Reviewed 11/23/2006

The Winds of Change, by Eugene Linden

Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations
Eugene Linden
New York: Simon & Schuster, February 2006




ISBN-13 0-978-684-86352-8
ISBN-10 0-684-86352-9 302pp. HC/GSI $26.00

The author is a veteran at covering environmental issues for Time and other news magazines, and has earned numerous awards for these efforts. Here he takes the approach of a prosecuting attorney who's figuratively hauled Earth's miscreant climate into court.

I've structured this book along the lines of a [criminal trial]. The opening section presents the prosecution's argument that climate change has either killed off or at least been an accomplice in the fall of several civilizations. It quickly runs through the various victims (and a notable evolutionary beneficiary), and also details the weapons and methods of this civilization killer.

– Page 5

His structure for this book works well in presenting the case that environmental changes are under-appreciated as causes for the decline of civilizations. The section I found most interesting was Part Two, which covers the still-unfolding study of interacting influences on climate — notably the thermohaline circulation (THC) which drives the Gulf Stream that contributes to the warming of northern Europe. The last two chapters of Part Two discuss the two principal "proxies" for prehistorical climate change: cores taken from ice sheets and marine sediment beds. Linden shows clearly how obtaining and interpreting these proxies is fraught with difficulty.

The case for climate changes contributing to the downfall of civilizations (or at least governments) rests on firmer ground when those governments are recent. Chapter 16, El Niño Meets Empire, and Chapter 17, A Taste of Things to Come, draw on historical records to estimate the intensity of the lesser climate phenomena known as El Niño and La Niña. Chapter 16 ties them to the grievous famines in India in the late nineteenth century, while Chapter 17 examines how the 21 May 1998 collapse of the Suharto regime in Indonesia resulted partly from a two-year drought that decimated the rice crop and brought widespread forest fires. However, because other factors contributed to these crises — The British Raj held to disastrously niggardly food rations because of economic doctrine, and Suharto's government was simply corrupt — climate's role is only that of indicted co-conspirator.

Because climatology is a relatively young and developing science, Linden should probably be forgiven for the few contradictions and factual errors that appear in this book. (See the Errata page, linked below.) It certainly is no help to him in constructing a solid case for climate as civilization-killer (e.g. that drought wiped out the Anasazi) that the record is of low resolution, that certain evidence can be interpreted in contradictory ways, and that experts differ on some conclusions. But there is one error that I would not forgive. (I've quoted the extra words here to give context, and because they are so well-chosen.)

From the perspective of the solar-system dynamics that govern climate, it is difficult to imagine that puny humans could affect a climate system that was forged by the position of the planet relative to the sun, the movement of continents and the uplift of mountain ranges, the development of continent-sized ice sheets and planetary scale explosions. The other pieces of the heat distribution system that make earth a friendly place for humans, however, depend on tiny differences in the makeup of the atmosphere or subtle differences in the density of water. CO2 makes up only .00000036 percent of the atmosphere. But if that changed to .0000036 percent, we would likely be living in the steam-room conditions of the age of the dinosaurs. The oceanic engine that delivers 1,000 times the generating capacity of the United States in the North Atlantic is driven by subtle differences in the density of seawater moving through seawater.

Such are the intricate interconnections of this system that these seemingly insubstantial factors can offset the influence of giant planetary scale climate influences such as the orbit and attitude of the earth. Belatedly, scientists have come to realize that humanity has been stomping through this minefield of invisible climate trip wires, and a great race is underway to understand what we have already done, and what lies ahead.

– Pages 215-216

Note carefully the CO2 concentrations he gives. The percentages are tiny; but the change he postulates is enormous: carbon dioxide increases by a factor of ten — that is, 1,000 percent. The current increase, that has scientists so worried, is less than 50 percent. Linden's argument is no less misleading, in my opinion, than if a climate-change denialist had claimed those small concentrations prove CO2 cannot affect Earth's temperature.

Despite these errors, the tentative state of some aspects of climatology, and some grammatical goofs, The Winds of Change is a worthwhile explanation of the present state of knowledge held by that science. But its primary value lies in its description, informed by Linden's long-term career of reporting on climate change, of the two understandings of that change. One is the public's understanding. That largely reflects the energy industry position, which holds that the projected magnitude and harmfulness of climate change are both in dispute, and that even if it does prove harmful, any countermeasures will be prohibitively expensive. The other understanding is one reached by the vast majority of scientists over the past several decades, and it holds that climate change is real and accelerating, and that it may be horrendously harmful. But because of the way good scientists hedge and qualify their assessments of the danger, industry lobbyists are able to make the entire scientific argument look unreliable to a substantial portion of the public. Linden covers this, and some of the possible damage that may result, in Chapters 18 through 20. Linden advocates immediate action. As he puts it in the Preface:

If there is a message to take away from a look back at past predictions of potential calamity, it is that the risks of erring on the side of caution tend to be fewer than the costs of dismissing predicted threats out of hand. Alarms about Lake Erie mobilized people and governments to take action, and in proving doomsayers wrong, the cleanup also created billions of dollars in value as the lake area became a draw for real estate and recreation.

– Page 2

The main text of The Winds of Change is followed by a chronology of the progress of climate science since the 1950s. There is no bibliography, but a very thorough index is provided. Recommended in conjunction with other books on the subject.

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