Bestselling author discusses climate change in REACH Week keynote speech

Tyler Prochazka

It’s the “silent elephant in the room,” with implications that will touch every corner of the globe. While this threat looms overhead, many still continue to act as if it simply does not exist.

This was the message of New York Times bestselling author Brian Fagan, who gave the keynote speech for WKU’s REACH week. Fagan shared his research of climate change throughout history and its sweeping effects on the shaping of civilizations.


“Since the beginning of human history, we have been at the mercy of natural disasters,” Fagan said.

Fagan described the adaptability of human beings, who “moved with the climate,” toward areas that were more habitable and could sustain food production.

In Ancient Egypt, pharaohs would claim responsibility for the Nile River and the benefits it brought to society it brought to Egypt. However, there were times when the Nile became so dry people could walk across it, Fagan said.

“From then on, pharaohs couldn’t say they were infallible gods,” he said.

This type of environmental change, which can have enormous impacts on civilization, is not limited to the rest of the world.

Fagan pointed to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico where an entire society collapsed after a sustained drought ravaged the Anasazi. They permanently left Chaco Canyon when it could no longer sustain life.

“It’s only now that we are beginning to realize why there were these famines,” Fagan said.

A lack of rainfall leads to lowered life expectancy, increased disease, water contamination and increased malnutrition, he said.

This history provides context for the global climactic situation today, Fagan said. There has been a 25 percent increase in global droughts since 1990, according to Fagan’s presentation. Moreover, 30 percent of the world will face the most extreme drought conditions within the next century, up from 3 percent.

“One of the political global issues is going to be environmental refugees,” Fagan said.

Fagan’s presentation slide indicated there will potentially be a severe lack of water, with only 60 percent of the demand being met.

“A lot of people are going to die” when people lack significant amounts of water, Fagan said.

He pointed to the students in the audience and said they will be the generation to seriously deal with climate change.

In order to solve this issue, Fagan said there must be an international policy in place. He said the European Union is far ahead of the United States in environmental policy.

“We’re in the Stone Age (in environmental policy),” he said.

REACH Week continues with the presentation “Future Sea Level: Where do we go from here?” by William Pfeffer.

The presentation will be held in Ransdell Hall Auditorium this Saturday at 4:30 p.m.