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Climate change's most deadly threat: drought

Anthropologist Brian Fagan uses Earth's distant past to predict the crises that may lie in its future.

By Todd Wilkinson / March 4, 2008

The Great Warming By Brian Fagan Bloomsbury Press 282 pp., $26.95


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 post-Pleistocene bites.

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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 human population.

Today, climate experts tell us that over the past two decades, temperature has registered an alarming unnatural spike and is expected to keep climbing.

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, water-challenged future.

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."