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The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

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  • Posted September 6, 2011

    Latest in series on climate change & the course of civilazation

    From about 800 to 1200 AD most of northern Europe and the North Atlantic Basin experienced nearly continuous warmth - a Medieval Warm Period with mean annual temperatures above those of the present day. That is historical fact. However, the assumption that the Warm Period can be extrapolated worldwide is now largely discounted. In his book The Great Warming (latest in a series on climate history), Brian Fagan sets out to review the evidence for world regional climate change during this 400 year period. He then goes on to speculate about what that review implies for the underlying mechanism that triggered the warmth in Northern Europe and the implications that understanding may have for future human-driven climate change.

    For the major portion of the book, Fagan takes a regional approach with one or two chapters (that could easily stand alone as short articles) on each of the following areas- Europe (and the North Atlantic basin); Asia (Mongols); North Africa and the Sahel; North American Arctic and Greenland; U.S. Southwest; Central America (Maya); Northwest South America (Chimu of Peru); South Pacific (Eastern Polynesia); India and the Middle East; and, East China. This engaging geographical romp has some drawbacks - the consequent repetition and wandering off-topic are the only flaws in an otherwise well-written book.

    The author makes a point of the fact that for most of the regions surveyed (Asia, Africa, Central & South America, the American Southwest, India and China), drought during the Medieval Warm period was the dominant mode with significant implications for the course of civilization there. As for the Polynesians, the environmental change of greatest impact was a decline in easterly Pacific trade winds during the Warm Period. Thus, dugout catamarans could sail further and further east from their base in the central Pacific.
    In conclusion, Fagan proposes that the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) process in the equatorial Pacific Ocean is second only to the seasons as a climate regulating mechanism. Drought, he concludes, not warming, may be the most important consequence of anthropogenically-driven greenhouse gas emissions. The scale of that impact, he adds, will be vastly greater than it was in the past because of the extreme vulnerability that humans now face as a consequence of vastly higher populations densities and dependence on limited water supplies.

    Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2009

    A sound, scholarly turn

    Fagan point is simple. What might appear to us as a small change in average temperatures has enormous implications for human societies. He uses well-documented and accepted information relating to climate change centuries ago to narrate how such changes affected societies across the globe. Given the clear and unassailable pattern of climate change change that we are collectively experiencing, Great Warming makes no recommendations. It does, however, make a compelling case. Given the current trends, we should all be concerned about climate change.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2008

    Impact of Nature and Human Beings on Climate Change

    Brian Fagan explores the story of climate change between 800 and 1300 C.E. and the impact of that climate change on different regions of the world. Unlike Europe, most other regions of the world suffered from drought, not bountiful harvests during that period. Understandably, Fagan is inclined to rename the so called Medieval Warm Period into the Medieval Drought Period. Fagan usually does a good job of explaining how proxies such as tree rings, ice borings, and deep-sea and lake cores can be used to deduce the climatic evolution during a given period in a certain area. Direct methods (instrument records and historical documents), climatic forcings (such as volcanic eruptions), and computer modeling are other techniques used to study ancient climatic change. Today¿s world can particularly benefit from the lessons that Fagan draws from the implosion of both lowland Maya civilization and Angkorian empire. Unfortunately, Fagan¿s narration is at times confusing due to the use of side stories that slows down reading without adding too much value to his narration. Worse, Fagan makes bold, controversial statements at the beginning and end of his book that are apparently built on his exploration of climate change between 800 and 1300 C.E. and its impact on different regions of the world. For example, Fagan states that global warming since the end of the Little Ice Age (from roughly 1300 to 1860 C.E.) is caused in large part by human activity (pp. xvi-xvii, 230). That statement flies in the face of what Fagan explores in the rest of his book. Many non-human made factors play a significant role in influencing climate change. Furthermore, Fagan quotes Al Gore and his documentary ¿An Inconvenient Truth¿ on global warming as an impartial authority on the subject without mentioning at the same time the nine significant errors found in that documentary. Fagan could benefit from reading the ruling rendered by High Court Judge Michael Burton in 2007 in London on that subject if he has not yet done it. Similarly, Fagan could find another perspective on global warming by watching the hard-hitting documentary ¿The Great Global Warming Swindle.¿ To summarize, what the international community needs, is impartial facts instead of propaganda, and workable, economically feasible solutions instead of undue pessimism about the future of humanity.

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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