posted 26 March 2004


William H. Calvin, "When Climate Staggers." The 2004 Adamson Lecture in International Studies, Westminster College (25 March 2004). See also climate.htm

The Powerpoint slides are here.

The slides for the honors class talk on human evolution are here.

William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington




Coming on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must rescue itself.  It dwarfs the three big scientific alerts from the 1970s about global warming, ozone loss, and acid rain. But until the 1990s, no one knew much about abrupt climate change, those past occasions when the whole world flipped out of a warm-and-wet climate like today’s into the alternate mode, which is like a worldwide version of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  There are big alterations in only 3-5 years.  A few centuries later, the drought climate flips back into worldwide warm-and-wet, even more quickly.  Unlike greenhouse warmings, the big flips have happened every few thousand years on average, though the most recent one was back before agriculture in 10,000 B.C.  The next flip may arrive sooner than otherwise, thanks to our current warming trend.  The northern extension of the Gulf Stream appears quite vulnerable to global warming in four different ways.  An early warning might be a decline in this current.  And according to two oceanographic studies published this last year, this vulnerable ocean current has been dramatically declining for the last 40-50 years, paralleling our global warming and rising CO2.

This is the best pamphlet-sized treatment on the new scientific warnings.  Use the link to the PDF file at WHOI and print out a supply for your classes.

The best book-sized treatment of the science of ancient climates is Richard Alley's The Two Mile Time Machine (Princeton 2000).click to order from

My human evolution book A Brain for All Seasons devotes the last third to climate influences and to warnings about future abrupt climate shifts. 

It is written at approximately the same level (for serious but nonscientific readers) as my Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The great climate flip-flop."


Is the Temperature Rising? The Uncertain Science of Global Warming by S. George Philander (Paperback ).  Written with grace and understatement for general readers, by someone deeply involved with modeling the climate, it covers much of a Princeton introductory course in the earth sciences.  The IPCC analysis of where gradual climate change is going, “Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis,” can be found at

Floods, Famines, and Emperors : El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations
Brian Fagan. Paperback (March 2000.)  Archaeologists have this wonderful perspective on what’s gone wrong in the past, both with climate and human institutions.

The Two-Mile Time Machine
by Richard B. Alley
(Princeton University Press, 2000).  It is written for nonspecialists (Alley has gotten a lot of practice as a frequent commentator for Science news articles).  The book contains far more detail on abrupt climate change than the others.   So if you find yourself asking, “But how could they possibly know that?” you’ll find most of the answers in Alley’s excellent book.  Its final chapter about the future, alas, is informed by conventional economic extrapolation rather than by the more relevant perspective of high-risk management seen in medicine, re-insurance, and disaster planning. 



The Virtual Index for my books and articles, far better than my printed index in most cases:

And my favorite source for looking up
 other authors' books (and who has quoted them):

In Association with




A Brief History
 of the Mind, 2004

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A Brain for All Seasons

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Lingua ex Machina

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The Cerebral Code

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How Brains Think

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Conversations with
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