Book Shelf, Book 2- The Winds Of Change: Climate, Weather, And The Destruction Of Civilization

July 15, 2006


 Climate change scientist paints a stark and vivid picture

Simon & Schuster, $26

Global warming is becoming fashionable. Time magazine just devoted a special issue to the topic and Vanity Fair's "green issue" gave essay-length space to journalist Mark Hertsgaard. Not to mention the plethora of new books and even documentary films, including Laurie David's Earth Day HBO special "Too Hot Not to Handle" and "An Inconvenient Truth," featuring climate change talking head Al Gore.

You would think that all this attention would better inform the American people. But consider these statistics: Even though a record 57 percent of Americans now believe that climate change is under way, only 36 percent say they worry about it "a great deal," according to the most recent Gallup Poll. Another poll, this one by ABC/Time/Stanford University, reveals that 64 percent think there's "a lot of disagreement" among climate scientists on the reality of global warming, despite the scientists' near total consensus.

Veteran environmental journalist Eugene Linden says he has watched in frustration as the public view has diverged sharply from the scientific consensus. The media obviously deserve part of the blame, being too quick to seek balance from the tiny band of naysayers, and for giving ample space to such non-scientific material as Michael Crichton's novel "State of Fear."

When I interviewed him, Linden summed up our state of affairs bluntly: "Lots of people think that climate change is still open to debate. In the last couple of years, the press did an abysmal job of conveying scientific alarm. It's doing a better job now. As an analogy … when somebody does a story on the dangers of smoking they don't feel obligated to find scientists who work for Philip Morris to say that the dangers are minimal. There is the same level of consensus in the scientific community that climate change is a threat as you have on smoking being a danger to your health. Yet it's been only very recently that the issue has been on the public agenda."

All of this leads us to Linden's elegant book, "Winds of Change," which is mostly about the climatic record and its relationship to human societies. Parallels to Jared Diamond's "Collapse" are unavoidable, particularly because Linden devotes chapters to the westward expansion and subsequent retreat of the Vikings and the mysterious disappearance of the Mayan culture. Unlike Diamond, who weighed factors such as the tendency of societies to exceed their "carrying capacity," Linden focuses on the climate and weather factors.

Linden's chapter on the Vikings is fascinating because it offers new insights into a long-ago tragedy: The probable starvation of many Viking settlers in Greenland when temperatures turned sharply colder between 1343 and 1345. The book contains a riveting description of scientists' analysis of material found in the remains of a sod-and-wood house. After the inhabitants ate their dairy cows on ancient evenings 600 years ago, they went after the dogs and, finally, resorted to a starvation diet of ptarmigan and hare.

Linden is firmly in control of his material and the writing is fast-paced, especially when he's tagging along on a scientific expedition to the Arctic or voyaging through the North Atlantic in search of changes to the Gulf Stream.

However, readers' appetite for material like this should probably not be taken for granted. Sentences like this one don't help: "Apart from marine, lake, glacial, and dendrochronological records, there is also the climate record reconstructed from analysis of stalagmites and other forms of speleothems in regional caves."

The book is roughly chronological, moving through ancient times to the ravages of El Niño, which produced tragic droughts in the 1870s British Raj and in Suharto's Indonesia in the 1990s. It closes with some well-informed predictions about our climatic future. But the best thing about Linden's book is that it carefully builds a scientific case that weather and climate have played a far more important role in history than we've previously acknowledged, and that even bigger effects are coming.

"The Winds of Change" is well timed. Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for many in linking climate-warmed ocean water to increased storm intensity. Two years ago, while touring with E/The Environmental Magazine's book "Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change" (Routledge), I found it hard to interest audiences in global warming. Linden told me he's glad his book was delayed from its original publication date. "Had I been on time, it would have sunk without a trace," he said. Instead, it is appearing in airport book stores and achieving, when last I checked, a 4,000 rank on Amazon. It's not "The Da Vinci Code," but it's a start.

Jim Motavalli is editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and co-author of "Green Living: The E Magazine Handbook for Living Lightly on the Earth" (Plume). He is helping organize the "Ride and Drive" at this year's SEJ conference in Burlington, Vt. 

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Summer, 2006 issue