In Assisi, Italy, the mountaintop town where St. Francis lived in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a beautiful church from that era has its inside walls painted entirely white. Our guide pointed out that colorful murals originally covered the walls, until the Black Plague swept through in the 14th century. Town officials became convinced that the sickness somehow came from the frescoes' paint, so they ordered the walls whitewashed. Unfortunately, this destroyed most of the murals. Only fragments survive today. Of course, it did nothing about the plague. No one yet realized that plague was spread by rat-borne fleas. The rush to fight the sickness with every possible means not only achieved nothing positive, but caused irreversible damage.
The Black Death was a recurring feature of the cold period called the Little Ice Age - i.e., approximately AD 1300 to 1870. (Other LIA dates can be argued on the basis of temperature minima around 1650, 1770 and 1850 - each separated by slight warming intervals.) We now know the highly contagious plague incubated in unhealthy, overcrowded living spaces - typically in large cities infested with flea-ridden vermin.
In a less technological age, people were only vaguely aware that they lived in a colder time than the previous Medieval Warm Period (AD 900-1300) when food was plentiful and people led healthier, outdoor lives. Occasional measurable indicators - like glacier expansion - showed how cold the LIA was. During the 15th and 16th centuries glaciers began to threaten Alpine villages built during the warm era. Alarmed residents asked the Church to intercede with God to arrest the grinding advance of the great rivers of ice. Priests prayed and incanted, and for a time the ice slowed or even stopped. Later, the ice again advanced until late in the 19th century.
LIA glaciers encroached on Greenland locales where Viking settlers farmed and built villages at the warm era's zenith. Cold weather brought poor harvests, starvation and eventual extinction. Europe-Greenland communication finally ceased during the 15th century, after the Greenland settlements died out. Arctic explorers who "rediscovered" Greenland a century later found only unpopulated remnants of the former settlements. (Until well within my lifetime, scientists had no explanation for what happened to Greenland. We now know it simply froze over.)
In the context of 14th century medical understanding - or lack thereof - stopping the Black Death was impossible. The legendary town of Hamelein came closest to a true solution when it hired the Pied Piper to clean out the rats. (But greed brought the town to grief when it cheated the Piper after he did the job. In retaliation, he lured the town's children away.)
In Assisi, where rats were not yet suspected of complicity in the plague, officials did only harm in their haste to "do something". (Only the whitewashers' union came out ahead.) Alpine church officials might (or might not) have stopped the glaciers' advance, but at least they did no harm.
These are cautionary tales for our time. Clearly, the climate has warmed before - most recently during 1870-1940, when industrialization was far below present levels - and actually cooled during the highly industrialized period, 1940-1980. Despite these facts, a great, crusading wave of environmental activism has now convinced much of the industrialized world (except for growing industrial powers India and China) that carbon dioxide emissions are causing the current warming that began around 1980. Dissenting scientists - some of whom argue that higher sunspot activity produces warming, while lower sunspot activity produces cooling - are vilified and shouted down. Their research funds - and, in some cases, their lives - are being threatened.
Politicians like Al Gore - basking in a new career as a movie star and a "Doom is Nigh" environmental huckster - want new taxes and draconian changes in Americans' lifestyles (excepting their own). Technical businesses are lured by the "dream scenario" of a problem situation that can never be improved, no matter how much is spent on it. Prospective billions in supranational carbon-taxes have visions of world-control - including deconstruction of the world's industrial powerhouse (the USA) - dancing in the heads of United Nations officials.
A cadre of Christian ministers - led by mega-church guru Rick Warren - has joined Al Gore in proclaiming the greenhouse warming science "settled". Preachers who wouldn't know an atom from an electron insist that reducing our "carbon footprint" is a matter of morality and Christian stewardship. Christian debate has shifted from WWJD (What Would Jesus Drive?) to a conviction that Jesus wouldn't drive at all. A primitive lifestyle is being seriously pushed in some circles as the responsible solution to the global warming "crisis". (One wonders how many wives have been consulted about giving up hot showers and air conditioning.)
All but the truest of true-believers in the greenhouse-gas/global-warming story will privately admit that the measures proposed to reduce carbon dioxide cannot cool the climate. This is OK because their aims far exceed climate-cooling. The global-warming story is only the means to convince a gullible public to pay higher taxes and relinquish more control over their lives to experts who will "save" them. (The most radical environmentalists want the earth's population reduced to about 300 million people. Do all those nice, religious people know that?)
The rush to put draconian emissions-measures in place quickly has an obvious political motive: when the climate cycle again turns cool, environmentalists can claim credit for averting disaster. High taxes, artificially costly fuel, irreparable damage to our industrial base, drastically reduced living standards, and ruinously retarded development in primitive parts of the world will be cited as the sure prescription for climate-stabilization. We shall hear that the greenhouse theory was correct and humans were indeed warming the planet. Activists will ignore actual data showing that CO2 levels are still increasing as the climate cools. (Climate scientists like Dr. Tim Ball say this is already happening.) With the desired policies in place, the data won't matter any more. This is the great thing about politicized science: data are only an ornament.
It is hard for Americans to get aroused about these matters, having long felt secure in their political leaders' resistance to radical environmental actions that might injure them. Even liberal Bill Clinton would not ask the Senate to ratify the Koyoto Treaty, recognizing that its protocols would harm the national economy. Mr. Bush has similarly resisted, until recently. After Democrats won a new congressional majority, Mr. Bush signaled that he was ready to support "climate control" initiatives. (We already spend over $4 billion a year on climate research.)
If Democrats take the presidency and still hold the Congress in 2008, Americans could find that the stalking horse of radical environmentalism has become a ravening beast - poised to gobble up wealth, livelihoods, and comfortable lifestyles. The results will be a lot more serious than a few murals whitewashed away. If it happens, it will be because we were too ignorant to stop it.