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1799: Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster And The First Global Warming Debate

Jefferson was not only the first Republican, he was the first to raise concern about global warming – another anomaly. As you can tell by noting the weather four times even when they were debating the most important decision of their lives, Jefferson was obsessed with weather.

As I wrote in Like Freedom? Thank A Scientist – How Science Made America Possible, during the meetings of the the Continental Congress during independence discussions, Thomas Jefferson noted the temperature on four separate occasions.  Jefferson like many others present, was a citizen scientist long before there was government funding for it.   The same climate of liberalism (liberals, not busybody progressives, as I have stated too many times to count) that makes science flourish made democracy possible.

Jefferson was not only the first Republican, he was the first to raise concern about global warming – another anomaly.  As you can tell by noting the weather four times even when they were debating the most important decision of their lives, Jefferson was obsessed with weather.

In 1787 Jefferson wrote “Notes on the State of Virginia”, which is a wonderful book outlining his belief in no government-sponsored religion(1), the way the government in Britain affirms the appointment of Bishops or (in his time) a Holy Roman Emperor was a governmental monarch and head of an official religion, but also his thoughts on public works, the scope of government and an exhaustive accounting of the state of the state.

It had 5 chapters devoted to science-related matters; geology, geography, etc.  As Joshua Kendall at Smithsonian magazine notes, Jefferson also addressed a concern;  in QUERY VII.  A notice of all that can increase the progress of Human Knowledge? he wrote

A change in our climate, however, is taking place very sensibly. Both heats and
colds are become much more moderate within the memory even of the middle-age d.
Snows are less frequent and less deep. They do not often lie, below the
mountains, more than one, two, or three days, and very rarely a week. They are
remembered to have been formerly frequent, deep, and of long continuance. The
elderly inform me, the earth used to be covered with snow about three months in
every year. The rivers, which then seldom failed to freeze over in the course
of the winter, scarcely ever do so now. This change has produced an unfortunate fluctuation between heat and cold, in the spring of the year, which is very
fatal to fruits. From the year 1741 to 1769, an interval of twenty-eight
years, there was no instance of fruit killed by the frost in the neighborhood
of Monticello. An intense cold, produced by constant snows, kept the buds
locked up till the sun could obtain, in the spring of the year, so fixed an
ascendency as to dissolve those snows, and protect the buds, during their development, from every danger of returning cold.

This was not new, of course. Society has long had what we called, growing up in Florida, “Florida conservationists” – in that instance people who wanted Florida to stay exactly the same as it was the week before they arrived. No new people after that.

Basically, the weather, like baseball, sucked a lot less than when we were kids and something is to blame.  So people lay blame, usually on a neighbor who built a house or a corporation.

Enter Noah Webster, later to be he of the famous American Dictionary of the English Language, the world’s first global warming skeptic and a science journalist before the field became cheerleaders for science – a guy not afraid to ask the awkward questions, even of brilliant men and accepted wisdom. Webster took no prisoners; in his 1799 speech he went after those who used the Bible and anecdotes (18th century “gray literature”) as evidence and stated (rightly) that thermometers were not all that accurate – a fight that still occurs today, since they really only got accurate around 1980.   And he went after Thomas Jefferson.

Defying Jefferson’s data, Webster instead contended that obvious micro-climate changes were not really changing the weather.  “We have, in the cultivated districts, deep snow today, and none tomorrow; but the same quantity of snow falling in the woods, lies there till spring….This will explain all the appearances of the seasons without resorting to the unphilosophical hypothesis of a general increase in heat.”

He was convincing enough that the science consensus for the next 190 years became just what he said. Now the data and circumstances tide has finally turned in a way that Thomas Jefferson anticipated and the weight of evidence is with him, but Webster is to be applauded warmly for debunking anecdotal evidence and shoddy data, thus raising the bar for science overall, even if the science data showed results environmental activists of the day didn’t like.