Science is little except observation of past events interpreted so as to predict future ones. We depend on science and scientists to cast a beam of light into the dark tunnel of civilization’s future. The relationship of global climate to food supplies is a case in point: climatic researchers are becoming alarmed that in the next 10 to 100 years humanity will be unable to feed itself — not through technolbgical insufficiency or political mischief — but because of climatic changes that it can barely understand or control.

“There is little food stored to cushion the shock of the kinds of weather problems that so suddenly and unexpectedly damaged crops in 1972, 1974, and 1975, and there is growing evidence that such damaging weather may occur more frequently in the next decade than in the last one. The most imminent and far reaching [danger] is the possibility of a food-climate crisis that would burden the well to do countries with unprecedented hikes in food prices, but could mean famine and political instability for many parts of the nonindustrialized world.”

So writes Stephen Schneider, a young climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., reflecting the consensus of the climatological community in his new book, “The Genesis Strategy.” His warning, that present world food reserves are an insufficient hedge against future famines, has been heard among the scientific community for years — for example, it was a conclusion of a 1975 National Academy of Sciences report. But Schneider has decided to explain the entire problem, as responsibly and accurately as he can, to the general public, and thus has put together a useful and important book.

Climate has already had a fascinating impact on human history. Egypt was the granary of the Mediterranean 2,400 years ago thanks to the warm; wet weather which prevailed over northern Africa. The Roman conquest of Egypt helped Rome to feed armies of conquest in Europe, which was itself in a warm period much like today’s.

The Viking exploration of Greenland and Newfoundland coincided with mild ocean-atmosphere conditions in the North Atlantic; at the time, in fact, England was so balmy that the wine from her vineyards threatened the trade of French vintners. But from 1200 to 1400 Europe’s weather entered a period of greater instability. The North Atlantic became hazardous due to floating polar ice and storms and the Nordic expansion was forced to end. Later, the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England in the 1690s was facilitated, according to the British historian S. M. Trevelyan, by the severity of Scottish weather and subsequent harvest failures and famines. All this, said Trevelyan, “coloured the North Briton’s outlook” and “darkened his political passions.”

And so on. All along, the weather has been the scribe in the temple, writing human history. Today, through readings of natural records such as the size and shape of tree rings, climatologists can chart past swings of the climatic pendulum and therefore predict the future. And the news for the future is not all good. The climate is going to get unreliable. It is going to get cold. Harvest failures and regional famines will be more frequent. Weather will probably make history — again.

It is a matter, as Schneider explains, of statistics. The last 15,000 years have been unusually warm when compared to global temperatures for the last 150,000. The last 200 years have been unusually warm when compared to the last 1,000. But there is considerable evidence that this warm period is passing and that temperatures on the whole will get colder. For example, in the last 100 years mid-latitude air temperatures peaked at an all-time warm point in the 1940s and-have been cooling ever since.

Climatologists cannot predict what temperatures we will experience in 1984 (just as an insurance executive cannot predict when John Doe will die). But they can predict what temperature averages and extremes to expect over the next 10, 20, or 30 years (just as the insurance executive can say how many American males will die between now and December). And they are predicting greater fluctuations, and a cooling trend for the northern hemisphere.

Earl Butz’s Agriculture Department remains oblivious to what this bodes for the world food supply. The official “climatological norm” used to predict future weather and harvests is the period 1930–1960. But Schneider quotes University of Wisconsin climatologist Reid Bryson as saying that 1930–1960 “was the most abnormal period in a thousand years — abnormally mild.” In fact, conditions of steady, warm weather in the northern hemisphere during that time favored bumper harvests in the United States, the Soviet Union, and the wheat belt of northern India and Pakistan. In 1974 Schneider and Bryson tried to explain to a White House policy-making group why conditions are likely to worsen. One of the most depressing anecdotes in the book is Schneider’s description of the deaf ear their warnings received.

The Genesis strategy that Schneider proposes is to stockpile grain in good harvest years against the inevitable bad years. The United States must do this, he argues, because 90 percent of the global grain supply consumed outside of its continent of origin comes from North America. By a fluke of climate the United States, not Egypt, has become the world’s granary.

But stockpiling is against official United States policy. It would interfere with the free market by stabilizing prices and inhibiting profits. Government, sings Earl Butz and chorused by his glowing weather forecasters, must stay out of the farm business. But if Schneider, Bryson and the other scientists are right, Butz won’t be able to get away with this song and dance much longer.

The food-climate subject is difficult to master. If there is a criticism of Schneider it is that he seems to have barely got it under control. Although he properly emphasizes what is important — food, weather, his own proposals — he also tries to talk about everything, all the time. It gives the chapters of the book a circular, repetitious quality — which is undeserved, as the book’s argument and certainly its factual presentation are thorough and sound.

Subjects that are difficult to master and include the possibility of human extinction — as this one does — lend themselves to both sensationalism and pedantry. The sensationalism is found in Lowell Ponte’s “The Cooling.” which sets out to prove that within the next century a new Ice Age will numb the civilizations of the northern hemisphere and enable equatorial countries, which will have become cooler and drier, to dominate the planet. Some climatologists believe that the cooling trend will indeed lead to a severe, long-term change; hence the book cannot be dismissed as so much nonsense. But, as Reid Bryson says in the preface, “There are very few pages that, as a scientist, I could accept without questions of accuracy, of precision, or of balance.” Instead, the book is a romp anyway; it quotes everyone from Immanuel Velikovsky to playwright Robert Ardrey. At least it shows that the publishing trade has realized that climate is a “hot” topic.

Pedantry, however, is the word for the Central Intelligence Agency’s recently-released 38-page report on the subject, titled “A Study of Climatological Research as It Pertains to Intelligence Problems” (Photoduplication Service, Library of Congress 20540, $6.50). It should be consoling to know that our intelligence community is onto the fact that climatic change could cause political turbulence on the planet. (In fact, the C.I.A. was onto it in 1974 when the report was written; it was not made available to the public until May 1976.) But one’s sense of confidence evaporates right at the outset, however, when the anonymous analyst-author misstates the basic unit of solar energy output, the solar constant, by a factor of 1,000. The value given would broil us all to death and, coming in the midst of a purported explanation of climatic processes, it gives away the fact that the author doesn’t know what he is talking about.

The paper then goes on to a pompous description of the different “schools” of climatic research (“Lambian,” “Smagorinsky-ian,” and “Budyko-ian”) and such peculiar assertions as: “The limitation of this approach, although not yet apparent to the establishment, is rapidly being abandoned by the academic community.” Skipping lightly over the problems of stockpiling reserves, the possible elimination of an entire wheat-growing province of the Soviet Union, and other minor problems, the author keeps predicting militarily “initiated” mass migrations. While mass migrations could occur, they are certainly not the foremost political problem in a world with a worsening climate. Science is, after all, trying to give us a message about the weather of the future. We ought to be doing a better job than this of listening.

Source: Deborah Shapley, The New York Times

Advertisements