The Christian Science Monitor Online
March 04, 2008
Climate change’s most deadly threat: drought
Anthropologist Brian Fagan uses Earth’s distant
past to predict the crises that may lie in its
By Todd Wilkinson
Spring is on its way back to northern latitudes.
In many locales, it will arrive earlier than
“normal,” yielding, ostensibly, a longer growing
season, a hotter summer, balmier autumn, and
future winters will lack their ferocious
While vineyards are being planned for northern
England, millions of residents around desiccated
Atlanta are praying for enough rain to flow
through their taps.
Brian Fagan believes climate is not merely a
backdrop to the ongoing drama of human
civilization, but an important stage upon which
world events turn.
As it turns out, the anecdotal evidence of
climate change in this, the 21st century, shares
much in common with a historical antecedent, the
Medieval Warm Period, circa AD 800 to 1200, that
radically shaped societies across the globe.
The Medieval Warm Period was a time when the
capacity of agriculture rapidly expanded and
enabled people to flourish in Europe. Yet
elsewhere, extended lack of rainfall, or too much
of it, brought famine, plagues, and wars.
This bout of global warming was followed by the
Little Ice Age that lasted roughly from AD 1300
until the middle of the 19th century and cast
Europe and North America back into a big chill.
Since then, mean global temperature has been
slowly and steadily rising, accompanied by huge
leaps in agricultural output and skyrocketing
Today, climate experts tell us that over the past
two decades, temperature has registered an
alarming unnatural spike and is expected to keep
Despite the well-established fact that Earth is
heating up, skeptics still are trying to poke
holes in the assertion that it is owed to humans
pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere. Climate
change is, and always has been cyclical, they
say. Or maybe, some insist, it is God who has his
hand on the thermostat.
In his new book, The Great Warming: Climate
Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,
Fagan does not engage in secular or religious
ponderances. An anthropologist and professor
emeritus at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, the British-born author sees harvest
seasons and weather patterns of the past as
providing vital prologue for a fast approaching,
In recent years, a flood of books about global
warming has been written for the lay audience.
Among the most noteworthy: Tim Flannery’s “The
Weather Makers”; Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Notes From
A Catastrophe”; Eugene Linden’s “The Winds of
Change”; and Ross Gelbspan’s “The Heat Is On.”
Each scopes out its own piece of the climate
puzzle, from tundra to tropics and atmosphere to
ocean, using plain narratives to explain a
phenomenon that, when left to scientific lexicon,
can seem too complicated to grasp.
Fagan, author of the bestselling “The Little Ice
Age,” makes an original contribution in “The
Great Warming” by summoning attention to what he
calls “the silent elephant in the room”: drought.
As polar icecaps melt and glaciers disappear,
thus causing seas to rise, low-lying coastal
areas may indeed be inundated, creating millions
of environmental refugees. But it is the inland
agricultural breadbasket regions that feed the
world that stand to suffer the greatest upheaval
if reliable precipitation patterns vanish.
Such a scenario is not speculative, Fagan
insists; it’s based upon not only sophisticated
computer models, but also the precedent of what’s
already happened during episodes of climate
change half a millennium ago – in the Arctic,
Europe, China, the Southern Hemisphere, and in
America’s own backyard. By taking readers back to
the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age,
Fagan argues that history “shows how drought can
destabilize a society and lead to its collapse.”
Amid disturbances to growing seasons, humans
suffered mightily, though our ancestors proved
their resilience by adjusting opportunistically
to changes that manifested over generations.
That’s the good news.
But the difference between then and now is that
climate is changing faster today and the
corresponding effects of drought over the next
century have implications for hundreds of
millions, if not billions, of people, some living
in the wealthiest of nations, who Fagan believes
are unprepared to cope with severe water
“Droughts are expensive in human terms and also
carry a high economic price,” he writes. “The
notorious Dust Bowl droughts of the 1934-40 over
the Great Plains scarred an entire generation.
Three and a half million people fled the land.”
Imagine the Dust Bowl lasting centuries with no
end in sight.
Now imagine the superproduce fields of
California’s Central Valley and the fast-growing
Southwest, with desert cities like Phoenix,
Tucson, Las Vegas, El Paso, and greater Los
Angeles-San Diego confronting depleted aquifers
and dry aquaducts.
To his credit, Fagan resists the temptation –
until his final chapter – to rant, calmly guiding
readers to global venues, like the Mimbres in
Chaco Canyon, the Mayan on the Yucatán Peninsula
of Mexico, and the sophisticated Cambodians at
Angkor Wat where humanity thrived in warming
environs only to perish from droughts. (Fagan’s
analysis is reminiscent of that by Jared Diamond
in “Guns, Germs & Steel” and “Collapse.”)
Events once considered anomalies, such as the
current drought gripping metro Atlanta, could be
commonplace and the kind of social mayhem
witnessed during the aftermath of hurricane
Katrina widespread. Globally, he points to the
millions upon millions of people in Asia who rely
upon fresh water emanating from glaciers in the
Himalaya that are now disappearing and desert
areas of Africa where drought events are
foretelling larger disasters.
The imperative for policymakers, he says, is a
massive and unprecedented intervention on a
global scale. Civilization depends on it.
“We’re not good at planning for our
great-grandchildren yet this is what is required
of our generation and those who follow,” he
writes. “Drought and water are probably the
overwhelmingly important issues for this and
future centuries, times when we will have to
become accustomed to making altruistic decisions
that will benefit not necessarily ourselves but
generations yet unborn. This requires political
and social thinking of a kind that barely exists
“The Great Warming” is a riveting work that will
take your breath away and leave you scrambling
for a cool drink of water. The latter is a luxury
to enjoy in the present, Fagan notes, because it
may be in very short supply in the future.
* Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer in Bozeman, Mont.
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