We’ve all started the New Year thinking about the tragic loss of life and destruction of communities in Southeast and South Asia. No doubt you’ve found one of the many sites through which one can make a donation–I always think of the wonders of online fundraising developed during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign–and I thought readers might like to read a few words from an article on extreme weather events, published in a wonderful work I had the pleasure of publishing in 2003, the Encyclopedia of World Environmental History. This is a balanced, scholarly work and not a campaigning publication at all, so I find its commentary all the more helpful. The author concludes by saying, “The fact that nature itself produces extreme weather has been used imprudently as an excuse to avoid rectifying human activity that could unleash more of it.”
From the Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, edited by S. Krech, J.R. McNeill, and C. Merchant (Berkshire/Routledge 2003):
“Only a relatively thin crust of the surface of the Earth is solid, and this is divided into plates that float on a molten core and grind against one another. The hot, molten material from the interior explodes periodically in the form of a volcano, which can produce extreme weather. When earthquakes or volcanoes occur in the ocean, the sudden release of enormous energy displaces a huge quantity of water, resulting in a gigantic wave referred to as a tsunami. Societies exist in this vortex of autonomous dynamics and flux of energy transformations that we call nature. The effects of any of these depend on the geophysical and built structures lying in their path.
“Fortunately extreme weather is rare in most regions in the time span of a human life. There seem to be self-regulating mechanisms in nature that keep climate in a steady state and usually make change gradual over the periods of time that are pertinent to humans. Most of nature’s fluctuations, such as the seasons, day and night, and so forth, are regular. The tides, for example, are based on such astronomical regularity that they can be calculated two years in advance.
“The present steady state could however be tipped into one with characteristics that may not be as supportive of human society. Human activities may inadvertently produce a positive-feedback loop that disrupts nature’s balance. Climatologists do not have definitive evidence that human-induced global climate change will result in more frequent and intense extreme weather, but they argue the hypothesis is plausible. The fact that nature itself produces extreme weather has been used imprudently as an excuse to avoid rectifying human activity that could unleash more of it.”