Environment Is Victim in Writer's Murder Mystery

"People are finally realizing there's a danger out there we haven't been paying attention to," said Eugene Linden, a Washington environmental writer and advocate, referring to climate change. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

In the 2004 Hollywood thriller "The Day After Tomorrow," a vice president bearing a striking resemblance to Dick Cheney ignores environmentalists' warnings, only to see New York City plunged into a deep freeze and Los Angeles leveled by mega-tornadoes. Al Gore's new documentary film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," shows polar ice caps melting at an alarming rate.

So is there material for another end-of-life-as-we-know-it movie lurking in "The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations," Washington environmental writer and advocate Eugene Linden's new tome on the dangers of climate change?

Linden says he isn't sure, but here's a clue: His book takes the familiar Washington policy issue of climate change and dresses it up as a compelling serial murder case spanning the past 4,000 years.

In this forensic whodunit, climate change is cast as a mass killer that has bumped off one unsuspecting civilization after another, from the Akkadians of the ancient Middle East, who perished in a prolonged drought, to the Assyrians, Minoans, Mayans and Vikings, whose demise was hastened by sinister blips in the weather.

Fast-forward to the present, and Linden links unusual spikes in Earth's temperature beginning in the 1980s to fast-melting arctic ice sheets, a devastating hurricane that nearly wiped New Orleans off the map last year, and now hordes of voracious mountain pine beetles munching their way through western Canada en route to the United States.

"Our wake-up call came with Katrina," Linden said this week during a conversation at his home in upper Northwest Washington. "People are finally realizing there's a danger out there we haven't been paying attention to."

The 59-year-old former Time magazine senior writer and author of seven books has been trying for years to wake up the country to what he sees as an environmental threat far more serious to mankind than even global terrorism. "The void of leadership on this issue is certainly nothing less than astounding," he said.

Linden, a Yale graduate, broke into journalism in the early 1970s by producing a startling cover story for the Saturday Review on "fragging" in Vietnam -- troops intentionally wounding or killing their superior officers. He subsequently traveled widely to report on science, business, the environment and climate change. From his base in New York, he made treks to both polar regions in 1997 and 2000 and took part in a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution expedition to the North Atlantic to monitor Gulf Stream currents in 2004.

At Time, Linden helped produce the magazine's celebrated 1989 Planet of the Year special issue on "Endangered Earth" and a special international issue called "Our Precious Planet." His 1998 book "The Future in Plain Sight" identified global warming as one of the nine key factors that foretell instability.

Linden's new book echoes the concerns of leading scientists and environmentalists that Earth's rising temperature and the attendant threats to mankind are closely linked to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions generated by antiquated coal-burning power plants and factories, a quarter of which emanate from the United States.

"Why is it that we're having such a dramatic impact on the environment, where for millennia humanity's impact was relatively small," Linden said this week. "Climate change has just sort of risen to the top" of world concerns, he said.

Linden left Time in 1995 and became chief investment strategist for a major hedge fund. But he continued his research, writing and lecturing on climate change, and is active on the boards of the World Wildlife Fund and other groups. In the past four years, he has tapped into research by scientists who have reconstructed ancient climates by analyzing the cores of ice sheets and glaciers and the sediment from lakes, sea beds and caves. It was this research that became the grist for what Linden calls his "forensic murder mystery."

Linden moved from New York to Washington three years ago after his wife, Mary Rasenberger, accepted a post with the Library of Congress. But he does little to hide his distaste for Washington, which he describes as "occupied territory" teeming with Republican politicians and bureaucrats hostile to environmental advocates.

He complains that Republicans on Capitol Hill have waged "witch hunts" against environmentalists and that the Bush administration has tried to silence bureaucrats who dissent from President Bush's policies on global warming. And although he counts former vice president Al Gore and former senator Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) among his friends, Linden says that Democrats pay lip service to the threat of climate change nearly as much as Republicans do.

"The Democrats have never known how to play the environment," he explained. "I mean, Kerry, I thought, was just awful the way he backed away from the issue" during the 2004 presidential campaign.

As for Bush, Linden said the president's rejection of mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions and his advocacy of voluntary programs designed to slow but not reduce the growth of carbon emissions "makes a mockery of serious commitment."

"Climate change is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction," he said, "and I would love to see Bush have some conversion on the road to Damascus and actually take this issue up. But I'm not sure he's capable of it."

So who would play Bush in a movie of his new book? Harrison Ford? Or how about Will Ferrell? "That would work," Linden replied with a smile.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company