The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations

  • Eugene Linden
Simon & Schuster: 2006. 320 pp. $26 0684863529 | ISBN: 0-684-86352-9

The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change

  • Tim Flannery
Allen Lane: 2006. 368 pp. $20 0871139359 0713999217 | ISBN: 0-871-13935-9

“Blame the trees!” shrieked a British newspaper, the Daily Mail. “Cutting down the rain forests may actually be a way of preventing global warming!” This and other similarly ill-considered headlines marked the publication of a recent paper in Nature (439, 187–191; 2006) reporting methane emission from living plants. Such emissions would constitute only a minor offset to the huge carbon sink the world's forests represent, but the message given to the public was at best confused and at worst downright misleading.

Increased public awareness and understanding of climate change is vital if we are to effectively tackle this greatest of all threats, but too often the reporting of climate science is blurred by self-interest or the need for an eye-catching headline. What's urgently needed is a Silent Spring for climate change: a book that will do for the fight against global warming what Rachel Carson's 1962 book did to protect the environment from chemical pollution. It will need to set out the history, science and politics of climate change in a way that is truly accessible to the public while steering clear of sensationalism and vested interests. This is a lot to ask.

The Winds of Change by journalist Eugene Linden is one of two new books that take up this challenge with verve. From the start, Linden uses in-depth research and expert opinion, rather than scaremongering and exclamation marks, to make his point. In discussing the ‘gears’ of the earth's climate, he expertly and succinctly describes the natural cycles that control climate and the many ways they interact. He has a great knack for metaphor, with the ‘hall of mirrors’ that constitutes the positive and negative feedbacks in Earth's climate system being a prime example.

The subtitle of Linden's book refers to the destruction of civilizations, and he uses the imaginative conceit of a legal case in which climate change is in the dock. The prosecution's argument is that climate change has not simply been a factor in the downfall of communities throughout history, but has been the causal agent — a serial killer of civilizations rather than an accessory.

Body of evidence: in 1991 hikers found a man who died 5,200 years ago as temperatures dropped. Credit: SIPA PRESS/REX FEATURES

There is no denying that climate has played a role in shaping human evolution and civilization. The fall of the Akkadian empire in 2200 BC, where a period of sustained drought seems to have led to the collapse of this Mesopotamian civilization, is just one of several convincing pieces of circumstantial evidence that point the finger of guilt in the direction of climate change.

In a case so outwardly intractable as to make Jarndyce and Jarndyce from Charles Dickens' Bleak House seem straightforward, palaeoclimatology steps in as the forensics of climate science, providing a stream of convincing witnesses in the form of climate proxies. These include ice-core and sediment records that indicate rapid changes in global climate at the same time that certain civilizations apparently went into free fall.

We even have a corpse — that of a man found at the edge of a retreating glacier in the Alps. The man was frozen where he fell some 5,200 years ago and remained in place until found by a group of hikers in 1991. The proxy record shows that, at about the same time that the man breathed his last, so did countless other organisms around the world. Biological activity dropped abruptly along with global temperatures.

Rather than climate change being a slow-moving beast that past civilizations could easily dodge, the palaeoclimate record indicates something very different. Big changes in climate can occur on a scale of decades rather than millennia, and so would stretch even the most resilient communities to the limit. Climate, it seems, is on a switch rather than a dial.

The case for the prosecution looks strong then. However, if climate change is a serial killer then it is also a serial creator. From the Archaean era onwards, abrupt changes in climate have been scorching one branch of the evolutionary tree only to nurture a new off-shoot somewhere else. On the charge of civilization killer, the jury is still out. Climate change was certainly at the scene of the crime on several occasions, but then so were other likely suspects such as overpopulation, disease and war.

A central question posed here is: “Are we better prepared than our ancestors were to deal with rapid changes in climate?” Linden's answer is a decisive “Maybe”. That we should take note of the rapid climate shifts of the past to help avoid catastrophe in the future is clear. But history can only take us so far. We have entered a new age — the Anthropocene, as Paul Crutzen called it — in which, rather than humankind and civilization being shaped by the weather, we are shaping the weather through our greenhouse-gas emissions.

This brings us to Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers. Flannery is an acclaimed scientist, writer and explorer, and his book carries a ringing endorsement from Bill Bryson, so it should be a good bet for the Silent Spring of climate change. Flannery is a consummate science writer and weaves together fascinating descriptions of his own exploration and experiences with interviews from other researchers. On the impacts of climate on biodiversity, I've not read anything better. From the last sighting of the golden toad in 1987 — a solitary male waiting in forlorn hope for a mate that never came — to the grotesque ‘hairy seadevil’, dragged up into our world from the ocean depths and slowly dying from the heat, the writing is wonderfully evocative.

Unfortunately, there are also some niggling errors. Most of these are relatively minor, such as citing incorrect figures for Kyoto Protocol targets. But there are some clangers that Flannery or his editor should really have picked up. At one point he talks of “sea water turning acidic, its pH increasing by half to one unit”. This kind of error is rather, well, basic.

Such distractions aside, this is a very good book. It covers the science and the politics of climate change in an engaging and thoughtful manner. Drawing on James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis at regular intervals, Flannery leaves the reader in no doubt about the magnitude of the problem we are facing and the urgency with which we need to act. The Kyoto Protocol and related political machinations are largely covered well, as are the options for mitigation through renewable energy, nuclear power and increased energy efficiency.

Is this a Silent Spring for climate change? It's not far off. If you want the real story on climate change — its history, science and politics — you should put down the Daily Mail and pick up one of these two excellent books.