Dr. Fred Bortz

The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850

by Brian Fagan

(Basic Books, 2000, $26.00, 268 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Eight centuries ago, Earth's climate developed a chill. Its effects "rippled through Europe over five hundred momentous years of history. Those events did more than help shape the modern world. They are the easily ignored, but deeply important, context for the unprecendented global warming today. They offer precedent as we look into the climatic future."

So argues University of California archaeology professor Brian Fagan in The Little Ice Age, a persuasive account that ought to alert scientists, historians, and policy makers to take a fresh look at the causes and implications of a global climate that appears to be changing faster than ever before in human history.

The evidence of rapid global warming is statistical and has a wide margin of error, Dr. Fagan admits. It will take at least three decades before we can be more certain of its impact. Will it lead to circumstances to which the world can easily adjust, as the climate-change optimists seem to think, to unmitigated disaster, as advocates of worst-case scenarios warn, or to somewhere between those extremes?

We should not wait for the answer before acting, asserts the professor. Looking at the history of the Little Ice Age, he cites one calamity after another, each having multiple -- and different -- causes, but all sharing one overlooked element, the stress produced by one or another of "an endless zigzag of climatic shifts."

The Little Ice Age announced its arrival with The Great Famine of 1315-1321, which may have set the stage for the Hundred Years War. It echoed through five and a half centuries, ending with a confluence of social, political, and climatic conditions that produced the Irish potato famine. It resounded most dramatically in the Great Fear that ignited the French Revolution, claims Dr. Fagan. It was, he says, "the culmination of a subsistence crisis that had brewed for generations,... triggered by draconian land policies and sudden climatic shifts that pushed millions of French peasants across the line separating survival from deprivation."

The climatic zigs and zags of the Little Ice Age had rarely lasted more than twenty-five years when it ended in the mid-nineteenth century. Since then, the planet has experienced a different climatic regime: steady warming for 150 years, with only a small, temporary reversal during the 1960s. We have probably entered, says Dr. Fagan, "an entirely new era of climate change," for which "(p)rudence suggests we plan."

Yet current U.S. energy and environmental policies seem to be guided by the kind of optimism that "fades in the face of demographic reality.... [I]t's implausible to suggest that famines and massive dislocations of poorer populations will be unaccompanied by civil unrest and disobedience...," the professor warns. "The French Revolution or the Irish potato famine pale into insignificance." The most important lessons for the era of Global Warming may be found in the chill of the middle of the last millennium, if only we know how to read them.

Ph.D. physicist Fred Bortz is the author of many books for young readers, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch: How to Create and Run Your Own Weather Station, McGraw-Hill, 2000.