Climate change and social collapse

Now that even the Koch brothers’ personal scientists have conceded the reality of climate change, it’s time to move on from the rather silly question of whether it’s happening to the very real question of what might it do to us?

One way to answer the question is to investigate what climate change has done to civilizations in the past. The results of this approach were the subject of an article published online by New Scientist on August 6th (and due to be paywalled next week).

“Climate change: the great civilization destroyer?” summarizes recent research into the relationship between sustained climate change and the decline of civilizations both ancient and modern. From the collapse of the Akkadians in 2200 BC to the frequency of wars in Europe in recent centuries, the evidence suggests, societies put under pressure by climate change (or by neighbouring societies feeling climate stress) were liable to catastrophic failure.

“Environmental determinism!” critics cry and dismiss the claims as either speculation or racism. And there is a measure of presumption that accompanies the statistical correlations on which these ideas rest. But, as the New Scientist article makes clear, there is a real and substantial difference between the old argument that climate determines character (e.g., people who come from warmer climates have less ambition and no need of a work ethic) and the present argument, that climate change influences the challenges that people face. It’s not climate that shapes us, but climate change that tests us.

The data is there, interpret it as you will. There is a connection between the fall of some of history’s most notable civilizations and sharp changes in climate. The new evidence comes from soil samples and lake beds and stalactites, and it has the advantage over previous versions of the climate theory that it is thoroughly empirical.

Perhaps the most spectacular general crash occurred around the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which saw the nearly concurrent fall of Mycenean Greece, the New Kingdom in Egypt, and the empire of the Hittites. At the time of the collapse, evidence shows, there was a prolonged dry period, a stressor that climate researchers suggest contributed to the fall of three great cultures at the same time.

There are other ways to explain the Late Bronze Age Collapse, critics argue, but the evidence for climate’s effect on the great Mayan civilization is particularly strong. According to the physical climate record, a century of plentiful rain, conducive to rapid population growth, was followed by a century of drought. The Mayans relied on deep water deposits, and when the water levels fell they had little access to alternative supplies. This period of climate stress coincided with the fall of a vast civilization that long had dominated its environment.

Critics argue that historical data is sketchy and unreliable, as well as that the conjunction of climate change and societal collapse is not necessarily causal, especially since there are significant examples of civilizations that didn’t collapse in the face of climate stress.

Besides, aren’t we advanced enough, and isn’t our civilization spread out enough, to overcome the kinds of problems with which more limited, primitive civilizations couldn’t cope? If climate change hits one area hard, another area will take up the slack.

In some ways, the article points out, we are more vulnerable for our world-spanning civilization. Limited climate events, like a drought in one area or a heat wave in another, affect food prices worldwide.

And no one needs to be reminded that the degree and scope of global warming is projected to be the most significant climate change in perhaps millions of years.

How well will our civilization cope with a prolonged crisis of worldwide proportions?

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