Various striking things happened on this day in history – ranging from the 1972 arrest of Argentina’s most psychopathic serial killer ever, Carlos Robledo Puch (capable of removing an accomplice’s face with a sandblaster when he suspected betrayal) to the start of the 1945 Yalta conference to redefine the world map (unfinished business judging from the current war disputing that Black Sea resort at the bottom tip of Crimea alongside generally disrupting the globe) and the 2004 launch of Facebook – but one of the literally burning issues of today’s world is evoked by going back even further in time.
To the year 1900 – to the first week of the first February of the past century which is remembered here as “La Semana del Fuego” when ferocious temperatures of a daily 37 degrees reaching heat index peaks of close to 50 degrees killed off 475 people nationwide, including almost half that number (227) just in this city on this day alone, 123 years ago today. And this in a world of 1.65 billion people (as against eight billion since last November) with around five percent of today’s industrial output and hence presumably carbon emissions, even if environmentally heedless.
Recollection of that yesteryear scorcher surely complicates the climate change debate. This does not mean that the sceptics are right but nor can climate change militants lazily ride the growing consensus on their side without doing their own homework – their cause cannot be a fad or a dogma but must show solid scientific grounding. There have been extreme climatic events throughout history – thus in the years 1303, 1306 and 1307 the Baltic Sea ceased to exist, being entirely frozen over throughout the year, not to mention the Ice Age lasting millions of years and only concluding about 12 millennia ago after putting an end to dinosaurs. And even if we restrict our scrutiny to 1900 in this part of the world, La Semana del Fuego was not the only extreme event – while such searing temperatures might lead us to expect a drought on a par with this year, 1900 was one of the worst years for flooding in Argentine history with over six million hectares of fertile pampa under water in Buenos Aires Province alone.
In a word it’s complicated – even in this century weather patterns have been so erratic that what started off as “global warming” is now “climate change,” given the severity of some winters. Fluctuations which can unfold in an amazingly short period of time – thus one of the Whitest Christmases in memory in North America was followed by a New Year’s Day last month with the snow all gone, following an abrupt thaw close to room temperature in New York. But scientists point out that the record highs now double the record lows when the latter slightly outnumbered the former around the time of Yalta.
Entering into the climate change debate, militants need to take on board that there were freak events in the distant past like those killer temperatures 123 years ago today and rather than deny their existence, underline that they were exactly that – freak events and not persistent trends like nowadays unfolding 20 to 50 times faster than any previous climate change, as demonstrated by a weight of scientific evidence. For their part, not all antagonists of climate change action are denialists. Some acknowledge that it is happening and would even admit that it has reached a point where extreme measures would be needed to reverse it – measures like returning to the Stone Age or at least that 1900 world of 1.65 billion people which are not worth the cost in their opinion.
We could continue pitting rising ocean levels and temperatures against the alleged advance of Arctic ice in the last decade etc. but this debate is clearly too vast for this column. Yet vast as it is, it also still has a long way to go before arriving at conclusive arguments – despite the huge volume of information, there is still not enough data (especially historical) and numerous projections made earlier in this century have failed to pan out.
Rather than continuing the debate, it might be more to the point to ask why there is so little of it in Argentina. Starting at the top – there was first an Environment Secretariat in 1973 (continuously since 1991 and even briefly a ministry under Mauricio Macri between 2015 and 2018) but in all that time the only secretary showing any previous interest was the prize-winning activist Romina Picolotti, who only lasted 30 months (2006-2008) because she was unable to control her greedy family and was fired for nepotism and corruption. The current Environment Secretary Juan Cabandié – a La Cámpora militant before his appointment – could not be bothered to attend the COP27 conference on climate change in Egypt between November 6 and 18 with no sign that he had anything better to do although had he gone, he could have flown on to the nearby World Cup in Qatar starting two days later with a relatively clear conscience.
Yet it is a chronic Argentine vice to expect everything from the government and then heap all the blame on them – climate change awareness needs to start from the bottom up.