Eugene Linden
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CanWe Really Understand Matter [John Clauser just won the Nobel Prize in physics. I wrote about his groundbreaking work in Time Magazine in 1990]

Few tasks are more daunting than standing in the path of a charging theoretical physicist who is hell-bent on getting funding for the next particle accelerator. As practitioners of the hardest of the hard sciences, physicists do little to discourage their aura of intellectual supremacy, particula...



Fire & Flood
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Deep Past
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Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation

The Ragged Edge of the World

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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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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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 Buy from Amazon

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Short Take



[This article appeared in the Ideas section of TIME on Nov. 18, 2022]

Global population surpassed 8 billion this week, a shocking milestone because back in the 1990s this threshold was not expected to be breached until 2050. Whether you’re a dour Malthusian or a technological optimist, one thing is undeniable: The 2.7 billion people added to global population since 1990 makes the task of averting a climate catastrophe vastly more challenging than it was when global warming first arose as a mainstream concern.

Getting to zero net emissions in 1990—when fossil fuels were putting 22.4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) into the atmosphere—was hard enough. Now, we have to eliminate those emissions along with roughly 14 billion tons of annual GHG emissions resulting from population growth. Equally daunting, with climate changes here and intensifying, we have to start now. Nor can we count on the biosphere to continue to sequester a small portion of our emissions as the oceans are already showing stress from existing accumulations of carbon dioxide and our forests continue to be degraded in the quest to feed and house our ever-growing numbers.

In short, we have a bigger rock to push up the hill and ever less time to do it. We have to. The alternative is simply too dire to imagine.

Business as usual takes us to a 2.5 to 3 degree Celsius warming from pre-industrial levels. The last time the planet was that warm was during the Pliocene, some 2.6 million years ago. There was plenty of life back then, but no humans, and, given the way rising temperatures decrease yields and alter weather patterns, it’s very unlikely that a world that much warmer could feed the 8 billion alive today, much less the 2 billion people likely to be added in the coming decades.

So, we have to cut emissions and fast. How? There is no single magic bullet, but there are certain things that simply have to happen, and the global community can create the incentives to make them happen.

One of them is family planning, which until now has been largely absent from the conversation around global warming. Today, the global average for per capita carbon dioxide emissions (the dominant greenhouse gas) is about 4.4 metric tons, according to the International Energy Agency. (For comparison, India’s annual per capita CO2 emissions are about 1.7 metric tonsChina’s 7 tons, and the U.S., 13 tons.)

Most of the expected 2 billion people will be born in the poorer nations. These nations burn fewer fossil fuels, but all aspire to raise their standard of living, which, given today’s energy mix, means more GHG emissions per capita. Even without economic growth, that population increase would mean roughly four billion additional metric tons of CO2 going into the atmosphere each year. That’s about a 10% increase, and, as of today, the world has never been able to voluntarily reduce annual emissions.

Population should be part of climate discussions, but I cannot remember a time when family planning has been featured in international efforts. Yes, it’s a hot button topic in many of the emerging nations, many of which take affront when the rich nations ask them to stabilize their numbers. But its absence from the agenda from last week’s COP27 is a tell that the Congress of Parties process is not a serious effort to really tackle the risk of climate change.

Population growth is the elephant in the room for climate change, but it is also the elephant in the room for ecological issues such as tropical deforestationdesertification, the extinction crisis, the destabilizing of earth’s life support systems on land and in the oceans; demographic issues such as involuntary migration, fresh water, and food insecurity; and political issues such as civil unrest and state failure. Slowing population growth will reduce pressures on all of these issues and threats.

Population growth is a fraught issue. In the last few decades, a major driver to limit family size has been the demographic shift towards urban areas. In cities, additional kids become a liability because of the higher costs of housing and food. This shows that people can change attitudes towards family size quite rapidly, given incentives and access to family planning. For governments, the incentive should be the prospect of a climate Hell if population continues to increase by several hundred million people every decade. Many emerging nations have made great strides in lowering infant mortality, but, all too often efforts on maternal and infant health are not coupled with access to family planning, which is one reason why human numbers surpassed 8 billion two decades ahead of schedule.Population growth is a fraught issue. In the last few decades, a major driver to limit family size has been the demographic shift towards urban areas. In cities, additional kids become a liability because of the higher costs of housing and food. This shows that people can change attitudes towards family size quite rapidly, given incentives and access to family planning. For governments, the incentive should be the prospect of a climate Hell if population continues to increase by several hundred million people every decade. Many emerging nations have made great strides in lowering infant mortality, but, all too often efforts on maternal and infant health are not coupled with access to family planning, which is one reason why human numbers surpassed 8 billion two decades ahead of schedule.

There are many reasons for not adding the next 2 billion to global population, but the absolute exigency of lowering global GHG emissions should be sufficient to return population pressures to the international agenda. More to the point, if humanity does not voluntarily control our numbers, climate change and its four horsemen of heat, floods, droughts, and storms, will do it for us.


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