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Global Warming: Lessons of History Help the Future

From the enigma of Easter Island to the famines that struck India in the 19th century, the past is throwing up vital pointers for scientists poring over how to combat looming climate change .

Rising global temperatures this century will stress almost every agricultural region of the world, according to the latest report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But for poor tropical nations, the risk is the greatest by far. For them, malnutrition, caused by prolonged spells of drought and flooding, looms as a distant but serious worry.

Experts pondering how to tackle the threat are delving into history, exploring how civilisations of the past, facing similar perils, either coped or were wiped out.

US academic Jared Diamond, author of "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," says "ecocide" -- ecological suicide -- plays a greatly under-estimated role in the fall of societies.

He gives the example of Easter Island, the isolated speck of land in the Pacific Ocean, which once had a population estimated to be as many as 20,000 people.

Its civilisation expired in the 18th century in a bloody sunset of internecine warfare and cannibalism after the trees which provided fuel and timber were all cut down.

Prolonged drought wiped out the advanced Mayan civilisation at Tikal, in modern-day Mexico, around a thousand years ago. And in the 15th century, the last Viking settlement in Greenland petered out, a victim of the "Little Ice Age" that brought bitter chill to northern latitudes after several balmy centuries.

"In the worst cases of complete collapse, everybody in the society emigrated or died," Diamond, a professor of geography at University of California, Los Angeles, says in his acclaimed book.

"Obviously, though, this grim trajectory is not one that all past societies followed to completion," adds Diamond. "Different
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