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Killing 40 million people? Now, that's green!

Bust of Genghis Khan

Who knew that killing 40 million people could be hailed as having a “positive” effect on global warming?

Apparently, whether he knew it or not, Genghis Khan’s invasions of the 13th and 14th centuries were so sweeping, it “may have been the first instance in history of a single culture causing man-made climate change,” marvels enviro-journalist Bryan Nelson.

The mass slaughter, Nelson writes in a Mother Nature Network report, was actually able to cool the environment by “effectively scrubbing around 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere.”

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The research on Khan’s net effect on the environment was first published in the climate-change journal The Holocene, prompting Nelson to pen his article titled “Was Genghis Khan History’s Greenest Conqueror?”

“So how exactly did Genghis Khan, one of history’s cruelest conquerors, earn such a glowing environmental report card?” Nelson writes. “The reality may be a bit difficult for today’s environmentalists to stomach, but Khan did it the same way he built his empire – with a high body count.”

“Over the course of the century and a half run of the Mongol Empire,” Nelson explains, “about 22 percent of the world’s total land area had been conquered and an estimated 40 million people were slaughtered by the horse-driven, bow-wielding hordes. Depopulation over such a large swathe of land meant that countless numbers of cultivated fields eventually returned to forests.

“In other words,” Nelson concludes, “one effect of Genghis Khan’s unrelenting invasion was widespread reforestation, and the re-growth of those forests meant that more carbon could be absorbed from the atmosphere.”

Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology was lead author of the study into Khan’s environmental impact.

“It’s a common misconception that the human impact on climate began with the large-scale burning of coal and oil in the industrial era,” said Pongratz in a statement. “Actually, humans started to influence the environment thousands of years ago by changing the vegetation cover of the Earth’s landscapes when we cleared forests for agriculture.”

Pongratz and her colleagues focused their study on four historical events that she theorized could have killed enough people to make room for massive reforestation: the Black Death in Europe, the fall of China’s Ming Dynasty, the conquest of the Americas and the Mongol invasion.

“We found that during the short events such as the Black Death and the Ming Dynasty collapse, the forest re-growth wasn’t enough to overcome the emissions from decaying material in the soil,” explains Pongratz. “But during the longer-lasting ones like the Mongol invasion and the conquest of the Americas, there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon.”

The research has already been reported widely, not only on Mother Nature News, but also in newspapers around the world and on conservationist websites like Mongabay and Planetsave, the latter of which hailed Khan as “an environmentalist.”

Reader comments on the stories, however, have blasted Nelson and others for celebrating in the name of climate change a man whose hordes killed an estimated 40 million people.

“I am a liberal,” claims one Mother Nature News reader, “[but] praising Genghis Khan for his impact on the environment is … insane.”

“Anyone who doubts that environmentalists are the most anti-human group in the world, think about this,” scathes a comment from another reader. “Their admiration for a first-class murderer ought to tell humans just what their game is – no morality, just reduce carbon and exterminate human life.”

Columnists and commentators aside, the researchers behind the study claim their research is relevant to today’s climate controversies, but left specific application of their findings somewhat vague.

“In the past we have had a substantial impact on global climate and the carbon cycle, but it was all unintentional,” explains Pongratz. “Based on the knowledge we have gained from the past, we are now in a position to make land-use decisions that will diminish our impact on climate and the carbon cycle. We cannot ignore the knowledge we have gained.”