What history tells us about how we are dealing with climate change

To make climate change real to people, a first order priority rather than an afterthought, we need to tell stories, stories about what is already happening and stories about what will happen as temperatures continue to rise. But for some people, telling the story of what happened in the past when temperatures changed by just a couple of degrees Celsius will do the trick.    

Two books published in the past decade make a powerful case that historians have underplayed the impact of climate change on the rise and fall of empires and civilisations, Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: war, climate change and catastrophe in the seventeenth century and Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire.

A lesson from the Little Ice Age
Parker’s book sets out, in fascinating detail, how the Little Ice Age contributed to social and political upheaval across the planet, including civil war in England and France; the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing; the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of Russia as a great power; the eclipse of Spain and the rise of the Dutch Republic; the Thirty Years War and much else besides.

Regimes rose and fell, harvests failed and millions died, perhaps a third of the world’s population. Alongside famine, deadly diseases increased in frequency and intensity. It was “the worst climate-induced catastrophe of the last millennium”; in Thomas Hobbes’s words, a time of “no arts, no letters, no society… continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

But Parker warns against ‘climatic determinism’. There was not a clear causal connection between climate change and the wars, revolutions and famines of the seventeenth century. Indeed, he gives plenty of attention to the countries that survived the climatic crisis. Global cooling had an impact everywhere, but human action, inaction and foolishness often made things worse.

The Little Ice Age outlasted the period historians call the General Crisis. There was still plenty of war and lots of people died. In France, for instance, climate change killed over a million people between 1691 and 1701, and a further 600,000 during the winter of 1708-9. But although the Little Ice Age continued beyond the seventeenth century, “it was not accompanied by similar social and political upheavals”.

Parker suggests two reasons for this. One, grim, is that as there were many fewer humans alive in the 1680s than the 1640s, “the demand for food no longer exceeded local supplies so egregiously”. The other, more encouraging, is that “those who survive a crisis often emerge better prepared to cope with any sequel”. They are better prepared and more resilient. Crisis often spurs innovation.

The climate wild card that brought down the Romans      
Kyle Harper’s book ends about a thousand years before Parker’s begins. “The rise and fall of Rome”, he says, serves to “remind us that the story of human civilisation is, through and through, an environmental drama.” His is the story “of how one of history’s most conspicuous civilisations found its dominion over nature less certain than it had ever dreamed”. In all this, climate change was “a true wild card transcending all the other rules of the game”.

The Roman Empire achieved its greatest reach and prosperity in a period known as the Roman Climate Optimum. But from the middle of the second century AD, “the Romans’ luck ran into short supply…. At critical junctures, climate instability pressed on the empire’s reserves of strength and intervened dramatically in the course of events.” Then, from the late fifth century, a combination of global cooling and bubonic plague overwhelmed what was left of the Roman state.

The empire and its peoples were extraordinarily resilient. “The twin catastrophes of plague and ice age did not collapse the Roman Empire in a clean blow…. But environmental degradation sapped the vitality of the empire.” Even the familiar story of the Huns overrunning Europe has an environmental dimension. Harper describes them as “armed climate refugees on horseback”.

Climate change and disease were intertwined. In an aside, Harper warns us that “nature’s creative destruction is far from spent…. It’s a microbe’s world – we’re just living in it.” We probably all understand that better after the past few months.

Neither of these books is finger pointing, but you cannot write about historical climate change without at least a nod to the present. Harper reflects that Rome’s encounter with nature may represent the opening act of a still unfolding drama: “A precociously global world, where the revenge of nature begins to make itself felt, despite persistent illusions of control… this might feel not so unfamiliar.”

We have the capacity to see ahead and change course, but will we?   
Parker concludes with a heartfelt and, I felt, half-despairing plea that we learn lessons and treat climate change with proper seriousness. Humans have the capacity both to alter the environment (for good or ill) and to reduce their vulnerability to future hazards. But that does not mean they will use it. He likens those resisting climate action now to England’s rulers in the 1660s, who must have been able to anticipate the likelihood of a great plague when it first struck Holland in 1665, but nevertheless refused to do anything about it. That plague killed 100,000 Londoners, about a quarter of the capital’s population, and a similar number elsewhere in England.

That is none too cheering, but societies need not be helpless victims. They have agency. Some countries (such as Japan) coped relatively well with the consequences of the Little Ice Age; others endured many disasters before they took steps to manage the risks they faced.

The question for us now is “whether it is better to invest more resources in preparation or live with the consequences of inaction tomorrow”. I think we know the answer.

***

Professor Geoffrey Parker and Professor Kyle Harper will be discussing the climate and history at a Green Alliance online event, chaired by Dr Claire Craig, on 24 September, 5.15 – 6.15pm BST. You can register here.

[Photo source: Pikist]

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