of the most hotly disputed subjects these days is
climate change.There are those who
believe the world is getting warmer and the further
increase in temperature – combined with related
changes in precipitation, sea levels, mountain
glaciation, polar ice cap coverage and thickness etc.
– they expect to occur throughout the rest of this
century will have the most profound and negative
consequences in the history of mankind.
There is one set of facts that has not
been adequately addressed to date: polar ice caps have
not existed for approximately 90% of the history of
our planet. Admittedly, this includes a substantial
period in which there was no surface water on earth,
but it is an indisputable that polar ice caps
have not existed for most of the time. This means the
overall climate has been warmer for a matching period.
It follows that the global climate during recorded
history has been abnormally cool. While there is no
100% cast-iron guarantee this means the global climate
must get warmer, it seems reasonable to me to suppose
it will happen sooner or later. Without any input from
human activity. Put another way, global warming is
very likely to occur, but not necessarily
anthropogenic global warming.
If that is the case, then denial is not a
good option. Denying global warming is taking place
right here, right now is one thing. Saying it will not
happen. Period. That attitude defies common sense.
On the other hand, if global warming and
climate change are inevitable due to forces of nature
beyond our understanding, let alone control, what is
the point is spending trillions (yes, trillions, not
billions) of dollars on preventive action that has no
chance of success? Some of the projects proposed to
tackle climate are good for other reasons - they
reduce pollution and lead to crops that are able to
thrive in warmer temperatures - but other proposals
are nothing more than a cynical fund raising exercise
for people to finance pet projects and reward
If climate change is inevitable, it makes
sense to devote resources to adapting to new
circumstances and taking measures to alleviate some of
the worst side effects.
Climate change is usually regarded as an issue future generations will have to tackle because it is a stealth threat - the problem gets progressively worse over the course of decades or even centuries, and finally the situation becomes unbearable. Just as too many governments in the early 21st century seem unfazed by the fact they have borrowed more money then their successors in several decades time should be asked to repay, the attitude towards climate change is equally irresponsible.
Countries, and even empires, have fallen because of crushing debt that could no longer be repaid. This was certainly a major factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The debts incurred by Louis XIV led inexorably to revolution in France 75 years after his death. When the burden of debt becomes to much for the debtor to bear, there is usually the option of default or bankruptcy and then starting over. The equivalent scenario with climate change is to abandon a place and for its inhabitants to migrate to new lands. That was hard enough thousands of years ago, and many of the world's wars were fought between migraters and people defending the land the newcomers wanted for themselves. Where could entire nations migrate to in the 21st century and beyond?
If you are searching for a classic example of a civilisation coming to an end because of climate change, you need look no further than Central America. This region is influenced by what we now call "El Nino" and "La Nina" which can cause periods of intense droughts or flooding. The Maya is a collective name for various tribes who shared a linguistic heritage. The land they ruled was split into many city states, rather like Ancient Greece or medieval Italy. The Maya "inherited" their land and much of their culture - including the famous "Mayan" calendar - from the Olmecs. The first major Mayan city state was Teotihuacan, which was founded in the first century AD. This was a well-planned city, built to a grid system and covering approximately eight square miles. Its two most notable landmarks were the two pyramids - one dedicated to the sun and the other to the moon - connected by the "Avenue of the Dead". At its peak Teotihuacan was home to about 200,000 people. The city started to go into decline by the middle of the sixth century, and was partially destroyed and vandalised before being abandoned around 750 AD. The neighbouring city of Colula was also abandoned around the same time. Records have shown there was an extremely severe drought during the mid-eighth century covering an area from what is now the southern United States to Peru.
The following picture from Wikimedia Commons shows Mayan king T'ah 'ak' Cha'an:
The collapse of Mayan authority created a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Toltecs. They had been forced by the same drought to migrate to central Mexico, where they established a capital called Tula, and ruled the region until the middle of the twelfth century. Once again drought struck and the state collapsed. The coup de grace was administered by an invading force that quickly discovered there wasn't enough food for them, so much of their army subsequently perished. Mayans retained control over most of the Yucatan Peninsula and new cities arose. The most famous of these was Chichen Itza. The picture below, taken by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, shows the great pyramid at Chichen Itza:
The city experienced its share of wars and famine, but survived beyond the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Other cities were not so fortunate. The history of civilisation in Central America is one of "boom and bust" kingdoms that thrived when the climate was amenable and fairly quickly disintegrated when one of the periodic major droughts started. The Mayans had a habit of inscribing the date on their new buildings, and as their calendar was so accurate, it has made the job of timing events that happened to them fairly easy, once their script had been deciphered. The Mayans alone suffered four separate periods when they had to abandon some of their cities. The first period was around 150-200 AD. The second was from 530-590 AD. The third period was the entire eighth and ninth centuries, which was when the Mayan civilisation as a whole went into steep decline. After its recovery, there was a final period of abandonments around 1450 AD. Mayan records of a severe drought from 1441 to 1461 have been discovered.
The downfall from when a city was a bustling trading centre with a ruling elite, artisans and a religious caste supported, plus a standing army to a vandalised, ghost town usually took less than a century, and sometimes happened within a single generation.
This pace of destruction should be enough in itself to concentrate the minds of those in power around the world to confront the threat posed by climate change. But climate change does not always take decades or centuries to affect a region. Sometimes, an event caused by a change in climate can be so devastating it can destroy a huge area in a single day. I'm not talking about volcanoes, which have destroyed places like Pompeii and (thanks to tsunamis they caused) the ancient cities in Crete in a day - but a force even more devastating, and with even worse short, medium and long term implications. Worse than even the most powerful earthquake.
There is at least one recorded instance of an entire region being totally destroyed by a natural disaster caused by climate change. There are also numerous mythical accounts of great cultures being wiped out in the same time span. In the case of Atlantis, I have set out to show how much of Plato's description of the place might have been extremely accurate (although certain aspects of his story were definitely wrong). Specifically, I have set out to demonstrate how there might have been a place called Atlantis where and when he said it was and that the disaster that struck where Atlantis could have been was also caused by climate change.
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