Are Humans Too Insignificant to Change the Climate?

Today, I was reading a discussion on one of my favorite blogs, the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, and came across this comment from someone named Victoria:

"I think the sun and earth's natural long-term rhythms have far more chance to influence the world. Man is an arrogant little thing to think he is all that important."

It's an argument I see over and over again from climate change deniers on blogs and forums all over the web. You can call me arrogant, but I find it much more incredible that anyone could believe that we are not capable of changing the climate.

Prairie pioneers - the 19th century equivalent of a Hummer?
Prairie pioneers - the 19th century equivalent of a Hummer? | Source

There is scarcely a square foot of this planet that humans have not touched or affected in some way, and the truth is, most of the myriad ways in which humans have changed the planet lead directly back to climate change.

The native tallgrass prairie once covered 400,000 square miles of North America. Today, 99% of it is gone - plowed up to become the breadbasket of the world. Bread is good. I like bread. But every acre of tallgrass prairie traps about 50 tons of carbon in its soil. When the prairie is plowed, the carbon is released into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).

Oops.

Modern no till farming methods have reduced the amount of CO2 released through agricultural activities somewhat, but where the prairie soils are concerned, it is mostly too little, too late. Atmospheric CO2 is fairly long-lived stuff, so chances are most of the millions of tons of soil carbon released by Manifest Destiny are still up there, heating us up.

This chart depicts the amount of virgin forest in the US in 1620, 1850, 1920, and the present.
This chart depicts the amount of virgin forest in the US in 1620, 1850, 1920, and the present.

The 19th century was an orgy of destruction in North American forests as well. In some regions, the destruction was greater than 99%.

Worldwide, some 80% of primary (also known as virgin or old growth) forest has been cleared. Deforestation is a one-two punch for the climate. Not only does it release vast quantities of CO2 into the air, it also damages the Earth's ability to reabsorb it.

Trees play a critical role in the water cycle - it is not an exaggeration to say that they literally make rain. When trees are cut down, rainfall patterns change, resulting in less overall rainfall and more frequent droughts. This can make it difficult to re-establish trees on the landscape.

When herds of cattle, sheep, or goats are added to the mix, the result can be permanent deforestation and the conversion of the former forest to arid scrubland or even desert. This, in turn, results in the destruction of soil carbon, which is released back into the atmosphere, leaving the soil behind too depleted to grow crops or trees.

The Cedars of God, one of the last surviving groves of the Cedars of Lebanon.
The Cedars of God, one of the last surviving groves of the Cedars of Lebanon. | Source

Thanks to deforestation, humans have been affecting climates on a local scale for thousands of years. Many people are dimly aware that much of the Middle East and Mediterranean regions were once forested thanks to vague memories of terms such as the "Fertile Crescent" and the "Cedars of Lebanon" from high school history classes.

One of the earliest surviving pieces of written literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, describes the battle of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, with the forest god Humbaba, protector of the magnificent groves of cedars that covered the mountains nearby. The victorious king chops down the cedars to build monuments to himself. Though the battle of Gilgamesh and Humbaba is a legend, the terrible deforestation that followed unfortunately is not. The destruction of the groves led to severe erosion, soil sliding off mountainsides and into rivers, silting trade routes and destroying irrigation canals. The once great Sumerian Empire vanished into desert... and the heavily forested island of Crete rose up to take its place, followed soon after the destruction of its own forest resources by Greece, Macedonia, and Rome.

There is strong evidence that a similar story played out on the other side of the world, in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, former home of the lost Anasazi civilization. Evidence from pack rat middens suggests the area was originally covered with dryland forests of pinyon pine and juniper. By 1000 AD, these forests had disappeared. Water tables dropped and erosion washed away soil fertility. The Anasazi clung on for a few more centuries, but by 1300 a series of severe droughts brought their perilous situation to a crisis and Chaco Canyon was abandoned. Neither the Anasazi nor the forests ever returned.

The arid and semi-arid regions of the Middle East, Mediterranean, and US Southwest aren't the only areas where deforestation as a result of human activity changed local climates.

Easter Island, now famous for the massive statues of its lost civilization looming over barren, windswept hills, was once covered in lush jungle. On such a small island, deforestation was literally 100%. One wonders what the islanders were thinking when they cut down the last tree. The civilization disappeared soon after, so we can do nothing but speculate.

Even rainy Britain has not been unaffected. Some scientists estimate that 80% of ancient Britain was covered by forests. By 1066, only 15% remained. After declining further during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and early Industrial Revolution, Britain's forest cover has recovered to about 16% today. Still, the environmental impacts of the lost forests remain.

As you can see, humans have been affecting climate on a local scale for thousands of years and as populations have exploded over the last two centuries, our impact has increased. Between 2000 and 2005, for example, the two regions with the highest rates of deforestation, South America and Africa, lost an average of 4.3 million and 4.0 million hectares per year each. Nigeria lost 81% of its old-growth forests in just 15 years (1990–2005). Neighboring Niger, which lost 40% of its forest cover in the same period, is now losing 200,000 hectares of arable land per year to desertification, while in China armies of tree planters are trying desperately to hold back the encroaching Gobi Desert, which is now just 75 kilometers from Beijing.

If we could turn local forest to desert a thousand years before the birth of Christ, when the human population is estimated at less than 50 million people (modern Tokyo has an estimated population of 35 million), why is it "arrogant" to believe that 6.9 billion people might be capable of international impacts?

I think a more pertinent question is, will be be capable of learning from the mistakes of past civilizations, or will we rush headlong to our own destruction?

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Comments 15 comments

KwameG profile image

KwameG 5 years ago from MS

thanks for a well laid out over view


Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 5 years ago from Minnesota

Wow, great information. I was actually surprised to hear that gal would think it is arrogant to think we affect climate. How can we not affect climate with all the crap and pollution and cutting down trees etc...You did a really nice job of writing this article. Thanks for the great history lesson on this issue.


HSchneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

You are right KerryG. Humans can turn the environment around especially if we stop listening to the ignorant naysayers. The state of our environment is not part of a cycle. It was caused by us and must be fixed by us. We need to get onboard or else our children will suffer. Great Hub.


Jaspal profile image

Jaspal 5 years ago from New Delhi, India

Great hub KerryG. I agree with you ... We humans are more than capable of converting the entire Earth into arid and infertile desert.

But, I also believe that nature and the overall scheme of things in the universe is very much stronger. It is well known that planets, stars and galaxies are born, they evolve and mutate over their life time, and then they die or collapse into black holes. The Earth too is probably going through this process. If we try to rush it in its decline then nature can enforce discipline and restore some semblance of balance: That could be by natural calamities or it could even be by humans themselves going into self destruct mode through a nuclear war or something even more lethal.

Maybe a part of the human race is destined to emigrate from this planet to some other celestial body. Who knows what the future holds? I like to believe that life in this universe is evolving according to a pattern that does not make sense to us at present ... it might make some sense in hindsight to those who inhabit the Earth some thousands of years hence.


John B Badd profile image

John B Badd 5 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

I am of many individuals who are of two minds about the whole climate change debate.

First I want to point out that I know we should be the stewards of the earth and we should protect her and help her grow. The earth is a living organisms and we are symbiotic creatures living on that organism; it only makes sense that we would care for it.

On the other hand I think the globe has been warming since the last ice age. Let's not forget that at one point in history the oceans covered half of North America and the water that once covered it is now in polar ice caps. Some day with or without our help it will melt and cover the land once more. I also think there are just as many politicians using the "Green" argument to push their own political agendas and make themselves rich (the SUV driving private jet flying Al Gore to name a big one) as there are politicians using terror fear to make themselves rich (do I really need to name them.)

Bottom line I think we should take care of our planet because it is the right thing to do and we should do it regardless of which crooked politician we support. However we should beware of left wing fear mongering by people who have millions invested in alternative fuel companies yet still rape the earth on a daily basis.

Still I think we should care for the earth. As animals we are a natural part of its eco-system (unless the UFO ancestor theorist are right then we are an alien organism ;)


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Excellent hub and information. Thank you


Rock_nj profile image

Rock_nj 5 years ago from New Jersey

Well done! It's time to challenge the ignorant amongst us with some logic on this subject of humans' effect on the Earth's climate.

Here's an analogy. If you let a bunch of carpenter ants loose in an area of woods, would it be arrogant to think that those tiny little criters can change the environment in that area of woods? Each little ant is insignificant. But how about if you let loose 6 Billion ants, could they do some serious damage to those woods and effect the local environment. Sure, and so can 6 Billion people affect the environment in which they live.


Rock_nj profile image

Rock_nj 5 years ago from New Jersey

Trees might cause less rainfall and more droughts in some regions of the world, but higher evaporation rates over the oceans and the ability of a warmer atmosphere to hold more water vapor means more rain in areas that get rain in a warmer world. We have already seen these intense rain events occuring more often in recent years with epic floods occuring more and more often. This trend will continue as the world warms.


Amelia Blick profile image

Amelia Blick 5 years ago from UK

Thanks for a well written hub. I have often wondered just how much evidence climate change deniers need before they actually believe the evidence that stacks up. We humans do indeed have an impact on our environment.


gobangla 5 years ago

This is a very interesting hub. I have read that argument multiple times and I have always found it to be so odd. Every time I see an oil refinery belching out smoke, I find it frightening. There are so many refineries and factories sending huge amounts of pollution into the air. I find it surprising that anyone could think that would have no negative impact.


frogyfish profile image

frogyfish 5 years ago from Central United States of America

Very interesting information, detail. The USA maps are tragically scary....

It seems absolute that humans/civilization have made a distinctly negative impact on our world via mainly deforestation/chemical pollutions. It can only go so far...We will ALL pay the price...


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

Truly an awesome hub, kerryg. Very well written and edited, and obviously well-researched. It flows beautifully.

And you're right, of course. It is crazy to think that we can't have an impact on the Earth, and gallingly so in that this madness is often dressed in a false, smarmy humility. As if the ability to foul one's own nest were something to be proud of!

I'm tempted to get into examples of this, but it would be unnecessary here. You've already made the case beautifully.

Thank you!


loanyi 5 years ago

This is full of good stuff. Good job man. Thumbs up!!!


road2hell profile image

road2hell 5 years ago from Linden, AB

Nice job!. Man has created some of the most destructive machines on Earth. They can tear through a forest clear cutting hectacres within hours, strip a mountain of its beauty to get its valuable resources, or drag a trap net collecting tons of fish for exotic restaurants.

These activities are directly or indirectly related to climate change, Do we really need this destruction? Who are we doing it for? Think about it.

It certainly isn't for the long-term health of this planet for future generations.

Think about it!


Insane Mundane profile image

Insane Mundane 4 years ago from Earth

This Hub reminds me of a Global Warming project I did in my 'advance science' class in Junior High School, many years ago. In a thumbnail conclusion, ignorance, greed, corruption and "Big Oil" money is one of the biggest proponents for anti-global-warming concepts and they are also the biggest hindrance for alternative energy sources, to say the least...

I mean seriously, we could have rectified this in the early '90s, if not sooner, but we still haven't as of today.

Oh, thanks for the first link on this hub, as I'm still finishing that video; cheers!

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