While climate may not be the sole cause of failures of past civilizations (issues such as political unrest and warfare also cause collapses), it has repeatedly been, if not the main contributor, at least a key contributor to the stability of a society. Because of this, many researchers believe that humans today can learn much from the experiences of past civilizations. History is also helping scientists improve predictions through modeling and other developing technologies. But even with all of today's new innovations, there is still uncertainty about what the future will bring. The climate system is so complex there is still much research that needs to be completed.
One component humans must face today and that has not changed is the ability to adapt under changing conditions. If humans cannot adapt, they will perish. An example that illustrates this is when the Vikings inhabited Greenland during the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1400 to 1800 c.e., and which put too much stress on the agricultural systems, forcing the Vikings to abandon their farms. At the same time, however, the Inuit, who lived nearby, continued on as they always had because they had already adapted to a colder climate. This focus on societies' responses to changing conditions is important when it comes to ultimate survival.
In light of global warming today, adaptation and the issue of lifestyle changes are also important. As reported in a National Geographic
News article in 2001, according to Wil Burns, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Law & Policy at the Santa Clara University School of Law and an affiliate of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security (both in California), if the world does not change its current activities, an 11-degree rise in temperature could ensure extremely detrimental effects on civilization. Because most of the world's people live as subsistence (growing only what they need to survive) or small-scale farmers, fluctuations in climate could be devastating to these agricultural societies. Even though technology has advanced, most civilizations today would be negatively affected by droughts or monsoons; enough so that food production could be halted. Scientists also point out that as the Earth becomes more populated, it makes it more difficult for people to relocate to other areas that have more favorable climates.
Because we have a better scientific understanding of climate today, many experts believe that knowledge needs to be used to minimize the negative effects of climate change on societies that currently face the greatest risk. Several areas around the world are already putting adaptation to the test. For example, in Niger, inhabitants are currently planting trees to lessen the effects of flooding and aridity in the future. A group of farmers in England are currently taking advantage of the continuing rise in local temperatures by planting olive groves to produce olive oil, grape vineyards to produce wine, and tea plants, something unheard of in England's climate before now.
In order to preserve botanic diversity in view of changing climate, some areas are establishing seed banks. These are storage facilities that preserve the seeds of thousands of threatened and endangered species. Seed banks exist in the United States, Brazil, Mexico, England, South Korea, Norway, China, Russia, and Iraq.
By collecting and freezing seeds, scientists are trying to preserve the role that a particular plant plays in an ecosystem as well as its genetic diversity. They are also interested in preserving the seeds for their DNA so that future cross-breeding may be possible in order to produce plants that will be better able to grow in a changed climate. Seed banks are often looked at as a defense against climate change and environmental catastrophe.
Some critics of the theory of global warming say that some areas of the world may actually benefit from a warmer environment. This can be seen in a few places today. For example, in some parts of Australia, climate change has brought more rain, enabling some ranchers to support larger herds of cattle because their ranges have been more productive growing grass, and the farmers are benefitting from the extra productivity. Other northern locations in Canada and Russia will be better able to produce agricultural goods, but climatologists warn that areas of benefit will be few, far between, and sporadic and will be insignificant in comparison to the overall negative effects of global warming.
Like civilizations of the past, civilizations today are also living through the effects of changing climates. In 1995, for instance, an intense heat wave in Chicago, Illinois, killed more than 700 people and focused U.S. attention on climate change. In 2003, a record heat wave in Europe killed 49,000 people. Hurricanes Andrew in 1992 and Katrina in 2005 caused horrendous damage, as did the flooding of China's Yangtze River basin in 1998. In Zimbabwe in an El Niño year, corn yields experienced about a 10 percent loss. In Rwanda, temperature and rainfall extremes during El Niño caused increases in malaria outbreaks.
In the United States, State Farm Insurance has raised rates for inhabitants of Florida because of unpredictable and dangerous weather. Rates for homes have increased 70 percent and 95 percent for mobile homes. Southern California is facing a serious shortage of water, which will ultimately hurt the housing industry, the job market, and the local economy. Drought in the West is already overloading hydroelectric power production. Power shortages could reach the Pacific Northwest if the region's river flows drop below levels necessary to cool coal- and gas-fired power plants. Across the United States, climate change will disrupt jobs and the economy and will lead to health issues.
Global warming is affecting civilization today, and some areas are responding to these wake-up calls. According to the Earth Policy Institute, political leaders in sub-Saharan Africa are considering planting a 3-mile (5-km)-wide and 4,350-mile (7,000-km)-long belt of trees across the continent on the edge of the desert to stop its continual advance. They know that if they cannot build this Great Green Wall there will be millions of refugees left homeless as their lands steadily turn into desert.
In the Sahara in Mali near Timbuktu, the Tuareg people have traditionally lived as nomads, herding their animals from field to field. When they need to buy provisions at a market, they trade animals for other staples. Over the past 40 years, however, their traditional lifestyle has been disrupted because of persistent drought. In order to survive today, they have had to change their culture, settle in villages, and begin farming crops that are as resistant as possible to drought.
According to CBS News London in June 2007, another issue is the destruction of modern-day cultures that is occurring because of global warming and climate change. For instance, rising sea levels are currently encroaching on and destroying the ancient buildings of Venice, Italy, and the ancient temples of Greece. Higher temperatures and humidity are speeding up corrosion rates on the Eiffel Tower's steel girders in Paris. Humid, salty air is beginning to ruin the stonework of historical structures such as the Parthenon, the Tower of London, and many cathedrals throughout Europe. Scientists warn that many works of art such as these may not be recognizable or even exist in 50 to 100 years.
Many feel these wake-up calls need to be addressed and that action needs to be taken immediately to stave off the negative effects of climate change. Experts warn that climate change along with population growth, poverty, increasing water shortages, rising oil prices, and a potential rise in food prices could lead to political instability, which could result in wars. Because of this, global warming is an issue that today's politicians as well as scientists urgently need to address.
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