“The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.” George Savile, Marquis of Halifax
A slender volume arrived in the mail yesterday: Naomi Oreske’s fictional history of the late 21st Century, recounted in the words of a 24th Century Chinese historian. Just before midnight, I turned the last page.
You might remember Oreskes. She’s the Harvard geologist and science historian who first showed that almost all climatologists – 97 percent of them – agreed that the Earth is warming, due in large measure to human causes: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. After suffering a withering backlash from industry-funded “think tanks,” she discovered that many of the leading “denial experts” were the same characters who were once on the payroll of the tobacco industry, lending a fig leaf of scientific cover to their arguments against the links between smoking and lung cancer. In the case of climate change denial, the strategy turns out to have been the same, and provided the title for Oreskes’ earlier book: Merchants of Doubt.
Oreskes’ new book is a bit less ambitious. Written with Cal Tech historian Erik Conway, it bears a dreary title: The Collapse of Western Civilization. And unlike most fictional dystopias, it is completely devoid of personal drama, thrilling action or heroes. It is simply written as history, recorded far off in the future. It chronicles the Penumbral Age, that dark time beginning in the late 20th Century when the looming shadow (or “penumbra”) of ignorance and denial spread over Western civilization, preventing it from acting on the discoveries of environmental science, and leading to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.
Like most science fiction, the value of “Collapse” is that it actually permits us to envision a better world, and identify those forces that might prevent it from happening. Sadly, in this case, almost all those forces in fact prevail, and the world of our grandchildren ends up looking dismal indeed.
How dismal? Well, here’s a short list. Before the end of the 21st Century:
- Global temperatures rise almost 4oC by 2040, as catastrophic volumes of methane escape from the melting Arctic permafrost in a positive feedback loop long predicted by scientists;
- Desperate geo-engineering solutions backfire, disrupting the monsoons vital to India’s survival, and the resulting cessation causes a sling-shot effect raising temperatures another 6oC;
- 60 percent of all known species of animals and plants perish in a Sixth Great Extinction event;
- The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates and melts, raising sea levels five meters, followed by the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet which adds another two meters.;
- The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida slip almost entirely beneath the waves, as do coastal regions everywhere, driving the forced migration of 1.5 billion souls;
- Only authoritarian governments survive in the face of pressures that demand rapid forced migration of millions of humans; and …
- … one last thing: Humanity becomes entirely extinct on its two most vulnerable continents, Australia and Africa.
So! I’ve had my horror story a couple of days before Halloween, right? Thank God it’s only fiction! And anyway, who can actually look back on a future threatened by climate change?
Well, actually, in fact, we can. No, I’m not talking about computer models that look forward with increasing accuracy. We can look BACK at climate change. That’s because it has already happened in modern human history. The 17th Century coincided with the peak of the global event called The Little Ice Age. Brought on by a century-long hiatus in sunspot activity, coupled with a rash of mid-century volcanoes and a run of extremely weak El Niño events, the Little Ice Age ushered in more than a century of global cooling, with average surface temperatures falling about 1oC below historical averages.
And so a serious look at the 17th Century – with its one-degree cooling record – might just tell us something about what could be in store for the 21st Century, as we debate whether warming can be kept close to 2oC, or run to 4oC or even worse.
17th Century cold in contrast with today’s runaway warming
A few months ago, we summarized the global chaos of the 17th Century, as set forth in Geoffrrey Parker’s magnum opus, Global Crisis. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by roughly one-third. Rebellions and civil wars ravaged Russia, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine. Starving Ottomans strangled their Sultan. The English executed their king. The German states fell into the sectarian chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.
But the non-European world suffered at least as badly. So let’s take a quick look at the world’s largest empire, where the Ming dynasty ruled in China. For it’s there where we see how drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor, seven decades of warfare, and the death of an estimated 50% of the population. Here are a few notable events from that time:
- Drought brought on by the weakest monsoons in 2,000 years destroyed Chinese agriculture in the 1620s, giving farmers no choice but to resort to mass banditry.
- Heavy snowfall blanketed tropical Guangdong Province in the 1630s, further depressing crop yields.
- Cannibalism ran rampant in the 1640s in numerous provinces, with China’s daughters at particular risk.
- In 1642, a Ming official reported that “the human price of a peck of rice” – barely enough to feed one person for a week – “was two children.” He reported watching a woman eat her own child outside of the government office.
- In Manchuria, 1643 brought on the coldest winter in a thousand years, forcing starving Manchus to mobilize a desperate effort to breach the Great Wall and conquer the warmer empire to the south.
- Total cultivated land fell more than two-thirds by mid-century, and tax rolls declined by as much as 90 percent in some provinces.
In the end, stresses aggravated by climate change in the 17th Century cost about half of Chinese souls their lives, and as many as one in three humans on earth. It was a time we’d much rather not repeat.
And so, whatever we think about the progress we’ve made over the last four centuries – for better (global institutions and scientific advances), or worse (nuclear weapons and extreme environmental degradation) – Oreskes’ fictional “history” just might warrant our attention. We’re often called “alarmists” when we look seriously at the future of a world in which we have disregarded the laws woven by the Creator into his work. But to me, the ACTUAL history of climate change makes Oreskes’ fictional account look plausible, or perhaps worse.
Do you think that maybe it’s time to join the alarmists, and start talking about what we’re doing to our children’s world? It’s not really that far off.