Eugene Linden
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Time Warp on Climate Change

 

In yesterday's New York Times, there were two articles on climate change. The first was a front page piece about how President Obama will try to end-run Congressional paralysis on dealing with climate change by seeking to update the existing Kyoto treaty in ways that comm...
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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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Silent Partners
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The Winds of Change

Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations Buy from Amazon “In this articulate polemic…Linden draws his conclusion from millennia of historical evidence….The authors passion for the world to comprehend a coming catastrophe helps propel his alarming narrative.” --Publishers Weekly “Relatively restrained in tone, and consequently more persuasive by its sobriety, Linden’s presentation of scientists’ theories on historical climate change will provoke readers concerned about the implications of global warming for modern civilization.” --Booklist “Linden lays out the evidence that climate change is the culprit behind the demise of civilizations….The effect of climate fluctuation on the planet is a hot topic….This text provides a sound orientation to a controversial subject.” --Kirkus Reviews “Hurricanes, floods, droughts, melting ice caps—Nature’s serving them up at what seems like an ever-increasing clip. Which makes this compelling account of the weather’s impact on civilization the book of the moment for all of us. Eugene Linden elegantly weaves history, science, and narrative into a must-read tale of the earth’s most powerful forces.” --Susan Casey, author of The Devil’s Teeth “The Winds of Change is fascinating—a tour de force. Linden has accumulated a greater comprehension of paleo-climatic and oceanographic issues than all but a very few scientists. I have nothing but admiration for this book, which is just what we need right now.” --George Woodwell, founder of the Woods Hole Research Center and former president of the Ecological Society of America “Eugene Linden’s drama is profoundly disturbing, yet strangely enthralling in its grand sweep across human history. He recounts the life and death of civilizations across millennia when the ‘angry beast’ of nature suddenly turned on people and destroyed their settled ways. We are now flirting with our uniquely man-made catastrophe. The danger seems more plausible (and scary) once you learn the true story science has uncovered about the past.” --William Greider, The Soul of Capitalism The possibility of drastic climate change as a result of human activity has been a fiercely debated subject since the 1970s. The science of climate change is still evolving, and its connection to particular weather events is difficult to establish. Yet the enormous damage inflicted on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina has alerted the public to the dangers of extreme weather as never before. Nevertheless, most Americans assume that if any fundamental change in the climate actually occurs, it will be gradual enough that our society and economy will be able to absorb the impact without any long-term disruption. Eugene Linden, a veteran writer on science and the environment, shakes such complacency to its core in THE WINDS OF CHANGE: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (Simon & Schuster; February 13, 2006; $26.00). Linden, the author of numerous Time magazine cover stories and acclaimed books including The Future in Plain Sight, contends that climate change is a “serial killer” that has destroyed or at least been a major accomplice in the fall of many civilizations, including the Akkadians of the ancient Middle East; the Assyrians and Minoans of 700 B.C.; the Byzantine, Peruvian, and Mayan empires; and the Vikings of Greenland in the fourteenth century A.D. His investigation of the human consequences of climate change has become possible only in the past few years, as reliable and highly precise data from new scientific techniques has been made available. In his vivid and engaging narrative, Linden presents compelling evidence of specific ways in which a changing climate may have disrupted agriculture, fostered the spread of disease, prompted migrations, devastated economies, undermined the legitimacy of rulers, and started wars. Against this backdrop of the havoc climate has caused in the past, Linden looks at the present and then the future, posing a series of questions. Is climate changing? What might those changes bring? Are we any better equipped than past civilizations to deal with dramatic climate change? WINDS OF CHANGE offers perhaps the most specific evocation yet of the ways individuals, businesses, economies and nations might be buffeted by a climate gone haywire. There is no longer any doubt that the climate is changing. Nearly all the warmest years of the last 120 years since modern records began have taken place since 1980, and the pace of warming only increased during the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century. In addition, over the past decade scientists have discovered that previous climate changes were often abrupt and catastrophically severe, rather than incremental, as had been previously thought. In other words, while we have comforted ourselves in the past by thinking that climate change is like gradually turning a dial, the reality is that shifts in climate are more like flipping an on-off switch. Yet scientists’ warnings about the potential perils of climate change have largely gone unheeded, a phenomenon that Linden explores. In part, the answer is that modern humans have had the good fortune to prosper and multiply during one of the most benign climate periods ever recorded. This makes it very difficult for anyone living today to imagine a climate that we could not cope with, since our reference point for climate change can only be the minor variations that have occurred in the near past. But as Linden shows, there is a limit to how many shocks on the order of Katrina, the killer heat wave of 2003 in Europe, or the floods of the 1990s in the American Midwest that even a rich and technologically advanced society can absorb before it spirals into precipitous decline. In December 2004, tourists stood on a Thai beach, gawking at an oncoming tsunami simply because they had never seen anything like it. Similarly, we may be making an equally fateful misjudgment by refusing to react to the coming wave of climate change with any sense of urgency. As a segue between ancient and future climate change, Linden looks at El Niño, a now-familiar event that is not nearly as disruptive as other climate events. Nonetheless, it has had huge impacts on humanity at various times by altering global storm tracks and rainfall patterns. Indeed, some historians argue that a series of El Niños in the late nineteenth century killed more people through droughts and famines than the two world wars of the twentieth century combined. The El Niño of 1997-1998 did more than $100 billion worth of damage to the global economy and killed tens of thousands of people. But when compared with the major climate changes that may be looming in the future, even the most severe El Niño would barely register. After exploring the bizarre politics swirling around the science of climate change, Linden looks forward, and offers one of the most detailed and well-founded analyses of what we may face in the future because of a changing climate. For example, even a moderate climate change – what one scientist calls a “best-case scenario” based on current trends – could reduce available water in the Los Angeles area by 50 percent by 2050. The winter snowpack would be smaller and melt earlier, causing the region to dry up prematurely each year. Eighty-eight percent of the water in California currently goes to agriculture, but some of that would have to be diverted to immediate human needs. Trees killed by drought and insects would become tinder for wildfires like the ones that destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California in 2003. Diseases liberated by the changing weather could afflict crops, livestock, and even humans, as was the case when El Niños led to outbreaks of the deadly Hanta virus in the Southwest in the 1990s. Linden writes: “Having proven through history that extreme climate shifts are costly if not fatal for past civilizations, our species is busily pushing the climate towards producing extremes never before experienced during modern times. Instead of preparing or trying to avert climate change, people are dismantling natural protections against climate extremes and making changes that will likely amplify the events themselves. The explanation is a combination of a collective failure of the imagination, and belief in the godlike power of markets and progress.” But we have a crucial advantage over past civilizations that were blindsided by climate change, Linden assures us – we can learn from their misfortunes. Like Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Eugene Linden’s THE WINDS OF CHANGE offers an intriguing history of some of the most calamitous events in history – this time through the lens of climate change. With new evidence of a changing climate emerging almost on a daily basis, and with the advent of cutting-edge technologies that can predict these occurrences and repercussions, Linden takes a hard and timely look at climate’s role in past disasters that will help us understand, anticipate, and avoid coming threats. ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eugene Linden writes about the environment, nature, science, and technology. He has written for Time, including many cover stories, for almost twenty years, and has contributed articles and essays to Atlantic, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Affairs, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Fortune, and Slate. He is the author of seven books, including The Octopus and the Orangutan: More Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity; The Parrot’s Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity; and The Future in Plain Sight, which the Rocky Mountain News called “the most important book of the decade.” Linden speaks frequently about nature and the environment and is the recipient of numerous journalism awards. He lives in Washington, D.C. ABOUT THE BOOK: THE WINDS OF CHANGE: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations By Eugene Linden Published by Simon & Schuster February 13, 2006 0-684-86352-9 www.simonandschuster.com Buy from Amazon

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Short Take

Since 1998, when The Future in Plain Sight was published, I’ve been watching the nine clues to future instability that I put forth in that book come into to the headlines one by one, and, unfortunately, way ahead of schedule. The basic argument in TFIPS is that the contours of the future might best be glimpsed through the filter of stability. While predicting whether we’d all have personal flying machines is a fool’s errand, we could know a lot if we could make an informed guess as to whether the future was likely to be more or less stable than the present.

With that in mind, I proposed nine, long wave-length trends/clues that strongly implied that the future would be less stable than the present. After exploring how different an unstable world is from a relatively stable one (less investment and innovation, religion/family/clan more important, etc), the book offered a series of scenarios set in the year 2050, which tried to put some flesh on what such a future might look like.

Alas, it looks like we won’t have to wait until 2050 to see this unstable future. We have had vivid, real world examples of the disruptions wrought by religious extremists (the chapter “The Rise of the True Believers” was written before the religious right gained ascendence here, and radical Islam began its bombings and wars); a disappearing Middle Class (“the Ubiquitous Wage Gap”); markets wrecking economic chaos (“Hot-Tempered Markets”); and so on.

And now, with the Ebola crisis, unless the world takes action real fast, we are going to witness the unholy synergy of three other clues offered in the book – “Infectious Disease Resurgent,” “A Biosphere in Disarray,” and the inherent instability of swollen, emerging nation cities. Wholesale ecological disruption very likely played a role in Ebola jumping from its animal host to humans, its emergence also signals that the “honeymoon” from infectious disease that started with sanitation in the late 19th century and the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th, is coming to an end, and the swollen cities of emerging nations are providing the springboards for the return of the microbes.

In the years since I wrote that book, I’ve looked back many times, wondering whether I was wrong about any of the clues, or whether I missed one that I should have added. One such candidate for inclusion is the rise of international criminal gangs. The drug cartels and their affiliates have made much of Mexico to dangerous to travel, and similar, large scale criminal enterprises destabilize scores of cities around the world.

As for a clue where I might have overstated the threat, there is one that bears directly on whether or not the world will contain the Ebola threat. That clue focused on the destabilizing aspects of the emergence of megacities. Given their size and importance to regional economies, it is easy to see how problems in a megacity could bring down an entire nation’s economy. What happens to Japan, for instance, if radiation from Fukushima continually worsens and makes Tokyo uninhabitable, or, what happens to Brazil if large parts of Sao Paolo really do run out of water, as is threatened now? On the other hand, these giant cities also create a critical mass of intelligence and the capital to deploy it. There's a ray of hope in the fact that an Ebola carrier made it to Lagos, the very poster child of a city always on the verge of collapse, and yet the city was able to respond and contain the disease. If the home of kleptocrats and email scams can deal with Ebola, maybe other African cities can too. Go Lagos!



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