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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.

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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.

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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 shortages.

"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 today."

"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.