More Smoke than Fire: Some Informal Climate Math

One of the environmental left’s favorite pictures to paint is of North America as a pristine ecological paradise prior to the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Often, the most hysterical headlines about climate change employ alarming phrases such as “For the first time in human history!” and “Never before seen levels!” and “All-time highs!”

I’ve always been a little skeptical. Weathermen often announce the breaking of temperature records set in 1885 and 1917. How could that be? If weather variations are all explainable by carbon levels in the atmosphere, what exactly could have caused the odd 87-degree, late-November day in New York City during the administration of Grover Cleveland?

Anyway, there’s a story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about a plan being considered to ban the use of fire pits on beaches in Southern California. Roasting marshmallows with sand between your toesies is evidently a treasured local tradition. Sounds nice to me.

Naturally, a killjoy commission has been established to examine the environmental effects of the area’s 857 beach-fire pits. It’s called the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Last week, the air-quality board released preliminary findings of a study on the fires, which found that in one evening a pit emits as much fine-particulate pollution as “one heavy-duty diesel truck driving 564 miles.”

I’m not that good at math, but Google is. If every one of those fire pits was working at full capacity every night of the year (857 X 564 X 365) that would be the equivalent of about 176.5 million diesel truck miles worth of fine-particulate pollution annually. So, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District report, the fire pits of Southern California are capable of belching into the air every year roughly the same amount of pollution that you’d expect from a heavy-duty diesel truck making 36,526 round trips between Huntington Beach, California and Jacksonville, Florida.

Okay, so the fires aren’t blazing every night. But the story got me thinking about a time when they were—and on a scale bigger than in Los Angeles or Orange Counties.

The Native American population north of the Rio Grande at the time of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas was—at a minimum—10 million. Who knows how many tribes, families, and discreet social units were to be found in a population of 10 million? But for the sake of argument, let’s make a very conservative guess that this 10 million was broken up into 1 million families of 10 people each.

Can we agree that semi-nomadic, pre-modern peoples—especially hunter-gatherers—built fires for cooking and such? Can we agree further that they probably did so every night? So, let’s estimate that 1 million families north of the Rio Grande built an open-pit, wood fire every night during the pre-Colombian era.

Using the South Coast Air Quality Management District report figures, that’s 564 million miles worth of diesel-truck pollution in the United States and Canada every night in a time when not a single car, truck, airplane, or factory was anywhere to be found. It’s almost 206 billion miles worth of diesel-truck pollution in the atmosphere annually—the equivalent of about 43 million round trips between California and Florida.

Of course, once the Europeans got here, the number of fires built every evening in North America expanded alongside the rapidly multiplying population. Cough cough.

There are three possible conclusions as I see it. Either:

  1. The South Coast Air Quality Management District report is really over-estimating the amount of smoke these fires throw off;

  2. The North American atmosphere in the pre-Colombian era was a lot more polluted than has been previously appreciated; or
  3. The hysteria about global warming has reached an absolute fever-pitch of insanity.

What do you think?