Will The Inexorable Movement Of A Changing Climate Finally Force Us To Change With It?

September 1st, 2023 by Tom Lynch

Climate change is all around us, creeping in from every side, making itself known more and more in ever more problematic ways. This has been happening since the dawn of time; it’s ecologically normal. What’s not ecologically normal is our helping it along.

I thought about this a couple of nights ago as I stood at the glass doors overlooking the gorgeous forest that borders our land here in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. I was watching raindrops fall, just a few drops snaking through the lights on the deck. Falling so thinly, they seemed furtive, like the recon scout I once was, checking out the landscape for the armies to follow. Then, they slackened and died away. A minute later, they were back with billions of their buddies in tow to pound the roof and deck below.

That’s what it’s been like here this summer, the wettest on record. Is it just a blip in history, or something more, a portent of the future?

Climate has been changing repeatedly, over and over, since earth was first formed four and a half billion years ago. Humanity first blossomed in Africa about two million years ago (we are all Africans), Homo Sapiens two to three hundred thousand years ago, and for most of the time we’ve been here we have not seen climate change coming. Like my furtive raindrops, it snuck in when no one was looking and changed everything. But now, advances in science allow us to understand what’s happening, what’s happened before, and what’s just now coming over the horizon. And whatever’s coming, it seems to be gathering momentum. The question being debated is how much are we contributing to the process and, if we are, how can we slow it down?

Looking at the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is instructive, and historian Kyle Harper’s magnificent, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire¹, particularly so. Why? Because climate change played a significant role in the slowly disappearing Roman Empire.

We are now in the Holocene geological epoch. It began about 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. The Holocene has seen a warmer climate, yet one that wobbles between warmer and cooler. As Harper points out, the apex of the Roman Empire, the Roman Climate Optimum (RCO), was one of the most geologically and agriculturally fruitful periods in the entire Holocene. The perfect weather of the RCO, which lasted from around 150 BCE to 200 CE, allowed Rome to provide all the food its citizens would need to grow and prosper. The height of Romans increased, as did their life expectancy. With Egypt as its breadbasket, Rome was able to conquer the entire known western world and reign supreme for more than 500 years. But climate changed and three plagues arrived, and the hegemony elevator began to take everyone back down. At the end of the seventh century, the Roman Empire was a long gone thing.

The year 536 was a pivotal year. Two major volcanic eruptions blotted out the sky, and the year came to be known as “the year without summer,” which began the coldest decade in the last two thousand years and a more prolonged cold snap lasting 125 years. By this time, earth’s warming had stopped, rain happened less often, and the planet entered the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which was accompanied, unfortunately for the Empire, by two decimating plagues. There had been an earlier one, the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180, but under Marcus Aurelius the Empire bounced back from that to be stronger than ever.

When the apocalyptic Plague of Justinian struck in 541, Rome was a tired nation. The plague was a devastating pandemic, and we now know it to have been Europe’s first bubonic plague. The emperor Justinian was one of the ablest emperors Rome ever had, but he was faced with an  insurmountable confluence of bad news: a decline in solar output, as well as spreading aridification in North Africa and frequent flooding in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. The Egyptian breadbasket was a thing of the past. But Justinian tried, and tried mightily, embarking on a series of environmental engineering projects, building cisterns and aqueducts, moving riverbeds and reclaiming floodplains, all in an effort to safeguard his civilization. He failed.

Harper estimates the mortality rate of the Justinianic Plague at around 50 percent, and notes that bubonic plague continued to attack the empire for two more centuries after 541, riding on the backs of the empire’s rats and recurring in humans whenever environmental conditions conspired: some 38 times over the next 200 years. The halving of the population in 541, followed by these periodic aftershocks, sent every sphere of public life into disarray, notably decimating the army and wreaking economic chaos. Harper writes, “There is a relatively uncomplicated line from demographic collapse to the failure of the eastern empire.”

We do not face bubonic plague, but we have the ever-mutating Coronavirus staring us in the face, and what it will do in the future is anyone’s guess. Just yesterday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 2,179 new cases in the Commonwealth, with 359 hospitalizations and 12 deaths.

And, as has been demonstrated vividly in recent times, the climate times are changing. Wildfires, floods, warmer seas breeding bigger storms, ungodly heat in places that never experienced it before write our story now. The hottest years since records have been kept are happening now, right now, and the best minds studying this predict more is coming. Rising seas will put our coastal cities in danger whether we like it or not.

The degree to which mankind is contributing to this disaster-in-the-making is immaterial, because the fact is, it is happening. We should stop arguing, agree about the problem and then, like Justinian, do what we can for the good of humanity. We have a lot more weapons than he did.

We can never address this successfully if every country is doing its own thing and if governments are not empowered to generate collective action. What we need is a collaborative human endeavor, one in which humanity as a whole works together with common purpose and sacrifice. And there really isn’t time to waste.

The fate of Rome does not have to be our fate. But I can’t say I’m optimistic.



¹ Harper, Kyle, 2017, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease & the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press.