A new book argues that climate has had a greater effect on social change than is generally believed. The political and economic effects of weather need to be taken seriously by all those concerned with human society.

"Weather forecasting has long been the butt of public ridicule," says William Burroughs in his new book Does the Weather Really Matter (Cambridge University Press, pounds 16.95). "Economic forecasting even less enviable public status. So the combination of these two specialist activities is liable to produce something which is held in still less regard and hence lead to the conclusion that the whole exercise is a waste of time."

He goes on to argue that however inaccurate weather forecasts may have been in the past, and however poorly economists may have performed, it is a fundamental responsibility of decision-makers to listen to them and take their views into account. "Whatever the limitations of such predictions, the defence of both those who issue them and those who use them to make decisions is that they were the best that could be produced at the time. The alternative of disregarding the accepted view of future developments is far less easy to justify."

That seems, on the face of it, to be a very bureaucratic viewpoint: expert opinion should be followed because it's the best we've got. And if we don't follow it, we'll have no excuse when something goes wrong. For the rest of the book, however, Mr Burroughs makes a very strong case indeed for taking the weather seriously.

A good deal of the work is devoted to a fascinating account of the effect of climate on human history. Geological evidence suggests that the collapse of a number of civilisations, starting with that of the Indus Valley between 2,500 and 1,500 BC, may have been influenced, if not directly caused, by weather factors. Lack of water is perhaps the most plausible common reason for entire societies abandoning a site, and there are several examples of empires collapsing just after a long period of drought. There is also an interesting theory that links rat migrations to weather change, and the development of certain forms of plague to interbreeding between different types of rat. Bad weather brings rat migration; rat migration brings plague; plague kills off entire societies. And then we have very cold winters bringing fuel crises, and all sorts of different weather conditions bringing about crop failures.

As we are discovering with the present El Nino, a sudden change in a country's climate can create economic catastrophe. In the final chapters of his book, Mr Burroughs makes a strong case for the potential benefits that may be gained with current models of the economic effects of climate change.

We may still be unsure about the precise effects of global warming, or the hole in the ozone layer, or countless other variables, but we are getting better at both short-range and long-range predictions. Economically, we cannot afford to ignore them.

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