3.2 A Vexed Question: Climate Change and Uncertainty in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Tuesday, 12 January 2016: 2:30 PM
Room 231/232 ( New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center)
Joseph Giacomelli, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

In 1889, Adolphus Greely of the U.S. Signal Corps referred to the issue of human influence on climate as a “vexed question” which is “not susceptible of positive proof or disproof.” Greely's statement was part of a climate controversy which stretched from the years after the Civil War into the Progressive Era and from small-town lecture halls to the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington. Boosters, land speculators, and railroad agents argued that tree plantations and newly-planted crops could improve the climate of the Intermountain West and Great Plains, creating a utopia for yeoman farmers. Some scientists, surveyors, and bureaucrats concurred while others expressed doubts about the ability of forest culture and agriculture to modify weather patterns. The sources produced over the course of this debate are rife with paradox and uncertainty. Sometimes ardent expansionists admitted that Manifest Destiny and capitalist expansion had damaged landscapes and climates. Sometimes proponents of modern positivist science acknowledged that the causes of climate change remained in the “realms of the unknown.” And sometimes even the most determined advocates of human-induced climate change admitted the insignificance of humanity before the scale and mystery of “nature.” My paper explores the role of uncertainty in Gilded Age and Progressive-Era thinking about climate and environment. By examining the dialectic between scientific certainty and doubt, I hope to shed some light on the nature of Westward expansionism, the making of the American conservation movement, and the development of modern climate science.
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