In 2012 a revenue office in Uttar Pradesh received an official-looking notice addressed to the Hindu storm god Indra, ordering the deity to provide written justification for a drought caused by insufficient rain during that year’s monsoon season. “If the Lord fails to give a satisfactory explanation within the stipulated period,” the notice warned, “it will be presumed that he has nothing to say, and stern action will be taken.”
Nearly forty years ago, the Coordination and Planning Division of Exxon Research and Engineering conducted a technical review of how fossil fuels influence climate. The study, which was distributed to Exxon’s top management, advocated for “major reductions in fossil-fuel consumption.” Unless that happened, the study concluded, “there are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”
“When a vision comes from the thunder beings of the West,” the Lakota heyoka Black Elk explained in 1932, “it comes with terror like a thunderstorm; but when the storm of vision has passed, the world is greener and happier; for wherever the truth of vision comes upon the world, it is like a rain. The world, you see, is happier after the terror of the storm.”
In one of the earliest references to the tragedy of the commons—a concept that describes how people use natural resources to their advantage without considering the cost to society—the economist William Forster Lloyd asked in 1833, “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn and cropped so differently from adjoining enclosures?”
“When summer and winter separate,” wrote Hildegard of Bingen circa 1158, “so that either summer recedes and winter arrives or winter recedes and summer arrives, then a certain mixed substance appears, flying in the air, like a whiteness of threads, where the air is purifying itself.”
In a June 2019 article published in Nature Climate Change, researchers concluded that the “northernmost spatial regime boundary” for birds in the Great Plains of North America has shifted to the north by more than 350 miles over the past forty-six years, an indication of rapid global change. “Climate change, anthropogenic pressures, wildfire trends, and woody plant invasions,” according to the researchers, “have all operated along a putatively south-to-north trajectory over the past decades.”
Archaeologists studying large-scale fishing operations in medieval Europe found that changes in marine fishing in England between 600 and 1600 occurred rapidly around 1000 and involved significant catches of herring and cod. “This revolution predated the documented postmedieval expansion of England’s sea fisheries,” they concluded. “The century between 950 and 1050 can now be pinpointed as the ultimate origin of today’s fishing crisis.”
A lawsuit was filed in spring of 2019 in which owners of Ark Encounter, a creationist theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, claimed breach of contract against insurers who denied liability in a landslide—caused by heavy rains—that undermined a park roadway. The defendants say the water damage that disrupted the 510-foot replica ark was a matter of “design deficiencies or faulty workmanship,” and thus not covered.
Forty-five years ago, cosmologist Brandon Carter postulated that no observer should expect to find that he or she had come into existence exceptionally early in the history of his or her species. “Suppose you know that your name is in a lottery urn,” writes philosopher John Leslie, “but not how many other names the urn contains. You estimate, however, that there’s a half chance it contains a thousand names, and a half chance of its containing only ten. Your name then appears among the first three drawn from the urn. Don’t you have rather strong grounds for revising your estimate? Shouldn’t you now think it very improbable that there are another 997 names waiting to be drawn?”
“It is a sign of rain,” wrote the author of the fourth-century-bc Greek treatise On Weather Signs, “if a hawk perches on a tree, flies right into it, and proceeds to search for lice. Also, when in summer a number of birds living on an island pack together, if a moderate number collect, it is a good sign for goats and flocks, while if the number is exceedingly large, it portends a severe drought.”
In March 2018 authorities in Alexandria, Egypt, began removing five hundred residents from their homes along the Al Mahmoudeya canal—dug in 1820 under orders from Viceroy Mohamed Ali—and into high-rises. “There are many areas,” says Alexandrian climate scientist Mohamed El Raey, “that are located at least three meters below sea level. They will have to be abandoned and the people relocated.” Estimates suggest near-term rise in sea levels will inundate a third of the city.