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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 198-199

Will History Repeat Itself on Climate Change?


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Sujatha Byravan

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Byravan S. Will History Repeat Itself on Climate Change?. Conservat Soc 2008;6:198-9

How to cite this URL:
Byravan S. Will History Repeat Itself on Climate Change?. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Feb 26];6:198-9. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/2/198/55777

Eugene Linden. The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations. Simon & Schuster, New York, USA. 2006. 303 pp. USD 26 (Hardcover). ISBN 0-684-86352-9.

I read Elizabeth Kolbert's extraordinary three part series on climate change in The New Yorker magazine in 2005. In them she described the demise of the Akkadian empire 4000 years ago from drought and famines brought on by changes in climate. The article was accompanied by the image of the statue of an Akkadian man's face-angular, granular, bearded and strong-that remains vivid in my mind. I wondered then, as someone who was familiar with and worked on some aspects of climate change, whether other cultures and civilisations had similarly been destroyed by climate change and what stories those people who perished might be able to tell us if they could. The Winds of Change by Eugene Linden is the book I have been waiting for.

There are a handful of good books on climate change. They cover the technical aspects of how climate works, how we should measure our carbon footprint, change our lives and what sorts of tools and lifestyle changes are necessary-all very important pieces of information that we should be aware of. Nevertheless, unlike concerns such as biodiversity or recycling that people can relate to as a part of their everyday lives, climate change is an abstract subject. It is difficult for people to identify with a rising line indicating carbon dioxide levels measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, or to be concerned about a mere two degree rise in average global temperatures by the end of the century. Add to this the complicated science in which warming might lead to cooling and flickering of weather patterns instead of clear progressive change in temperature. Then mix in the decades or century-long time scales at which these changes are taking place. Now include the confusion caused by the media in presenting a complex science and the politicisation of the matter by government and many big businesses. Given this scenario it is not surprising that one might in fact roughly divide the world into those who are very concerned about climate change (a group that turns out to be smaller than one might imagine) and those who don't care to learn about it because of the confusion and because they see enough 'real' problems that need to be solved.

One of the few effective ways in which one may therefore communicate with today's public about climate change might be by telling them about other civilisations that perished: the Vikings, Natufians, Akkadians, the Indus Valley civilisations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, and others in Africa and in the Americas. All of them were destroyed either due to changes in climate or changes in which climate was the key accomplice. In The Winds of Change, people from several past civilizations speak through Linden's lucid writing. Many such as the Akkads had sophisticated social organisations, agriculture and trade. One of the Akkadian cities, Tell Leilan, located in present day Syria, was a thriving urban centre. 'By 2200 B.C. Tell Leilan had been an urban area roughly as long as New York City had in 2006' (p. 52). The dissipation of such civilisations was thus no simple matter. Changes in wind patterns and precipitation probably led to lamentations (found on ancient tablets) such as the one referred to as the 'Curse of the Akkad'. Linden refers to climate as a serial killer that has stalked civilisations for a long time and this killer is still at large.

Nevertheless, The Winds of Change is not merely a historical narrative. Linden goes into details regarding the science of climate change in a few chapters and examines paleontological evidence on climate in past civilisations. He does not gloss over data that is open to interpretation, but explains the ambiguities with care and reasonable clarity. I have not read a climate book that does not have at least some boring graphs that make my eyes gloss over. This book has a few images and less than a handful of simple graphs. Writing about thermohaline circulation and El Niños in a coherent manner is a difficult task, but one does not notice the strain in Linden's writing.

Weaving the past with the present and the future, The Winds of Change reads for the most part like a thriller that the reader will find difficult to put down, but one in which the mystery ending-the future fate of our present civilisation-is left for us to decide.

The long good climate we have enjoyed since around the 1820s is coming to an end. According to Linden, 'One would have to go back 115,000 years to find a period as tranquil and warm as the present-day Holocene' (p. 248). The Kyoto Protocol mandates a reduction of 5 per cent below 1990 levels, but this is not likely to be attained. In the past, people did not have the tools to understand climate cycles, but that is not the case today. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose positions are often diluted since it is by design an international multi-party organisation (with more than 1500 scientists from over sixty countries), predicts a tripling of carbon dioxide from pre-industrial levels and a rise in average global temperatures of 5 °C by the end of this century. The WBGU (Der Wissenschaftliche Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen - German Advisory Council on Global Change), as well as several prominent scientists like NASA's (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) James Hansen, anticipate a sea level rise in the order of metres by the end of the century and the IPCC about a half metre. It is abundantly clear that climate change is an area in which precautionary action to protect our civilisation will have to be taken before every detail of the complexity in the science can be ironed out.

Current global carbon dioxide levels of 380 parts per million (ppm) are the highest they have been over the past 500,000 years. If we reach the expected levels of 880-1000 ppm, the warming abilities the atmosphere will attain will not have been seen for 30-40 million years. What is unnerving is that the climate models used by scientists are not able to reproduce the temperature changes that we know were present in past paleoclimatic periods. This implies that our models probably do not have some of the internal feedback mechanisms that will likely amplify warming. For example, as soils warm bacteria respire more and release more carbon dioxide, as the oceans warm their ability to absorb carbon dioxide reduces. Though general discussion in public forums is usually about gradual change in climate, abrupt climate change described by scientists such as Broecker [1] remains a very likely scenario. Sudden and extreme changes leave no chance for ecosystems and societies to adapt and thus could wipe out unprepared communities rapidly.

An interesting aside in this book is about the conditions seen in past El Niños under colonial rule when there were relief 'concentration' camps in 1877 during the famines in British India which provided the established 'Temple wage', one pound of rice a day, for men doing heavy labour. It was '123 calories less than starvation rations of the Nazi death camp Buchenwald' (p.196) and 'Grown men shrank to 60 pounds' (p. 196) and deaths in such camps could be annualised to 94 per cent according to one estimate. It already appears that the brunt of current climate change effects will largely be borne by developing nations. How will this play out in a globalised world in which the rich people and rich countries are reaping the benefits of globalisation and the poor will bear the adverse impacts? Will there be such camps for climate exiles?

One may not see concentration camps, but with rising seas, droughts and famine, according to most experts mass migrations are certainties. What then would be the plight of increasing numbers of unwelcome migrants with no legal status? We now live in a more or less globalised world (ignoring agricultural and other subsidies and some closed markets) and climate is a truly global problem. The challenge posed by climate change is the test of how we with our diversity of resources, geographies and histories can work together to save our planet. The knowledge that our ancestors failed this test is disheartening but can we, who have the means to learn from them, rise to the challenge?

This lucid book is written by a science journalist with a keen sense of how to persuade and communicate with ease. It is divided into six sections that cover the histories of various civilisations and how they perished, the evidence from paleoclimatology and the forensics of climate history, further details relating to the section one, El Niños and how they have carved histories, public opinion and how it is being shaped, and the final section on the future based on what we know today. The chapters flow easily from one to another and the book also includes a useful chronology of scientific discoveries related to climate science. The Winds of Change can serve as one of the must read books on climate change, but other books such as The Suicidal Planet [2] and Heat [3] provide detailed and real answers to the question of how to move forward. This last section is the weakest in The Winds of Change and it is perhaps the most important. Each of these three books has a valuable perspective and together they complement one another and form a triad that ought to be read by everybody. As George Monbiot says, 'The crisis we face demands a profound philosophical discussion, a reappraisal of who we are and what progress means'[4]. We may not have much time left to get to it.

   References Top

1.Broecker, W.S. 1997. Thermohaline circulation, the Achilles heel of our climate system: Will man-made CO2 upset the curreny balance? Science Magazine 278(5343): 1582-1588.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Hillman, M., T. Fawcett and S.C. Rajan. 2008. The Suicidal Planet. St. Martin's Press, New York, USA.  Back to cited text no. 2      
3.Monbiot, G. 2007. Heat. South End Press, Cambridge, USA.  Back to cited text no. 3      
4.Comment by G. Monbiot in The Guardian, 4 December 2007.  Back to cited text no. 4      


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