Eric H. Cline, The New York Times, May 27, 2014
THIS month, a report issued by a prominent military advisory board concluded that climate change posed a serious threat to America’s national security.
The authors, 16 retired high-ranking officers, warned that droughts, rising seas and extreme weather events, among other environmental threats, were already causing global “instability and conflict.”
But Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a stalwart believer that global warming is a “hoax,” dismissed the report as a publicity stunt.
Perhaps the senator needs a history lesson, because climate change has been leading to global conflict — and even the collapse of civilizations — for more than 3,000 years. Drought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad.
One of the most vivid examples comes from around 1200 B.C. A centuries-long drought in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, contributed to — if not caused — widespread famine, unrest and ultimately the destruction of many once prosperous cities, according to four recent studies.
The scientists determined the length and severity of the drought by examining ancient pollen as well as oxygen and carbon isotope data drawn from alluvial and mineral deposits. All of their conclusions are corroborated by correspondence, inscribed and fired on clay tablets, dating from that time.
Ancient letters from the Hittite kingdom, in what is now modern-day Turkey, beseech neighboring powers for shipments of grain to stave off famine caused by the drought. (The drought is thought to have affected much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Syria for up to 300 years.) One letter, sent from a Hittite king, pleads for help: “It is a matter of life or death!”
Another letter, sent from the city of Emar, in what is now inland Syria, states simply, “If you do not quickly arrive here, we ourselves will die of hunger.” The kingdom of Egypt, as well as the city of Ugarit, on the coast of what is now Syria, responded with food and supplies, but it is not clear if they were able to provide enough relief.
It certainly created problems of national security for the great powers of the time. Correspondence between the Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, Cypriots, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Assyrians and Babylonians — effectively, the Group of 8 of the Late Bronze Age — includes warnings of attacks from enemy ships in the Mediterranean. The marauders are thought to have been the Sea Peoples, possibly from the western Mediterranean, who were probably fleeing their island homes because of the drought and famine and were moving across the Mediterranean as both refugees and conquerors.
One letter sent to Ugarit advised the king to “be on the lookout for the enemy and make yourself very strong!” The warning probably came too late, for another letter dating from the same time states: “When your messenger arrived, the army was humiliated and the city was sacked. Our food in the threshing floors was burned and the vineyards were also destroyed. Our city is sacked. May you know it! May you know it!”
While sea levels may not have been rising then, as they are now, changes in the water temperature may have been to blame for making life virtually unlivable in parts of the region.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science found that the surface temperatures of the Mediterranean Sea cooled rapidly during this time, severely reducing precipitation over the coasts. The study concluded that agriculture would have suffered and that the conditions might have influenced the “population declines, urban abandonments and long-distance migrations associated with the period.”
To top it off, catastrophic events, in the form of a series of earthquakes, also rocked many ancient cities in these areas from around 1225 to 1175 B.C. These, together with the famines and droughts, would have further undermined the societies of the time, most likely leading to internal rebellions by the underclass and peasant populations who were facing severe food shortages, as well as invasions by migrating peoples.
We still do not know the specific details of the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age or how the cascade of events came to change society so drastically. But it is clear that climate change was one of the primary drivers, or stressors, leading to the societal breakdown.
The era that followed is known as the first Dark Ages, during which the thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C. suddenly ceased to exist. It took decades, and even hundreds of years in some areas, for the people in these regions to rebuild.
We live in a world that has more similarities to that of the Late Bronze Age than one might suspect, including, as the British archaeologist Susan Sherratt has put it, an “increasingly homogeneous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture” in which “political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.”
But there is one important difference. The Late Bronze Age civilizations collapsed at the hands of Mother Nature. It remains to be seen if we will cause the collapse of our own.