Book Weighs Cultural Effects of Climate Change

Eugene Linden, author of The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilization talks about how climate change could change civilization. From the Mayan empire to the Vikings, civilizations have risen and fallen, he argues, in large part because of the climate.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

But as I say, for the rest of the hour we're going to be changing gears a little bit and talk about climate change. Now, we talk about global warming and climate change a lot, but my next guest has actually looked at the historical effects of climate change. And, you know, we've been seeing a lot of it right now all over the planet. There's melting tundra in Alaska, the disappearance of glaciers atop mountains, we've got the hottest years on record. But my next guest says that, historically, climate change has been a major force for the change, for change throughout history. You can look at all the kinds of revolutions we've had, but a lot of them have come on the tail of a climate change.

In his new book, Winds of Change, Eugene Linden traces the impact that climates have had from the Mayan empires to the Viking civilizations. They have risen, they have fallen, he argues, in large part because of the climate. So what does that mean now for our civilization because are we on a cusp of a new climate change? Are we going to be looking for higher insurance prices, housing markets that are going to change, fuel costs are going to rise? If you think about it, climate change would change a lot about the way we live.

And according to my guest, I mean, this is really interesting, the climate change, he says, we are seeing now isn't happening gradually. It's going to be an abrupt shift. And that's going to force us to radically alter the way we live. Eugene Linden is the author of seven books. For many years he wrote about environmental issues for Time Magazine. His new book is, I say, The Winds of Change. Welcome to Science Friday, Eugene.

EUGENE LINDEN (Author, The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilization): Delighted to be here.

FLATOW: I think the most interesting, the book was very interesting on a lot of levels, but I think the most fascinating part about the book was to, as I say, the impacts climate changes of the past have really been the driving forces and how abruptly you think this one is going to happen.

Mr. LINDEN: Right. Well, my simple thought was if we look back at what climate has done in the past, we could get an idea of what climate change might do to us now or in the future. And it's something that, it's the kind of undertaking that could only be done in the last decade or so because up until then we really didn't have the data to have precise reconstructions of past climate.

But what emerges, when you look at it, is that climate has been a serial killer down through the ages, that people have made the recurring mistake of, well, it's not a mistake, but they're fruitful and they multiply during good weather, and the fatal mistake is assuming the good weather's going to continue, and then climate reshuffles the deck and civilizations fall. And that pattern goes back thousands of years. And in fact, there's some who argue that climate change played a role in human evolution.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm

Mr. LINDEN: So the question is, if in fact climate has been this serial killer, are we, what's different now? Are we different? That's always the question. We have this wonderful, we have technology, we have these markets for spreading risk, we have the ability to look at past climates, what they've done, we have the ability to look at the future.

And so you'd say are we more resilient? And the answer is yes. We can see that simply that El Nino has killed tens of millions of people in the 19th century and equally strong El Ninos, while having devastating economic effects, did not have nearly the death toll in this century. Does that lead us to be complacent? Absolutely not. Two reasons. One, we're far more...

FLATOW: But you say, but you say we are complacent, though.

Mr. LINDEN: We're totally complacent. There's other reasons for that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. LINDEN: But we shouldn't be. I mean, we're, while we're much more resilient than past civilizations, we're much more leveraged for good weather than any past civilization. We have six billion people getting 40 percent of their sustenance from five staple crops produced in just a few food-exporting nations. So that's one reason. And we can't be complacent because climate is changing around us. I mean, if you look at this, you'd say, well, we have the advantage of hindsight, we have the advantage of science. Everybody's doing their job except we're sort of blasé and oblivious to the dramatic changes that we're seeing around us. And if these changes, if climate changes in a way even remotely similar to the ways it's changed in the historical record, the consequences could be economically ruinous.

FLATOW: I think the concern that is most troubling, I guess, is the recent talk about the change of the global water patterns, the currents that warm the Atlantic Ocean in England, and up there through Europe, possibly changing with the runoff of icy waters from Greenland.

Mr. LINDEN: Right. I mean that...

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. LINDEN: That's been an ongoing concern, and what was funny in the fall was, right after a meeting in Aspen when a bunch of climate modelers got together, and it, in essence, tended to downplay that threat. Well, not downplaying the threat of climate change at all, thinking there wasn't enough fresh water to really affect the thermal hyaline circulation. A couple of weeks later, a British study suggested that the thermal hyaline circulation is already diminished by thirty percent in the past 40 or so years. So, there's a lot of unknowns. No one would deny that.

The sort of bullets that might get us come in and out of vogue. I mean, back when I went to Antarctica in the late '90s, people were downplaying the notion that there could be a catastrophic collapse of the ice sheets down there, or the Greenland ice sheet. Now that notion has come very much back into vogue, because the mass wasting of the Greenland ice sheet is much more rapid than people anticipated.

And the point, the sort of the take away point here is that the surprises, and they're coming more and more frequently, always seem to be on the more alarming side.

FLATOW: And yet, you say that very few people are being alarmed.

Mr. LINDEN: Yes, and I think that is the astonishing thing. I think the consensus that climate change is a threat rivals the consensus that smoking's a danger to your health. And yet, you'd never get that sense from any, from the public. The disconnect between a sort of straight, upward curve of mounting scientific alarm about the issue, and the continued obliviousness of the public is truly remarkable. And it's gone on for 17 years, and I don't think it's accidental.

FLATOW: You write in your book about Michael Crichton, the fiction writer who wrote about global warming. Last week, The New York Times reported that he met with President Bush to talk about global warming, and Michael Crichton has, basically, taken on environmentalists who believe in global warming, and he's saying, you know, he's written a book about a fiction. And he was on our program, and I asked him, why don't you present this, you know, these findings in a peer review journal, and he said, "I'm just a science fiction writer." You know.

Mr. LINDEN: Yeah, but he's happy to be treated as an authority, and had testified before Congress. It's, I find it truly amazing. Earlier this year, when Crichton's book came out, he was interviewed by John Stossel, on 20/20. And Stossel said, in introduction, here's an author who thinks that global warming's just another over-hyped media scare, and a lot of scientists agree with him. That same week, Naomi Oreskes had an essay in Science Magazine, which looked back over ten years of peer reviewed papers about science change, climate change, and found that of the 700 papers that directly addressed modern global warming, not one took at issue with the consensus that humans have played a role in modern global warming.

So, I don't know where these a lot of scientists who agree with Michael Crichton are. I find that there's a dwindling cadre of scientists, and if you take away the ones that have direct ties to the fossil fuel industry, the cadre gets smaller, still. But they have disproportionate interest, influence over the debate, because they've been amplified, brilliantly amplified, by lobbyists trying to create the illusion that the issue is still under debate long after consensus has been achieved.

FLATOW: That's 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Where will the, finally, the wakening up occur? Is there an event? Is there something you would expect to happen if, as you say, global warming and this, the events that we're going through now, can change very quickly with the melting of the glaciers and the change in the currents. Is there going to be, it's not going to be like that movie disaster, happening overnight, or within a matter of hours?

Mr. LINDEN: No. I think that if you look back in the climate record, what you see is that climate has, I hate to use this overused analogy, but in the past people thought it was like a dial that you turned up very slowly over thousands of years, and then in the early '90s they discovered it's more like a switch, it changes state.

Wallace Broecker, the great oceanographer, wrote a paper for Science in the '90s, where he talked about the transitions between, that typically occur when climate finds a new equilibrium and changes state. And they can go on for decades, and you can get whip-sawed going back and forth and back and forth between warm and cold, until climate settles into its new state. That's the kind of thing that's truly scary, because it could, you know, I think the event that might awaken us to climate change has already happened, and that was Katrina. It showed that a hurricane that was only marginally stronger than previous storms did over a hundred times more damage and loss of life. And it's these threshold-crossing events, if they come more frequently, floods that over-top levies, droughts, heat waves like you had in Europe in 2003, where 35,000 people died.

Those kinds of things, as they become more frequent and more clustered, will have an effect, not just on the politics and public awareness, but on economies. And already in Florida, in some parts of Florida, insurance rates have doubled for homeowners, so that people are not being able to afford homes--not because of rising interest rates, but because the average insurance policy has gone from $2,000 to $4,000 a year. That signal, as it percolates through the economy and gets stronger, I think you'll see people react. What we can hope is that it won't be too late.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about climate change with the author of The Winds of Change, Eugene Linden, on TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday from NPR News.

It usually has been the insurance companies, and certainly about environmental things, whether its flood insurance, or flood plane insurance, that kind of stuff, they recognize, they keep records of these things, and they keep track. The changes that occur, don't they?

Mr. LINDEN: Absolutely. I mean, they are the, in essence, the, on the front lines of this. To use an analogy, a huge wake-up call for insurance companies was 9-11, because they, essentially, bore the risk of terrorism for free. And then, Swiss Ray, I thought, lost 3,000 Swiss Francs in those attacks. And I think it started them thinking, many of them had been farsighted in thinking about this before, but what other risks they're bearing for free? And one of those, of course, is climate change.

Because if you use past patterns to set rates for the future, you're going to underestimate, if climate is changing, the amount of damages you're likely to suffer. And one of the interesting responses to Hurricane Katrina were that some programs in some states have now begun to change their rate structures based on anticipation of future, more frequent hurricanes and wind events and ice storms, rather than just solely relying on past patterns. That's unprecedented, as far as I can understand, in the insurance industry. But it is an indication of the ways in which a industry tries to come to grips.

Another way, of course, which would really strike home to corporate America, is if the insurers who give directors and officers insurance, what's called D&O insurance, for directors of companies, where if the company is out of step, it's a, takes a very aggressive position that climate change is not a threat, the insurer might say, well, if you don't think it's a threat, you won't mind if we carve out your liability for that threat in your D&O policy. And I think you'll see change in a heartbeat, once that begins to happen.

FLATOW: Let's go to Sharon, in Tucson.

Hi, Sharon. Welcome to Science Friday.

SHARON (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to comment on the issue of complacency. And, that would be that, I think there are many people who would be willing whatever is necessary on an individual basis to control this, but there's really no leadership at the top to organize such a movement. And I speak from Tucson, Arizona, where we have issues here, as every city has, and the individual who wants to make a change is faced with resistance, like you spoke about, the fossil fuel industry. But I think that's the biggest issue that we face, is having some leadership to make these changes.

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday, from NPR News.

Go ahead, what's your reaction Eugene?

Mr. LINDEN: Well, first of all, parts of Arizona are in an extreme drought. They're suffering in their own encounter with unusual climate extremes. I couldn't agree more.

I think where the U.S. is, it's a truism, but we're responsible for 25 percent of the world's emissions, and China and India, which are going to surpass us in emissions someday, certainly aren't going to do anything about the problem unless the United States takes it seriously. And if President Bush is inviting Michael Crichton to visit the White House and have a science fiction writer give his views on climate rather than James Hansen, who the administration tried to muzzle, or Wallace Broecker, or any of the other great scientists who've been working on this issue for years, it's sending a terrible signal. And it also perpetuates this notion that we can be complacent about a problem that seems to be right upon us.

FLATOW: Sharon, you're looking for leadership on a national level? Well, I guess she's gone. So, you don't seem very optimistic Eugene, about where we're all headed, you know.

Mr. LINDEN: Well, there's an old Chinese proverb, and that is that if you're, if you don't change direction, you end up where you're headed. And you look at, we have all the advantages of being able to see what climate has done to civilizations in the past, the various derivative ways in which it unleashes disease and civil unrest, and things like that, and brings down a civilization. We have a great scientific community who is, you know, near unanimous in saying this is a threat and understanding what it might do, and yet, we're not changing direction.

You know, what differentiates us from fruit flies is that we're supposed to be able to anticipate problems and change. And yet, for the moment, we're acting like fruit flies. If we decide to act like humans, and actually get control of this, there's an enormous amount we could do.

FLATOW: I'm, we've run out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, Eugene.

Mr. LINDEN: Delighted to be here.

FLATOW: Eugene Linden is author of The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destructions of Civilization, a very interesting book. I highly recommend it.

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