Eugene Linden
home   |   contact info   |   biography   |   publications   |   radio/tv   |   musings   |   short takes   

Latest Musing

A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize.

N...

continue

Latest Book

Deep Past
Buy from Amazon

more info

Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon

more info
Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
more info


The Future In Plain Sight
more info


The Parrot's Lament
more info


Silent Partners
more info


Affluence and Discontent
more info


The Alms Race
more info


Apes, Men, & Language
more info


center content

winds-of-change


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

contact Eugene Linden

Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



read more
  designed and maintained by g r a v i t y s w i t c h , i n c .
© Eugene Linden. all rights reserved.