Global Warming, Redux

By Alex Li

This past winter was uncharacteristically warm for New York City. In fact, according to the National Weather Service, it was the second warmest winter since people started tracking temperature in 1870.

Four hundred years ago, winter conditions in Manhattan might not have been that different. The Medieval Warming Period around the 12th century had a profound effect on the course of civilization. Today, with another global warming period on the horizon—this one accelerated by human activity—national futures may again be driven by the rapidly changing climate. This time, however, climate change will produce no winners.

All activity—the movement of air, water, and energy on the earth—is driven by the difference of solar energy received on the surface between high and low latitude. Sunlight hits the equatorial region directly and the polar region at a 90-degree angle, causing the Earth’s surface to absorb the most heat at the equator and the least at the poles. The difference in Earth surface temperature acts like a giant engine that pumps life into everything on the planet. This giant engine, however, is likely going to be impacted in the coming decades by global warming.

The Medieval Warming Period is believed to have led to the rise of Europe as a political, technological, and colonial superpower. Europe lagged behind all major nations in the world in terms of population, culture, military, and technology before this natural event. The warming climate reduced the swamps on the European continent and opened up more land for agriculture. Subsequently, agricultural production doubled during this period and population growth increased dramatically. Because of the increase in population, Europe entered a period of unprecedented prosperity epitomized by the Renaissance and the great ocean exploration.  

By comparison, in the same period, global warming made regions that were already very dry, like China and most parts of Middle East, even drier. Large-scale drought and crop failure wracked the civilizations found in these parts of the world. As a result, populations in both China and the Middle Eastern nations decreased during this period.

The global dominance of the Western powers that appeared to be the norm for centuries cannot be attributed to chance or genetic superiority. Climate change played an important role in the rise of Europe.

Today, as centuries ago, a warmer planet is unlikely to be appreciated by nations that are already in tropical, subtropical, and dry regions of the world. On the other hand, countries located on relatively high northern latitudes, such as Canada, Russia, and northern Europe would receive a few secondary benefits from the warming globe. But because all states are interdependent , the net effect for these countries will be negative.

The Russian climate may see the most improvement from global warming. The melting glaciers in the North Pole region due to the warming climate may provide an opportunity for Arctic oil drilling. The meltdown of North Pole ice may also open up the seas along the Russian coastline for oil transportation, connecting newly accessible oil fields in Siberia with the global market. It is also expected to increase Russian agricultural yields and reduce winter deaths, as well as heating costs.

On the other hand, countries with large populations and in low latitude regions—such as China and India—may face some serious consequences due to global warming.

In India, climate change may negatively impact agriculture. The Government of India’s National Communications predicted that climate change might cause erratic monsoons with serious effects on agriculture since many of their crops—such as soybeans and wheat—are rain-fed and heavily dependent on heavy rain during the planting season.  

Climate change is expected to impact China’s agriculture and water security, and may create a serious water crisis in China in the next 50 to 100 years. This could even cause regional conflicts between China and its neighbors, threatening the stabilization of China’s society and possibly putting a stop to China’s rapid economic rise. 

Further warming of climate is projected to melt the ice sheet in the North Pole region. Countries like Russia, Canada, and the U.S. are already eyeing possible development in this area. The “open water” will likely develop to a few ocean passages in the North Pole that connect Russia, Northern Europe, and North America. When that day comes, I’m sure Sarah Palin will not only be able to “see Russia from her backyard,” but also to jump on a boat and land on the northern Russian coast in time for a cup of tea. Michael Chertoff, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security under President Bush, said recently when he visited Alaska, "All I know is there's open water where there didn't used to be, and I'm responsible for it."

“The past is a mirror and we can see future in it,” goes the old Chinese saying. Global warming in the Middle Ages sent lucky Europe to the top of all civilizations. Today, we see the familiar global warming pattern again, but will it make Russia, Canada, and Northern Europe superpowers? Unlikely.

First, there is no comparison in how developed civilization is between the world we live in today and the world people lived in 400 years ago. Agricultural productivity is certainly no longer the only determining factor that impacts the rise of a nation, thanks to the sophisticated global trading network that helps distribute food around the globe.

Second, nations have become so interconnected by political and economic ties that it is practically impossible for a country to be unaffected by an event with global ramifications. In the end, where would Russia sell its newly drilled oil surplus from the Arctic when China and India, two of the world's largest rising markets, find themselves with a collapsed economy because of global warming?

Global warming as we are experiencing it today is an unprecedented global-scale experiment designed by and executed on human beings themselves. While it created geo-political winners four centuries ago, if climate change continues, the whole world loses—Russia, Manhattan, and the rest of the northern hemisphere included.



Alex Li is a graduate student at Columbia University's Earth Institute studying climate and society.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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