Drought and Climate Change: Is It a Natural Thing?

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With meteorologists struggling to predict drought patterns going into 2013, healthy debate exists about the causes and impacts of climate change.

Published on: November 28, 2012
I don’t know of very many people who deny that the Earth’s climate is changing. But, if you listen to some alarmists, it is changing so rapidly, solely because human activity has caused large releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So, apparently, only Hollywood and the government can save us now.

On the U.S. EPA website on the topic, the headlines are clear. Climate Change is Happening. Humans are Largely Responsible. Climate Change Affects Everyone. We Can Make a Difference.

I’m no scientist or ideologue, just a journalist with a farmer’s cap. But, I think alarmists are relying heavily on two important, but potentially misleading assumptions. First, they contend that climate change is all manmade, and second, that current climate trends, whatever they might be, will continue on the same path forever.

MEGA-DROUGHT: Scientists believe that a mega-drought 800 years ago built Nebraskas Sandhills.
MEGA-DROUGHT: Scientists believe that a mega-drought 800 years ago built Nebraska's Sandhills.

Putting on my farmer’s cap, I contend that the Earth has always been changing, from day one. In fact, there have been long periods before human kind was born and since, when the changes were downright tumultuous. I know this because I’ve watched the animated movie, “Ice Age” at least 25 times with my kids.

With hurricanes and extreme drought gripping the nation this past year, alarmists are out in full force. Yet, these are disasters we have faced before, and will again, not necessarily because of man’s reliance on fossil fuels, but because the Earth is always changing.

Do we need to take climate change seriously? Of course we do. Do farmers need to work to be more sustainable, reduce tillage, build organic matter and reduce reliance on fossil fuels? Sure we do, along with everyone else. Not many folks are arguing about these statements.

Is man the entire cause of climate change? Well, the jury is probably still out, but we can look at history for some clues. If manmade greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change and extreme weather events, then why did we have severe droughts in North America in the 1850s, 1870s, 1890s, 1930s and 1950s, long before the drought of 2012?

Scientists have linked a mega-drought that existed 800 to 1000 years ago, a drought far worse than anything we saw in the 1930s, with the formation of Nebraska’s Sandhills. Was this mega-drought or those of the past 500 years manmade as well? Why are so many folks so certain that these previous droughts were caused by natural cycles, but current weather events are caused by manmade global warming?

At the Heartland Institute’s 7th International Conference on Climate Change in Chicago last May, several scientists concluded that the Earth has seen temperature fluctuations before. According to Western Washington University geologist, Don Easterbrook who spoke at this conference, global cooling took place from the 1940s to the late 1970s, then warming from the 1970s through the 1990s. Now, global temperatures have actually begun to cool again. He expects this trend to continue for another 20 years or so. In fact, Easterbrook documents 40 periods of warming and cooling just like this over the past 500 years, with comparable data going back 15,000 years.

Easterbrook’s question to the conference was not how warm the Earth would get, but how cold. He wondered if the current cooling trend would be like the mild cooling of the 1940s to 1970s, or be more stunning and significant, like the end of the Little Ice Age that took place between 1350 and 1850.

The point is simple. The Earth is changing. Without making any sweeping assumptions, we need to care for our planet because it’s the only home we know. But, alarmist rhetoric does little to help conserve natural resources and feed our world’s people. It captures news headlines, but sends the wrong message. Climate change is no doubt real. I do believe there is significant, reliable scientific data, however, that proves it may well be part of a natural cycle, not solely manmade. And, current trends may naturally shift back the other way at some point in time, if they haven’t already done so. Either way, farmers will have to adapt to the changes, as we always have, and take great care of the land we are stewards over.

Be sure to watch http://www.nebraskafarmer.com and read our November print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at http://www.DatelineDrought.com.



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  1. We definitely can make a difference. That's the spirit :)

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  4. Caleb says:

    Not all those who consider "global warming" a man-made problem believe it's solely due to man's effort. Some of us acknowledge we don't currently have the ability to measure mankind's influence in proportion to nature's, and thus call for cautious steps forward. It might be that our actions hardly influence climate, but it might also be that we're pushing conditions slightly beyond previous thresholds and subsequently putting all that sustains us at heightened risk. To compare drought of centuries past to today's drought and ask where exists the evidence of mankind's influence on current climate change almost seems aimed to negate mankind's influence on current climate change. I hope that instead of trying to prove one way or another, more of us can get determined to find out which way things are going, while aligning our actions in accordance with the worst possibilities...just in case we find we must later try to compensate for our actions.