It’s really pretty easy to end a conversation about climate change. Just refer to climate researchers as “alarmists” and you’re pretty much done. You don’t have to prove anything: you’ve just tainted them as hysterical prophets of doom, and the discussion is pretty much over.
Nobody wants to be an “alarmist.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Like when the Korean ferry Sewol was listing in heavy seas two weeks ago. The crew decided not to be alarmists, and repeatedly instructed the high school children to remain calm and in their seats – before they themselves abandoned ship. But a little alarmism might have saved many of the 302 souls who were lost.
So maybe it’s time to ask whether or not climate change alarmism is warranted today. We know that greenhouse gases are at their highest levels in at least 800,000 years; we know that nine of the ten warmest years since measurements began in the 1800s occurred since 2000; we know that the Earth has warmed almost one degree Celsius since 1880; we know that climate-warming emissions are accelerating every year; and that the U.S. and Canada have stymied all global efforts on binding agreements to reverse course. Wherever we’re headed, we’re heading there faster and faster all the time.
Okay, we know all that. But so what? Who says this is anything to be alarmed about? Computer models can’t prove anything, can they?
If only we could look back from the future on 21st Century climate change, and see what’s actually going to happen! But who’s got that crystal ball?
Well, actually, we might have something almost as good. We have the 17th Century, when the global climate changed dramatically. It cooled. It’s usually called the Little Ice Age. A series of massive volcanoes generated atmospheric aerosols which shaded the Earth from the solar radiation. And that combined with a very rare disappearance of sunspot activity for much of the century to cool virtually every region on Earth. As a result, the Earth’s temperature fell by 1.5oC within a single century.
That’s not as dramatic as almost everyone agrees we’re warming at present, but it was faster than any other climate swing in recorded history.
So how, you ask, did the Earth fare the last time this happened? And what lessons might there be for our coming century of rapid climate change? Well, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but the 17th Century was positively awful. An award-winning account written by historian Geoffrey Parker of Ohio State University has documented the links between worldwide suffering and climatic swings lasting most of that century. It’s also been summarized in a very readable article in the New York Times.
Here’s the nickel version. Longer winters and cooler summers destroyed harvests across Europe. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move as far away as China, and Japan, resulting in wars and revolutions in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by one-third. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in his book, Leviathan, the most famous summary of the human condition during that turbulent age:
“There is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
How brutish? How short? Well, as hard as it is to summarize a century of suffering, here’s a start: Rebellions paralyzed the world’s largest state, Russia, and Europe’s most populous, France. Civil wars ravaged England, Scotland, and Ukraine. In Europe’s largest city, Istanbul, the Sultan was strangled by his starving subjects. A severe cold spell in Ireland aggravated tensions that killed thousands of Protestants, fueling sectarian repression and hatred that lasts to this day. The English executed their king. The German states fell into sectarian chaos in the Thirty Years’ War. Farms in Scandinavia and the Alps disappeared under advancing glaciers.
But that was just Europe. What about the rest of the world? Well, in China, drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor and seven decades of warfare. Japan endured mass rebellion following several years of poor harvests, resulting in famine that killed an estimated 500,000 souls. In India, droughts and floods killed over a million people in a three-year span. West Africa and even North American endured severe famines.
All this suffering and death, without a single nuclear weapon, missile, or biological toxin.
Two flawed reactions will inevitably arise in response to the global tragedy of the 17th Century. The first is the denialist’s “you-can’t-prove-any-linkage” response – sectarian hatred, national ambitions, technological advances, and many other factors no doubt factored into each of the many ills that plagued that century. But the American intelligence and defense community has long since addressed this willful blindness in today’s world. They have concluded that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents signiﬁcant national security challenges for the United States.” Wars aren’t fought over climate change. But climate change provides the background conditions for tribal, national, sectarian, racial and other existing conflicts to explode into violence, instability and famine.
The second fallacy is the layman’s assumption that linear patterns will prevail in climate forecasts. If 1.5oC of cooling drove conditions that eradicated as much as a third of humanity in the 17th Century – the logic goes – then warming of more than 2.0oC in our century can be expected to do something similar. In fact, climate disruption works together with every other ill in ways that are largely unpredictable – for better or for worse.
Consider, for example, the Indus River watershed. It is fed by Himalayan glaciers that are receding rapidly as the climate warms. It flows out of Hindu Indian Kashmir, into Muslim Pakistan, for which it is almost the sole source of water. As the Indus glaciers shrivel, India feels the need to keep more of the precious Indus for itself, posing an existential threat to Pakistan. These mortal enemies both possess nuclear arsenals, targeting each other, and sectarian extremists are eager to settle old scores. On its eastern borders, India is further pressured by tens of millions of Muslim Bangladeshi refugees expected by 2050 to flee rising sea levels and salinization of water supplies in the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta. With almost two billion desperate people armed to the teeth, where could this possibly lead us?
Apocalyptic fantasies? More climate alarmism? I know of no one who disputes these underlying trends. In fact, recent history tells us many similar stories that would be eerily familiar to 17th Century scholars. The catastrophic 2011-12 droughts in the Russian, Australian and American breadbaskets drove global spikes in grain prices that resulted in intense food riots in North Africa, later known as the Arab Spring. The multi-year drought in Syria drove a tide of small farmers off their land into urban slums, intensifying pressures that led to the bloody civil war that still rages there. The Darfur genocide of the last decade has been widely called the first climate change war, as Muslim pastoralists fleeing persistent drought clashed with Christian agrarian villagers.
So call climate scientists alarmists, if it suits your politics. But at least, take a closer look at what happened around the globe in the 17th Century. Because no one wants to be the voice – now excruciatingly re-broadcast on Korean airwaves – telling the children not to be alarmed, and remain “safely” in their seats.