In a March opinion piece in the New York Times (???Lessons from the Little Ice Age???), historian Geoffrey Parker???author of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century???suggests the desperate climate of the years 1600 to 1700 is a template for a collapse of civilization in the twenty-first century. But there???s one massive flaw in his theory: The past cultural collapses have almost all occurred during ???little ice ages,??? not during our many global warmings.
The seventeenth century was part of the 550-year Little Ice Age, the most recent of at least seven ???little ice ages??? that have befallen the planet since the last full Ice Age. Studying sediment deposits in the North Atlantic, Gerard Bond of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found such centuries-long little ice ages at 1300 AD, 600 AD, 800 BC, 2200 BC, 3900 BC, 7400 BC, 8300 BC, and perhaps at 9100 BC. These global Dansgaard-Oeschger disasters have arrived on a semi-regular basis some 600 times over the past million years.
Each of these icy epochs blasted humanity with short, cold, cloudy growing seasons, untimely frosts, and extended drought along with heavy and violent rains. Naturally, crops failed. Cities full of people starved to death, repeatedly, with seven collapses in Mesopotamia, six each for Egypt and China, and two for Angkor Wat. The early cultures gave the illusion of continuity???the Nile and the Yangtze always had at least a little water to use for irrigation, for example. However, little ice age hunger and disease drove human and animal migrations across thousands of miles and over continents, leading to huge invasions such as that of the Huns in Europe???s Dark Ages, and the collapse of kingships and ruling dynasties around the globe.
While acknowledging the existence of the cold, chaotic periods, the United Nations??? Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has not plugged them into their computer models. The UN seems to believe it is just coincidence that our warm and relatively stable Modern Warming directly followed the awful Little Ice Age.
Our recent climate has been more stable, by the way, than the chaotic little ice ages. Iraq has not had a three-century drought recently. The Volga River Valley has not been too flooded to farm for 700 years, as happened after 600 BC. British logbooks show the Little Ice Age featured more than twice as many major land-falling hurricanes in the Caribbean than in the twentieth century.
Parker mentions three possible driving forces for the seventeenth century collapse: volcanoes, El Niños, and the sun. There???s no cycle in the volcanoes, however, and the El Niños are too short to cause such extended problems. That leaves the sun, and Parker???s own book focuses on the Maunder Minimum. That took place in the depths of the Little Ice Age, when the sun had virtually no sunspots for 70 years (1645???1715 AD). We must compliment Parker for recognizing the climate was the key to the global crisis. He fails, however, to acknowledge this is a recurring pattern.
With this omission, Parker draws the wrong conclusion about the real climate threat to human flourishing. There is no visible reason to expect famine due to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. The real danger is the cold, chaotic weather of the little ice ages. Another such icy period is inevitably coming, though not likely in the next two centuries.
Parker nearly redeems himself by making the most important point of all: We now have science and transportation to deal much more effectively with the next little ice age. Our biggest advantage is our high-yield agriculture. Today we harvest perhaps six times as much food per acre as did the desperate farmers of the seventeenth century, and our yields keep rising thanks to science breakthroughs such as nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and biotechnology.
Our crop yields also are rising because of another factor: more atmospheric CO2. The gas acts like fertilizer for plants, and thus benefits the animals and people who depend on them. Studies show a doubling of CO2 in the air will boost the growth of herbaceous plants by about 30 to 35 percent, and trees will benefit even more. Famines in a CO2-warmed tomorrow are therefore less likely, not more.
If humans have food, they can do all the other things necessary for civilization. However, we must once again double food production per acre???and rapidly???to feed the world???s oncoming peak population. Since 1960, high agricultural yields also have saved wildlife habitat equal to twice the land area of South America from being plowed for more low-yield crops. The price of a farming failure in coming decades will not be famine, but rather the loss of hundreds of millions of acres of wilderness.
Ironically, the increase in atmospheric CO2 the UN and governments around the world are trying to prevent is the very thing that could save us from that mass destruction of the world???s remaining wildlands.
Dennis T. Avery (firstname.lastname@example.org, www. cgfi.org), a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute, is an environmental economist and formerly a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State. He is coauthor, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years.