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Ben Franklin: America’s First Al Gore

By Joe Romm on January 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

"Ben Franklin: America’s First Al Gore"


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By Dr. Mark Boslough, via HuffPost

Benjamin Franklin, the first American Ambassador to France, was both a statesman and a scientist. On September 3, 1783 he co-signed the Treaty of Paris at the Hotel d’York, in which the British acknowledged the American Colonies to be free and independent States, ending the American Revolution.

Franklin’s political eye was focused, but his scientific eye was attentive too. All was not well in the French countryside, where one of the worst environmental calamities of modern history was just beginning to unfold. That summer was the hottest on record, and a mysterious “dry fog” had settled across Europe. The combination of heat and air pollution was too much for the weak and elderly. Mortality spiked among farm workers and laborers across the continent.

According to British naturalist Gilbert White, “the sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon.” When rising and setting, it was “particularly lurid and blood-coloured.” The heat was so intense that meat went bad the day after it was butchered, and swarms of flies made life miserable.

The seeds of climate science in America were very possibly being planted as Franklin observed the changes 200+ years ago. Conditions went from bad to worse as Europe and North America were plunged into a deep freeze that winter. In its first peacetime year as an independent nation, the United States had to contend with more extreme weather than the colonies had ever experienced. New England suffered a record below-zero weather streak. The Mississippi River froze as far south as New Orleans. Ice appeared in the Gulf of Mexico.

Other parts of the world were also in trouble. Monsoons in Africa and India were extremely weak, and rain barely moistened the African Sahel. Agriculture collapsed in the Nile Valley leading to mass starvation. Volney, the French historian, wrote, “Soon after the end of November [1784], the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague; the streets, which before were full of beggars, now afforded not a single one: all had perished or deserted the city.” Within a year, Egypt had lost a sixth of its population.

Franklin watched this extreme weather with great interest and concern. In December, 1784, he presented his ideas in a paper entitled “Meteorological Imaginations and Conjectures.” He described the dry fog, even though he was uncertain of its source, “During several of the summer months of the year 1783, when the effect of the sun’s rays to heat the earth in these northern regions should have been greatest, there existed a constant fog over all Europe, and great part of North America.” He observed the effect the fog had on the sun’s rays: “They were indeed rendered so faint in passing through it, that when collected in the focus of a burning glass, they would scarce kindle brown paper. Of course, their summer effect in heating the earth was exceedingly diminished.”

He drew some important conclusions: “Hence the surface was early frozen. Hence the first snows remained on it unmelted, and received continual additions. Hence the air was more chilled, and the winds more severely cold. Hence perhaps the winter of 1783-4 was more severe, than any that had happened for many years.” Franklin was arguably the first American scientist to recognize the sensitivity of climate to changes in radiative forcing, and to propose that the Earth can respond in a way that reinforces the change (now known as ice-albedo feedback).

Franklin speculated about the source of the fog.

Maybe it was smoke “proceeding from the consumption by fire of some of those great burning balls or globes which we happen to meet with in our rapid course round the sun” or “long continuing to issue during the summer from Hecla in Iceland, and that other volcano which arose out of the sea near that island.” He admitted that the source of the smoke, which “might be spread by various winds, over the northern part of the world,” was yet uncertain.

Despite the uncertainty, Franklin saw the potential to apply this science to issues of security. “It seems however worth the enquiry, whether other hard winters, recorded in history, were preceded by similar permanent and widely extended summer fogs. Because, if found to be so, men might from such fogs conjecture the probability of succeeding hard winter, and of the damage to be expected by the breaking up of frozen rivers in the spring; and take such measures as are possible and practicable, to themselves and [their] effects from the mischiefs that attended the last.”

Franklin’s logic is clear. Changes in the atmosphere’s radiative properties can affect weather and climate. The response of the Earth can amplify those changes. This can lead to problems, even if the details of the causes are uncertain. Resources should be spent on research to understand and predict changes to anticipate and avoid negative consequences to the extent we are able.

As it turns out, one of Franklin’s guesses about the source of the fog was right. It wasn’t a meteor, but an Icelandic volcano. On June 8th, three months before he was to sign the Treaty of Paris, a series of explosions unknown to most of the world had opened a fissure along the Laki crater, beginning the largest terrestrial eruption of the last millennium, and spewing dust, ash, and sulfuric acid into the air for many months.

Recent computer models have shown that the Laki eruption cooled the northern hemisphere’s land masses by about 2° to 6° F. This led to the extreme harsh winter, diminished the land-sea temperature contrast, weakened the Asian and African monsoons, and reduced water and food supplies in the most vulnerable parts of the world.

Just as Franklin understood, many present-day policymakers recognize that science should inform policy–even in the face of uncertainty. Franklin didn’t know whether the climate catastrophe of 1783-1784 was ultimately caused by a meteor or a volcano, but he had enough information to suggest that harsh winters follow dry fogs. He reasoned that climate change is real, that it is a potential threat, and that measures should be taken to mitigate the associated “mischiefs.”

Climate science has made enormous progress since 1783. Politicians who ignore the science and delay action on global warming are putting our nation’s security at risk. Franklin famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” A strong US research program in climate science–and leaders who take climate change as seriously as Benjamin Franklin did–is consistent with that advice.

– Dr. Mark Boslough is a physicist and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. This was reprinted from HuffPost with permissions.


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11 Responses to Ben Franklin: America’s First Al Gore

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Very timely, thank you, ME

    • Craig says:

      Ben Franklin was a hero….
      The obstructionist congress, and climate denying lobbyists, media, are subversive terrorists to the USA and humanity….

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    Ben Franklin went to no English college and pretty much went to no school at all. Franklin taught himself to read. He taught himself science. He was, nevertheless, a preeminent scientist of his generation, a preeminent journal editor and publisher, and a preeminent designer of democratic governments.

    And in these times if you want to understand, to inhibit, and eventually to reverse climate change, stop expecting innovations to come pouring out from preeminent universities and from multinational corporations. People hired by those places are heavily constrained from real innovation by their deadly work loads. Too many profs typically carry out expensive survey projects of what everybody else around them is doing, but that’s it for progress.

    A program of thousands of dirt-cheap innovation attempts with a 10% actual success rate is far better than a program of dozens of high-cost innovation attempts with a 20% real success rate.

    • fj says:

      interesting: “a program.of thousands of dirt cheap innovation attempts . . .”

      not sure we do not have that to some extent already but, it would be good to encourage it to the logical extreme . . .

      and, it probably can be substantiated that space race and Manhattan Project class projects also have considerable value that would be supported by a strong US education and research programs . . . as Ben Franklin was a rare bird indeed perhaps at least nearly in Newton’s class but with much greater socials skills.

  3. Ozonator says:

    It should also be pointed out that Mr. Franklin achieved so much by not drinking intoxicating spirits as did most of the population of the day. He also wrote a lot, practiced the most up to date science, and believed in service to his new country. By comparison, the extreme GOP, NRA, and other pro-life types arrive at similar ideas, similar methods, and practice the repackaging of extremist media segments to conserve the best of Southern plantations.

  4. Vic says:

    If Gore’s not Prez by 2020 I’ll eat my hat.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    I like the article because Franklin as climatologist hasn’t had much recognition, but the headline doesn’t work for me. Franklin’s accomplishments are still way ahead of Al Gore’s, though Gore’s are considerable.

    Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod saved countless buildings from fire, and that alone was enough to make him the toast of Europe. His basic research on electricity qualified him to become a member of the Royal Society. His great contributions smoothed the way for his later work in international diplomacy.

    Franklin made an 18th century impact that evoked warm gratitude and inherent physical changes, as pervasive as 20th century inventions of catalytic converters or solar panels or Kevlar vests.

    While Joe Romm yearns for experienced rhetoricians like FDR or Churchill, I yearn to hear a person with Franklin’s diverse accomplishments speak out on national priorities.

    As Franklin told the Continental Congress, “”We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  6. M Tucker says:

    I’m sorry but no matter how much I admire Mr Gore I cannot put him in the same category as Ben Franklin. Statesman, scientist, inventor, businessman. He was A Founding Father for heavens sake! No. No way Gore even comes close. To call him the first Al Gore diminishes who Franklin really was.

    Gore is a politician who energetically helped to educate those who had never heard of AGW or the climate change that would result. A reasonably good movie was made about Mr Gore’s talk and slide show that he would take around the country. For that he won a Piece Prize. He has kept up with trying to keep the issue in the public mind because the public has a way of forgetting about things, even the really important things unless someone, or a group of some ones, constantly keep up the messaging. The majority of the public has the attention span of a 3 year old and many of them are easily persuaded to change their collective mind based on the flimsiest of arguments. So, for that Mr Gore deserves great credit and the prize he was awarded.

    Given that 9 years had passed since Kyoto, given the complete lack of real action or even motivation to take action in the US and many other nations, it is obvious that the public’s attention had shifted to other things. Mr Gore’s work and the film were necessary. Still not in the same category as Franklin though. Mr Gore was not recording observations of a curious event that no one had ever seen before. Mr Gore was spreading the word. Kind of like a Paul Revere without the threat of imprisonment and death, just name calling, character assignation, and a punching bag for professional comics. Just to be clear, I know Boslough and Huff Post did not use the same title for this article as Joe.

    Good piece though but Boslough did not mention the ongoing threat Kali and other Icelandic volcanoes pose to Europe and the world.