What Does Weird Weather Really Tell Us?





Mr. Ranlet teaches history at Hunter College. Among his books are Enemies of the Bay Colony, 2nd ed. (2006) and Richard B. Morris and American History in the Twentieth Century (2004).

By any standard, the weather experienced by the East Coast since December has been, well, weird. What can you say when the weather is so odd that Easter was colder than Christmas. Surely, some terrible climate change – global warming – must be happening to cause such bizarre conditions.

On May 6 a famous New York City newspaper publisher wrote: “Tho’ we have had a very mild Winter, we have had the coldest and most backward Spring I think that ever I knew. There has not been but one warm Day properly speaking since the Month of February, and it is so cold now, that I am obliged to keep by the Fire: The Fruit I believe will be much affected by it.”

Such strange weather proves to everyone that we must change our lifestyles to save the planet from our excessive use of technology. Save the polar bears stranded on ice floes! We must junk our cars and use scooters instead, we must buy funny-looking light bulbs and . . . . Actually, you may think that something is peculiar about that quotation. Could a New Yorker huddle near a fire without risk of  harassment by  carbon dioxide watchdogs? And when was the last time that a New York journalist was worried about the fate of the local fruit crop?

The quoted letter was written on May 6, but the year was 1766, some 241 years ago. The journalist was not Bob Woodward but instead James Parker, publisher of the NewYork Gazette, or the Weekly Post-Boy, another New York paper that is no longer with us. And the letter was written to Benjamin Franklin. It was published during 1969 in volume 13 of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.

Did global warming take place in 1766? Was it brought on by all the hot air generated by the anti-congestion plan of His Worship the Mayor of New York, John Cruger? Or, possibly, from the methane given off by all the cows in Manhattan? My personal favorite theory for the cause involves Franklin—his famous kite must have punched a hole in the ozone layer.

Maybe none of these things caused the unusual weather. Weather does tend to have patterns just as history supposedly repeats itself. It just took 241 years for that weather to repeat itself. Weird weather does not prove very much except that weather is, well, weird.

People should be cautious before they follow the pied pipers of global warming. A hot day in August means nothing. When I was in college, in the 1970s, scientists assured us that the weather was getting colder, an ice age was on the way, and we were all going to die. Thirty years later, scientists are telling us the weather is getting hotter, the Earth is going to be toasted, and we are all going to die. Skepticism, I think, is justified about wild claims based on peculiar weather.

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    More Comments:


    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    The fact that there are myriad isolated examples of extreme weather
    available as flotsam and jetsam from the research for thousands of sophmore history papers proves absolutely nothing about the past forty years of climate science. That science, like most recent science, has a great many uncertainties associated with it. That the earth's average temperature is warming due mainly to human consumption of fossil fuels, and that this warming is helping cause greater variability of weather in recent years are not among such uncertainties. Not according to 99% of peer-reviewed scientific articles on such subjects in the last couple of decades.


    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Your lame misattributions about "little hope for earth" are beside the point.

    Your grandchildren, who are likely to inhabit a poorer, not a hopeless, United States, will not curse the real scientists who did actual climate research or politicians like Al Gore who publicized their findings, while half-educated lemmings with pre-Galilean understandings of science rushed over the cliff heedless of common sense.


    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Climate science is complicated stuff, and there are many uncertainties associated with it, but it is common sense that when they are your age your grandchildren will pay more to heat their homes than you did. It is a simply understood problem of not enough cheap oil and gas left in the ground. This problem happens to have many of the same difficult and only partly feasible yet not impossible solutions -e.g. consumption efficiencies, alternative sources- as the problem of global warming, and is denied by the same rudely ignorant lemmings.


    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    Interesting fantasy. Devoid of facts.
    Teddy Roosevelt, who arguably helped preserve more of America's natural environment than any other US president, was not a socialist. Not even close.


    Jason Blake Keuter - 9/8/2007

    Environmentalism is really anti-consumerist, but this is merely an indirect way of expressing the soicialism of the ideologues who have hijacked legititmate environmentalism, preservation and science. How did this happen?

    Socialists began as very pro-industrialism. They originally promised the consumerist fruits of industrialism to the working classes. As capitalism proved capable of doing this and socialism immiserated the masses, socialists then started in with concepts like "co-optation", as if the standard of living in capitalist societies was an elaborately constructed bribe designed to divide the working class and pave the way for ultimate immiseration. The ultimate immiseration never arrived, but the hostility to material affluence in capitalist societies had now been established.

    Then the environmental movement provided an avenue to express loathing for the ignorant workers (now labelled "mindless consumers", just as capitalists are now labeled "corporate", but the essential paradigm remains the same) who clung so tenaciously to the society that delivered a better life as opposed to the ones that delivered misery but promised it would all work out once the capitalists were defeated.

    I recall reading a Nation magazine (the de facto journal of pompous, professorial blather) article that stated this point quite clearly. As usual, the Nation was scratching their heads over why the left is so marginalized when it is obvious it is so right. The author of the article said that environmentalism presented an opportunity to univeralize the appeal of the left. The point of the article, however, was not that environmentalism was important - it was that anti-capitalism (a socialism the author couldn't bring himself to mention by name) was important and environmentalism was the vehicle through which it could be finally achieved.

    I encourage people to google Penn and Teller's Bullsh.. episode on the Environmental movement. Those tenaciously clinging to their anti-industrial revolution can take solace that in doing so, neighter Showtime not Penn and Teller (pawns of the capitalist world destroyers) will profit one cent from your viewing of the program. Kind of like American taxpayers did not profit one bit from all the financial and material aid it sent to moribund socialist states during the cold war.


    jason ssg - 9/5/2007

    And so your point is, Mr. Clayson? Do you look to dragons to determine the causes of the well documented science behind the findings on global warming?

    Your attempts at making the name Al Gore into some Grendel-like creature-sounding thing aside, you have made no point besides an attack on one particular public figure and a side attack at the Clintons, as though climate is political in nature, and have said nothing that contradicts the science behind the decades long research on the solid facts that global warming is occurring and has been and will continue to be effected by human activity.

    I'd prefer putting effort into the "something better" rather than whistling past the graveyard.

    Those who don't work for a better future often hinder it.


    Vernon Clayson - 9/5/2007

    Tch, tch, Mr. Clarke, you rush to judgement even quicker than Algore, an opportunist who is no more qualified to discuss climate than any half-educated lemming, etc., etc. I said scientists might appreciate his half-baked theories because it gives them some publicity. When did "common sense" become a factor in science? Didn't the powers that be think Galileo was a heretic for espousing matters adverse to their "common sense"? It was about their time that maps said, "Beyond here there be dragons".
    "Common sense", indeed. You sound like the Clintons, it's all "for the children."


    jason ssg - 9/4/2007

    -after reading this: "That was cute- now you should do some research."

    Tongue-in-cheek, an entertaining historical curio, but with no bearing in the realm of science.

    If you'll remember- "When I was in college, in the 1970s..." scientists were predicting an ice age that would be caused -gasp- by global warming. Some scientists are still seeing an ice age as a possible eventual outcome of global warming- sounds a little counterintuitive to those not involved in or familiar with climate science, right? The climate scientists are still saying much the same thing they have been for the past 30 years if you read past the headlines- the information just keeps getting more complete. That's how science works, if you were unfamiliar- the collecting and constant testing of information.

    And of course the passage of time involved in global warming is perhaps a bit out of sync with the "it's gotta happen right this second for it to register or matter" mentality of a large portion of people. I can't count the number of times a cold day has cause someone in earshot to say "what global warming?! I'm freezing my &%$@ off!"

    Then I read some of the comments...

    Is it really that difficult for historians and those interested in history to recognize that what we do now effects the lives of our great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren? Is it so difficult to track the growing toxicity of our lives and lifestyles as we depart our rural past?

    It comes down to this, folks- it's not about saving the Earth, the Earth will be fine without us.

    And unless we become wiser and take a longer view, without us it will be.

    To paraphrase George Carlin- before humans there was the Earth, after humans, it'll be the Earth plus plastic.


    Jeffery Ewener - 9/4/2007

    It takes a wee bit more than a waltz through some old newspapers to call into question the virtually universal understanding of the world's scientists.

    The shoemaker should stick to his last. And the historian should stop playing the fool.


    Vernon Clayson - 9/4/2007

    Do what we will, the earth will continue to rotate in its orbit around the sun and its temperatures will rise and fall depending on the angles rays from the sun strike its surface. For all human practical purposes the sun is timeless and its affect supreme in all climate conditions. Winds and rain will do what winds and rain have always done, they clean the earth and the air and man has to live around that mindless cycle. Human efforts at control of, for example, rivers, are at best fragile and temporary, the river will eventually return to its natural course. Thousands of tropical hurricanes over the eons, unnamed and forgotten, struck down primitive man's huts and he likely blamed his gods for the terrible winds and rain rather than accrual of mankind's wastes and actions for the damage. Ancient man's largest monuments trembled in earthquakes and were lashed by hurricans soon were overgrown by greenery thriving in the heat of the sun at the same time polar ice formed for lack of heat. This still goes on but we study and take credit for what is going to happen regardless. Time will take care of the insults of carbon fuels and the braying of psuedo experts like Algore.


    Randll Reese Besch - 9/3/2007

    Local weather isn't enough to produce a global model without the rest of the earth taken in toto.
    As far back as the 1920's the Jesuit priest/archeologist Chardain considered the Human race to be a phenomenon and natural force And as had been recently concluded only Humanity can change the earth from mowing down forests to leveliing mountains and introducing thousands on synthetic chemical and biologicals not before found in the biosphere. The fact that over half of the global population lives at or below the poverty line keeeps us from total population collapse and possible extinction. We are already causing the Sixth Extinction by the amount of species and habitats being altered, and removed from the ecology.
    Just remember that if we don't fix what we are doing Nature will find a way to create balance again. We might not like the new paragdim.


    Vernon Clayson - 9/3/2007

    So there is little hope for earth because of "human consumption of fossil fuels", as Mr. Clarke and "99% of peer-reviewed scientific articles" seem to believe. So much science and so many scientific writings and yet the major spokesman for the science is a failed political hack, the former vice-president and senator, Algore. A little odd, isn't it, that actual scientists get sparse attention and mostly engage in circulating articles among themselves for peer reviews while a man of no particular education or expertise gets all of the attention for his version of climate science. Scientists, and others, might be thankful that he brings attention to the matter but they fail to consider that Algore is most interested in keeping his name in the media. He likely chose global warming after considering any number of subjects, perhaps stem cells or ethnic whatevers in Darfur. Next winter chill winds will blow and he will heat his mansion with fossil fuel. His carbon offset likely will be long johns (picture that). Chances are 99% of scientists doing those peer reviewed articles will also heat their more humble abodes with fossil fuels. I will do likewise until something better comes along.


    Billy E Karlinsey - 9/3/2007

    How come nomention the elephant in the room. The problem is overpopuation. Poor countries want what the rich countries have plus they have the culture to have more babies for their social security causing an exponential increase of popuation which will over come any gains that the experts say we need to do and put into effect related to resources use, to slow or stop global warming.


    Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/2/2007

    The science of climate change includes data covering a very long period of time (thousands of years)---data on carbon in the atmosphere, temperature swings, droughts, glacier formation, glacier melting, etc. Scientists no longer doubt that humans have profoundly affected the climate and that we are near or at the tipping point. Your example in this context is, unfortunately, anecdotal. Moreover, the extremes we are seeing now have been predicted based on the climate data I mentioned above. We should always be skeptical, but in this case continued skepticism becomes denial.


    Jonathan Dresner - 9/2/2007

    You know, I'm getting very tired of historians writing as though "it happened before" is a shock: that opening, where you outline a situation that seems contemporary but isn't. Pretending that the quotation isn't obviously archaic is pretty weak, too.

    The ending, too, suffers from conventionalism and that "too clever" tone. "in the 1970s, scientists assured us that the weather was getting colder, an ice age was on the way, and we were all going to die".... cute, but not really true. The doom-and-gloom reportage was... just that: reportage. Damned few scientists with half a brain actually thought the trends they were seeing were on a permanent trajectory, but reporters only think in straight lines, and editors love screaming headlines.