Non-Fiction Reviews


Climate Change and the Health of Nations
Famines, fevers and the fate of populations

(2017/9) Anthony J. McMichael with Alistair Woodward & Cameron Muir,
Oxford University Press, 16.99 US$24.95, pbk, xx + 370pp, ISBN 978-0-190-93184-1

 

The late Anthony McMichael's (1942 2014) book was completed and edited down by his colleagues (Alistair Woodward and Cameron Muir) and came out in hardback in 2017. This 2019 edition is its first appearance in paperback.

Anthony McMichael is a clinician by training who then specialised in epidemiology working in both developed and less-developed nations before a period looking at industrially related health.  However, early on in his career he also developed an interest in the demographic aspects of human ecology and related environmental sustainability.  This evolved in later years into concerns for climate and health related human impacts and in the 2000s he also ran an Environment, Climate, and Health research programme at the Australian National University in Canberra.  He is noted for authoring Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species from Cambridge U. Press (1993). This work was arguably ahead of the game in terms of bringing together various environmental science aspects of global development with health issues.

Climate Change and the Health of Nations clearly builds on the author's above experience and interests and it is a book with an uncommonly broad scope.  It begins with a useful sketch outline of the Earth system as it relates to an overview of climate.  This segues neatly into a chapter on climate and health.  Then there comes a chapter bravely titled 'From Cambrian explosion to first farmers'. However much of the last half billion years is skated over so quickly (four short pages there are illustrations) that in reality the meat of this chapter is on human evolution and ecology since from the Pliocene (5.33 million years ago [mya]) and through the Quaternary (since 2.5 mya).  This in turn brings us on to the rise of agrarian societies and related health issues since around eight thousand years ago onwards.  The next two chapters look at the rise and fall of Bronze Age civilisations and then the more recent Roman and American civilizations.  Both these chapters have the theme of climate change, especially periods of cold and/or drought, impacting the sustainability and even the survival of these cultures,  A chapter on the 'Little Ice Age' brings us up to modern times and the impacts of weather extremes.  McMichael then pauses to reflect on some of the themes explored as to the triad of human populations, environment and climate throughout the Holocene (the past 11 thousand years or so).  This is all capped off with a final chapter on current concerns and the issues we may well face in years to come.

McMichael gives us quite a tour and for the most part it is a fair reading of the related academic literature.  It is also written for much of the time in a very accessible style which will make this book useful for those seeking to broaden their own specialist climate or alternatively socio-economic and development expertise so as to begin to see the bigger picture. This is a worthy exercise that most should do from time to time so as to ensure that their own work is (or even personal casual interests are) relevant to current issues that we all as individuals face on this slowly warming, and increasingly populated planet.

As such this book will sit easily on the shelves of undergraduate students, qualified academics, as well as interested lay people, alike.

Having said that, this book comes with a bit of a health warning caveat of its own.

Anthony McMichael is best on his home turf of health-related science and does a good job of integrating that with climate change.  McMichael weaves an interesting human ecology and environmental science tapestry, apart from a sojourn into polycystic ovary syndrome (the author at one point in his life made a minority contribution to a related research paper) which while presenting an intriguing notion that some currently detrimental genes conferred benefit in historical times of poorer nutrition was less than clear (and I looked up the primary research paper cited and that too lacked clarity as to the possibly 'beneficial' side of this syndrome in amore food stressed era).  This aside there is much to engage the reader and the references and notes at the book's end will enable those that wish to further their reading.

Having said that, some of the underpinning climate science was on less firm footing.  For example, of particular concern is that Anthony McMichael gives more credence to Solar variation (changes in the Sun's output) than the broader academic climate change community does.  Indeed, even the principal reference he gives when first introducing this topic has a question mark in the title, as well as a conclusion that: "a causal relationship between the two [Solar variation and climate] and supports, but by no means proves, the view that the Sun has had an important, possibly even dominant influence on our climate in the past."  And that with regards to the current warming, "the Sun cannot be the dominant source of this latest temperature increase". (Solanki, S. K. (2002) Solar variability and climate change: is there a link? Astronomy & Geophysics, vol. 43 (5), p9-13.).  The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) itself notes that while Solar variability likely contributed to the Little Ice Age (from about 1450 to about 1850) that Milankovitch and volcanic forcing played their parts (see chapter 5 Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge U. Press, and available as a free PDF download from the IPCC's website www.ipcc.ch.).  I was also uncomfortable with the repeated use of the term 'Mid-Holocene Optimum', which admittedly some others also use, as this firmly suggests that there was something 'optimum' about this time, hence inferring that there was something less optimum about other times in the Holocene (the past 11, 000 years): the better term is the 'Mid-Holocene Warm Period' or even the 'Holocene Thermal Maximum'.  Even though such a criticism of mine may be too nuanced a distinction for the average, especially lay, reader, it is an important distinction to make especially for students who may go on to study in greater depth climate related topics, such as past and present biological impacts of climate change, irrespective of whether they are health related or not. Terminology should lend precision.

Fortunately the above concerns do not undermine the book's core thrust that climate change does have a human health dimension and that these can be of national, if not international, level significance.  Here Anthony McMichael's book provides a very readable, broad-based introduction to these issues and which, caveats aside, on this basis I'd firmly recommend.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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