has jumped from 49% to 64% — a whopping 15 point increase. But only 13% say it is caused by human activity. However, regardless of your stance on climate change, the poll found that a majority of people — irrespective of political affiliation — doubted the government was going to anything about it.
Even if global warming doesn’t make us change the American way of life, it will change the American landscape. It already has. Sea level rise, wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events are reshaping the continent more than Manifest Destiny ever could. It’s even moving the 100th meridian. (Well, not the line of longitude of course. That’s staying right where the cartographers put it.) The arid conditions that typified that stretch of the United States are growing and shifting eastward. Over the last century, it has expanded by about 140 miles. By the end of the 21st century, we could see the once rich farmland of the Midwest reduced to another “immense and trackless” desert.
In that sense, “rain follows the plow” wasn’t entirely a myth. Americans did change the climate. It just took a little longer than advertised.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long to change ourselves.
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