Monday, June 2, 2014

Climate Change and Collapse


A good riposte to those who assert that "we'll adapt" to a changing climate is to point out that the main adaptation throughout history has been social and political collapse:

The Mongols:
Genghis Khan and his horde may have had successful romps across the warm climes of Central Asia, but the scientists say the weather was temporary, and their analysis reveals worrying trends for the future. Tree rings show that the early 21st-century drought that afflicted Central Asia was the worst in Mongolia in more than 1,000 years, and made harsher by the higher temperatures consistent with man-made global warming. As temperatures here rise more than the global mean in coming decades, the authors say we could witness repeated instances of mass migration and livestock die-off: “If future warming overwhelms increased precipitation, episodic heat droughts and their social, economic, and political consequences will likely become more common in Mongolia and Inner Asia.”
Ming China:
[F]rom around 1630, [Ming Dynasty China] was ravaged by a record-breaking drought that was caused by some of the weakest monsoons of the last 2,000 years, which in turn sparked mass civil unrest. Anthropologist Brian Fagan writes in his book The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 that these events in China were “far more threatening than any contemporary disorders in Europe.” By the time of the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the mid-1600s, Fagan writes, the usually fertile Yangtze Valley had suffered from catastrophic epidemics, floods and famine that drove political discord and left the state vulnerable to attack. Temperatures were at an all-time low. In China, “it was colder in the mid-seventeenth century than at any other time from 1370 to the present,” writes Emory University historian Tonio Andrade in his 2011 book, Lost Colony. “It was also drier. 1640 was the driest year for north China recorded during the last five centuries.” 
As Andrade writes, even “the best government would be tried by such conditions.” And Chongzhen’s government was hardly the best. As crop yields collapsed, the response from the emperor’s already fragile regime exacerbated the crisis. Zero tax relief meant starving farmers “now abandoned their land and joined the outlaws,” writes Geoffery Parker in Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. The hermit-like emperor in Beijing walled himself off in the Forbidden City, the most famous Ming Dynasty symbol of power, distrustful of lawmakers and bureaucrats who were themselves absorbed in bitter factional disputes. (Sound familiar?) Instead of keeping law and order in the provinces, the emperor withdrew his troops to the capital, basically ceding his empire to the disaffected packs of bandits that were growing in number every day, and he shut down one-third of the “courier network” that he relied on for communications, leaving him blind to worsening developments. 
Meanwhile, the Manchus were ravaging the north, driven by their own drought. It all became too much for Chongzhen. “Under the cumulative pressure of so many catastrophes in so many areas,” writes Parker, “the social fabric of Ming China began to unravel.” Forced to choose between abandoning the north for the southern capital, Nanjing, or standing his ground, “on the morning of 25 April 1644, abandoned by his officials, the last Ming emperor climbed part-way up the hill behind the forbidden city and hanged himself,” writes the University of North Texas’s Harold Miles Tanner in China: A History.
Leif Erickson:
“The settlement on the southern tip of [Greenland] thrived for 400 years, but by the mid-fifteenth century, crops were failing and sea ice cut off any chance of food aid from Europe,” writes Pearce in his book, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. It was a failure of adaptation more than anything else, Pearce argues. The Vikings stubbornly continued to farm chickens and grains—warmer weather practices—instead of hunting seals and polar bears, and as a result, “creeping starvation had cut the average height of a Greenland Viking from a sturdy five feet nine inches to a stunted five feet.”
The Khmer Empire:
Another tree ring study from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in 2010 revealed that a multidecade drought may have contributed to the collapse of the Khmer civilization 600 years ago, which was based at the ancient city of Angkor Wat—the largest religious structure in the world. 
“I wouldn’t say climate caused the collapse, but a 30-year drought had to have had an impact,” Columbia University scientist Brendan Buckley said in a press release when the study was published. 
The kingdom, which stretched across much of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 14th centuries, is most widely believed to have collapsed in 1431 after a protracted war with invaders from present-day Thailand forced the Khmer king, Ponhea Yat, to flee. He eventually founded Phnom Penh, now the capital of Cambodia. 
But drought may have made the kingdom much more fragile: Scientists found that the area’s driest year in the last 1,000 years occurred in 1403, three decades before Angkor’s fall. In a cruel twist, the drought was interspersed with damaging monsoonal flooding.
What These Historical Kings and Marauders Can Teach Our Leaders About Climate Change (Climate Desk)

1 comment:

  1. The question is whether our technology makes us more vulnerable to climate disturbance or less.

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