Polar Eclipse

Hey, remember when climate change was a swell idea? Coconuts were in the offing.

Hummers saved the world. Don't believe me? Visit the website of the crunchy-sounding Greening Earth Society (greeningearthsociety.org), and you'll see how. "Disaster Averted," proclaims a headline. "Human activities may have averted the next ice age," the site crows, before going on to quote researcher William Ruddiman: "Without any anthropogenic warming, earth's climate would no longer be in a full-interglacial state [warm period] but be well on its way toward the colder temperatures typical of glaciations." Every time you turn the key in your ignition and every time your TV sucks down wattage from a coal-fired power plant, you strike a blow for mankind and against the ice age. Before you clutch your head against this shock wave of cognitive dissonance, first observe the site's small print: "Greening Earth Society is a not-for-profit membership organization comprised of rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities, their fuel suppliers, and thousands of individuals." Ahh. You see, GES is an "affiliated company" of the Western Fuels Association. But while their argument that climate change is good for you seems to come out of some parallel neocon universe, it's not quite as unprecedented as one might imagine.

"How to Change the North American Climate," announced the headline of one modest proposal published in The Atlantic. How indeed? It's quite simple, says the study's author: Reroute the Pacific Ocean's warm Kuroshio Current through the Bering Strait. "If the vast low-lying districts of Eastern Siberia and Western Alaska were sunk beneath the sea . . . it would open wide the road of this vast ocean stream straightaway to the pole." And then . . . Paradise! Arctic temperatures would instantly rise by 30 degrees; the ice caps would melt, New England winters would become a quaint memory, and lawns and trees could commence "their march towards the pole."

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it was science fact . . . in December 1877. The article's author was Nathaniel Shaler, a leading Harvard geologist and later its dean of sciences. He'd suffered enough Boston winters—"the fossil sunshine of old coal makes poor amends for the vanished warmth of an earlier day," he groused—that climate change sounded both splendid and eminently attainable. There was nothing unnatural about it, Shaler eagerly explained: In past eras the earth had been much warmer. Just carve out the Alaska coastline a bit, and you could turn back the clock to the balmy dinosaur days of yore.

But why melt the caps with the Pacific when you could do it cheaper and closer to home? "A jetty . . . extending eastward from Newfoundland across the water on the Great Banks" could divert the warm Gulf Stream upward toward the Arctic, noted The New York Times of one proposal in 1912. The man behind climate change this time was Carroll Livingston Riker, an engineering wunderkind who had already designed both the world's first refrigerated warehouse and a dredging system that successfully cleared the Potomac River at half the cost of government estimate. Building a 200-mile-long jetty would cost $190 million—less than the cost of the Panama Canal, the Times pointed out—and it was, Riker insisted, not visionary at all. "It is exceedingly practical," he said flatly.

Imaginations ran wild, and The Washington Post envisioned Manhattan becoming a tropical paradise: "People would be gathering oranges off the trees in Central Park, or picking cocoanuts from palms along the Battery, [and] hunting crocodiles off the Statue of Liberty." The prospect sounded so splendid to New Yorkers that Senator William Calder tried to get $100,000 appropriated for a study of the idea. But in a twist worthy of Montgomery Burns, it seems Riker's plan hid a side effect: Diverting the Gulf Stream away from the British Isles would probably . . . well, freeze them solid.

"Considerable indignation is expressed in England that Americans should plan to destroy the British climate," The Washington Post drolly reported in 1913—a prospect the paper helpfully illustrated with an artist's conception of the Houses of Parliament encased in ice; in the foreground, an Eskimo spears a walrus on the frozen-over Thames. Oh, and melting the caps too quickly might cause another problem, the Post pointed out: an immense movement of weight distribution that would cause a cataclysmic shift of the earth's axis.

Oops.

Melting the Arctic would truly have global effects—if, perhaps, not quite the ones its proponents anticipated. Earthquakes, cities sinking under the waves, what have you . . . details, details. But what about picking coconuts in Manhattan? When do we get our coconuts?Standing at a podium in Madison Square Garden on a chilly evening in December 1945, one man had the answer.

"Atomic dynamite," his voice rang out over the PAs.

Blow up the North Pole? If the notion sounds a tad aggressive to you, consider the source: Julian Huxley, then the Secretary-General of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. The brilliant zoologist brother of writer Aldous Huxley, and himself a co-author of books with H.G. Wells, Julian used his bully pulpit at UNESCO to imagine a brave new world of atomic landscaping. Blast away the ice cap with A-bombs, Huxley reasoned, and you'd create both a warmer climate and new habitable lands.

But why stop there when you could also bomb the South Pole? "Cracking of the Antarctic icebox," the World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker put it just weeks later, would reveal vast mineral riches. The idea was enthusiastically pitched to America's tool-belt demographic by Mechanix Illustrated in May 1946, quoting one Columbia professor who "likens the polar ice to a 'common cold' afflicting the earth in 'head' and 'feet,' producing what he considers an unnatural condition." Bombing the polar caps, presumably, would be like blowing the earth's nose—but blowing really, really hard.

A few spoilsports pointed out that city dwellers wouldn't have too much time to enjoy their lovely coconuts if, the Times noted, there were "fish swimming in the lower offices of New York and other cities, and only the upper stories of skyscrapers protruding from the water." But someone in Moscow, at least, didn't get the memo. The Bering Strait dam project, the brainchild of Soviet engineer P.M. Borisov, was a Stalin-era update of Shaler's old idea. Borisov proposed "liquidating the ice sheet of the Arctic Basin" with a low dam across the Bering Strait; a series of atomic-powered pumping stations could skim off the cold surface waters of the Arctic and induce a flow of warm water in from the Atlantic. This would return the earth to balmy "climatic conditions which existed 1.5 million years ago. . . . Subtropical crops would be grown in the regions adjoining the Black Sea from the north, and in the lower reaches of the Don and the Volga." At long last, Russia could make its transition from a vodka- to a rum-based economy.

The idea was taken seriously enough that in 1972 Borisov's book was translated into the English-language volume Can Man Change the Climate? But even within his own book Borisov noted the dawning realization that man was already changing the climate; he quotes oceanographer N.M. Knipovich marveling that "In a mere 15 years or less time there has been such a change in the distribution of marine fauna as is usually associated with long geological periods."

And so now, alas, climate change is merely the province of Bond villains . . . and consumers. It turns out we didn't need monolithic jetties, atomic landscaping, or giant pumping stations to change the earth. All we had to do was drive over to the Circle-K for a six-pack and leave the engine idling. What previous generations dreamed of accomplishing through vast public works projects and new technology, humanity has accomplished through an even more inexorable force: stupidity.


Paul Collins's Not Even Wrong: A Father's Journey Into the Lost History of Autism (Bloomsbury USA) has just been issued in paperback.

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