Problem Climates or Problem Societies?

Michael H. Glantz
15 April 2003

Problem Climates or Problem Societies?

More than forty years ago, geographer Glenn Trewartha published his book, The Earth's Problem Climates. Trewartha's selection of what he considered at that time to be the earth's "problem climates" was based on information available before 1960. He described a problem climate as one that does not really conform to what might be expected for a given latitude:

Were the earth's surface homogeneous (either land or water) and lacking terrain irregularities, it may be presumed that atmospheric pressure, winds, temperature, and precipitation would be arranged in zonal or east-west belts (p. 3).

He focused on "regional climatic aberrations," explicitly noting that he was writing for physical scientists, and not the general public. In his words,

It is designed to meet the needs of those interested in the professional aspects of climate rather than laymen. A methodical description of all the earth's climates is not attempted, for many areas are climatically so normal or usual that they require little comment in a book which professes to emphasize the exceptional (p. 6, emphasis added).

Is such a statement still valid, given what we have learned about climate since 1960? Are there really areas on the globe that could be viewed as "climatically so normal or usual that they require little comment"? Are there exceptional "problem climates"? Should we also be asking questions about societies' role, if any, in the existence of problem climates?

There are two ways to look at the term problem climates: from a physical perspective and from an anthropocentric perspective. Climate processes are natural processes that center on the physical characteristics and behavior of the atmosphere. The second way is anthropocentric, because climate's processes interact with human activities and with the resources on which those activities depend.

Problem climates, then, are generated not only by changes in rainfall, temperature, pressure, or wind, but also by changes in human activities, such as deforestation, urbanization, desertification, and fossil fuel burning. For their part, societies can no longer be portrayed as just victims of the climate system (its means, modes, and extremes) but are involved in the various ways that the climate system and its impacts might be changing.

The phrase "problem societies" refers to climate and climate-related factors that affect the ability of society or the environment to interact effectively with the climate system. Accepting the fact that there are many things about the behavior of the atmosphere that we do not yet understand, it is also important to note that there is a considerable amount of usable information we already know about the interactions between human activities and the climate system. Nevertheless, societies knowingly still engage in activities that increase their vulnerability or reduce their resilience in the face of a varying climate system.

In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome created the concept of "World Problematique." It is summarized as follows:

The complexity of the world problematique lies in the high level of mutual interdependence of all these problems on the one hand, and in the long time it often takes until the impact of the action and reaction in this complex system becomes visible.

The notion of problematique (problematic) should be applied to climate and climate-related issues. While every regional or local climate can be viewed to varying degrees as a problem climate in the natural science sense, the word "problematic" better captures the contemporary realization of what constitutes a problem climate. It suggests a more holistic view of the climate system in which human activities have become another factor that forces changes in climate.

Our problem is not only that we have to cope with a variable and changing global climate, but is also with the pathways that societies have chosen to pursue in order to develop their economies, often with little regard to the impacts on climate. This brings to mind the Pogo cartoon: "I have met the enemy and he is us!" It is time to start pointing the finger at problem societies as well as at problem climates.

Trewartha, G.T., 1961: The Earth's Problem Climates. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

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