Saturday, December 27, 2014

Climate Change as Serial Killer

by Bill Doughty

Climate change has been a killer for millennia, according to Eugene Linden, author of "The Winds of Change" (Simon & Shuster, 2006).

"Earthrise" in 1968. Photo courtesy of NASA.
His examination of the history of climate-as-assassin – and key questions in the debate – shows what may be in store with a warming earth, melting ice and the effect on in the invisible "ocean conveyor" on what Bill McKibben described in "Eaarth": "a blue-and-white marble floating."

Seen clearly from space for the first time in the early days of space exploration, earth is revealed as an ecosystem of sea, land and sky – "vast ocean, air currents and weather systems" – a home world alone in the vastness of space. Balanced. Interconnected.

Over time earth has experienced the extremes of heat, cold, floods and droughts. But thanks to a rare synergy of offsets – the position of large land masses, contours of the ocean floor, the reflective power of ice and snow, and tilting of earth's spin axis, among others – the period over the past 10,000 years has been relatively calm for our planet.

In other words, "This is about as good as it gets," according to Linden.

But the serial killer waits to strike again. Climate change has killed entire species, disrupted humanity and changed cultures.

Akkadian victory stele of Ram-Sin
"It's not climate, but climate change that throws civilizations into a tailspin," Linden writes.

Africa and Mesoamerica experienced drought that collapsed cultures including the Mayans. Ancient civilizations thought they had displeased the gods. The Anasazi disappeared. The Akkadian civilization disintegrated as warming climate dried the lands and hot winds blew away topsoil.

Linden cites the works of Barbara Tuchman ("A Distant Mirror"), Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs and Steel") and, interestingly, Adam Smith ("The Wealth of Nations") as well as David Keys, author of "Catastrophe: An Investigation Into the Origins of the Modern World."
"Keys does not shy away from big ideas. In 'Catastrophe' he argues that by unleashing the plague from the south and causing barbarians to move westward from Asia, the climate upheavals of 536 played a key role in the end of the Roman Empire, the rise of Islam, and other events that marked the end of ancient times and set the stage for the emergence of the modern world. It's a sweeping claim, so bold that it almost begs contradiction, even from those willing to posit the consequential role of climate in human affairs. When a civilization is in decline, after all, the agent of its end might be entirely different from the cause of its decline. When pneumonia kills an aged patient in failing health, is pneumonia the killer, or merely the final nudge? As Keys exhaustively documents, by the sixth century, the Roman Empire was senescent, with little sense of purpose, kept together principally by the fear of the gathering barbarians at the gates who were constantly probing for opportunities and signs of weakness."
Bruegel's Triumph of Death
Climate warming unleashes invasive species and diseases – bark beetles, rats, hantavirus, mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. The result is millions of deaths, including from plagues. The Black Death started in China, came down the Silk Road to Crimea, and then in 1346 moved westward to Europe.

Climate change may be a killer, but it also opens the way for ecological opportunity. Just as Kaplan does in "Monsoon," Linden sees synergy in climate, weather and geography: "Climate does not control geography, of course, but climate can override the advantage that geography might otherwise confer."

Preparing a gravity core for deployment.
(Photo by Mary Carman, Woods Hole)
Researchers, including Navy veteran Lloyd Keigwin of Woods Hole's McLean Laboratory, are studying the effects of and on the ocean as a result of abrupt climate change. Are oceans stable? How will currents and civilization change in a warmer climate? What can we learn by studying paleoclimate in the Holocene, including the "Little Ice Age"?

Ice, caves, lake sediment, tree rings and dirt blown over ice are witnesses to the serial killing, the silent witnesses or proxies that help scientists examine the past.

A clear and present danger comes periodically in the form of El Niño, "the killer next door."

"In the rogue's gallery of climate killers, El Niño may be a mere foot soldier, but because we are repeatedly reminded of its depredations, it looms large in the minds of those who study the impact of climate on history," Linden writes.

El Niños in India and China over the past century and a half killed substantially more than the 60 million people who perished during World War II, according to Linden and his source, Cesar Caviedes ("El Niño in History: Storming Through the Ages"). Is it possible that a warmer world will invite more severe storms?

Earth's system for achieving balance on the blue-and-white marble (with an El Niño pictured in red) is interconnected and not completely understood, but Linden shows in research, timeline and graphs how science is searching for answers to questions in his final chapter, "Going Forward":
"Where are we headed? Is climate changing? If so, are we causing these changes? What changes lie in the future? Are we better prepared to deal with climate change? Can we do anything to halt climate change or ameliorate its effects?"
Navy leaders recognize that climate change can accelerate instability and conflict, degrade the environment and cause food and water scarcity, disruption and migration – requiring significant humanitarian assistance.

In 2009 the Secretary of the Navy outlined goals for reducing use of fossil fuels and embracing new sustainable, renewable and nonpolluting forms of energy. Also in 2009 the Chief of Naval Operations created Task Force Climate Change (TFCC) to address the naval implications of a changing Arctic and global environment. 

The Navy participates with the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the National Ice Center, whose mission is to "provide the highest quality, timely, accurate, and relevant snow and ice products and services to meet the strategic, operations, and tactical requirements of the United States interests across the global area of responsibility."

Last month the U.S. and China, the world's biggest polluters, signed a climate agreement to significantly reduce emissions over the next decade and beyond. A United Nations climate summit in Lima, Peru shows hope for the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making significant progress in next December's global climate treaty meeting in Paris, France. 

Is cooperation in fighting a serial killer among the New Year's resolutions through 2015 and 2016?

140318-N-RB579-607 ICE CAMP NAUTILUS (March 18, 2014) Chief Machinist's Mate (Nuclear) Aaron Cook braves the cold while supervising a work party at Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2014. ICEX 2014 is a U.S. Navy exercise highlighting submarine capabilities in an arctic environment. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Dr. Amy Sun/Released)

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