Historians and Climate Change
Sam White, October 2012
Editor's Note: The editor very much regrets that due to his oversight, the October 2012 Perspectives on History carried an uncorrected draft of this essay—which did not show the revisions that had been made by the author. Readers should treat the following digital version as the correct version.
In January 2012, the AHA annual conference hosted over 250 panels covering a vast array of topics, from gender to empire to the Obama presidency. Many considered contemporary concerns in pursuit of the profession’s long-held goal to make history meaningful to the present. Still, not a single panel or meeting—and very few papers—addressed arguably the most pressing issue of the century.
When it comes to public discussion of climate change, historians are nearly invisible. Even within academic communities, climate and history rarely mix. Despite recent progress, the subject remains a small specialty among environmental historians, with no journal and few conferences of its own. Both inside and outside universities, what most people know about climate and history comes from a handful of popular works by non-historians.
This neglect is unfortunate, if not altogether surprising. Climate change is usually presented as something new, controversial, and highly technical. Historians may feel they have little to contribute and be put off by the complexities of climate science, choosing instead to leave the subject to “experts.”
This attitude risks sidelining historians on a crucial issue about which we have much to contribute. Climate change is not an abstract science beyond the reach of our discipline. Anthropogenic climate change has been with us for at least decades and possibly millennia; natural climate fluctuations predate human history; and the politics and policy of climate change have their parallels in previous environmental and social issues.
This article outlines some ways historians can incorporate climate into their teaching and research, and how we might contribute to discussions on climate change. Climate science can present real but manageable technical obstacles for non-specialists; the article thus concludes with resources for interested historians new to the field.
Putting Climate into the Picture
Less than a decade ago, it was still common to hear blanket dismissals of any historical work on climate as mere “determinism.” That attitude has begun to change. Rising concern over global warming has made climate simply too important to ignore, forcing us to think more creatively about its place in history. Present developments demonstrate that climate events have serious human consequences, and that nothing is automatic about acknowledging or adapting to climatic change. If we can accept that climate influences but does not determine the future, then surely we can analyze its role in the past without succumbing to or being accused of determinism.
Remarkable advances in climate modeling and reconstruction also allow us to discuss climate in history with unprecedented precision and confidence. Studies using proxy data (such as tree rings and ice cores), phenology (such as the dates of harvests), and written records (such as journals and ship logs) have multiplied exponentially. We can now see past and present climate not just as big shifts in averages but as specific events and patterns in particular regions over decades, years, even seasons.
This new data and perspective present historians with a challenge to integrate climate into the historical picture. For most, that challenge begins with simply recognizing climate in the period and region under study. Terms such as “Little Ice Age” and “Medieval Warm” are increasingly familiar, but are also an imperfect guide to particular times and places. Historians often remain unaware of even major climate events in their areas of specialty. Unfortunately, no one-stop resource for past climate reconstructions exists, but useful websites and references are available (see sidebar).
In addition, historians should consider how people in their area of specialty experienced both ordinary and extraordinary weather. Though climate fluctuations of recent centuries were smaller than the rapid warming we can expect in the coming decades, historical populations, especially agrarian societies, were more reliant on stable weather patterns and more exposed to unexpected changes and natural disasters. Their experiences can extend and enrich discussions of present vulnerabilities, adaptability, and resilience.
Learning and Teaching from Climate Change
Integrating climate into history should present historians with more opportunities than obstacles. Even in well-covered fields, such as colonial America, applying new data from climate studies offers researchers a rare chance at conducting cutting-edge research. Previously unknown or unappreciated climate phenomena can supply novel perspectives and explanations for major historical developments, as in recent discussions of the “general crisis of the seventeenth century” from Western Europe to China.1
Nor should historians neglect the contributions they can make to climate science. Climate reconstructions benefit from written observations gathered by historians and geographers, and much more remains to be collected. Historians should not be afraid to reach out to colleagues in the climate sciences to discuss how we might use their data more effectively and what we might offer them in return.
Furthermore, with the acceleration of climate change, historians have the chance to chronicle a major world-changing development firsthand. Human-induced global warming is no longer just a theory but an established event, and because no end is in sight to climate change, there seems little point in waiting to write its history.
Even historians uninvolved in climate-related research may consider how to incorporate climate into their classes. Environmental historians have an important role to play, not only in addressing the effects of climate change but also in placing the so-called climate debate in the framework of previous environmental policy and politics. But historians in all fields possess insights and examples from the past valuable to the present.
Public opinion often places an arbitrary distinction between scientific “theory” and historical “fact.” Unfair and inaccurate as that distinction may be, it reminds us that when it comes to climate change, most people are still grasping for a tangible understanding of what otherwise seems a mere abstraction. While history does not offer perfect facts and tidy explanations, it can convey human experiences of a changing climate and extreme events. A good anecdote or narrative can be more enlightening and persuasive than any number of quantitative studies.
Lessons from the Past?
Historians willing to tackle climate change will gain, at the very least, a new tool in their historical toolbox and a new topic for ambitious PhDs. At most, we could become real partners in dealing with the challenges that lie ahead. Just as generals might look to military history to plan the next conflict, and economists to past economic disasters to help shape policy, so history could become an integral part of the response to climate change. Historians could also reach an educated public otherwise put off by the complexities or contrived controversy that surrounds climate science.
As William Cronon once wrote of environmental history, the lessons we offer may look more like parables than policy prescriptions. Some patterns already seem clear: that the greatest impacts come from variability and extremes, for instance, not just averages; that we need to pay most attention to the poorest populations and most marginal land; that climate-induced migration can present the greatest risks; that cities concentrate vulnerabilities but also the resources for adaptation; and so on. Time and further research will no doubt add to the list. With an issue of this scale, it seems the least we can do.
Sam White is assistant professor of global environmental history at Oberlin College and author of The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011).
Select Resources for Climate and History
climatehistorynetwork.com: a site of links, resources, and news for climate and history.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Paleoclimate Data Center offers links to open-access climate reconstructions from written and physical evidence: .
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication publishes studies on public understanding and perception of climate change and resources for educators: environment.
Website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with reports available free online.
A model syllabus from the British Higher Education Academy for historians to engage with climate change issues.
Wolfgang Behringer, A Cultural History of Climate (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010); a simple overview focusing on Europe in the Little Ice Age.
Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); one of the first histories of global warming; examines impacts and adaptations in Peru.
James Roger Fleming, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); a thought-provoking history from rain-dances to modern geoengineering.
William C. Jordan, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); a classic case study of a climate-led disaster.
William F. Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); a controversial thesis that humans have been altering climate for millennia; very readable.
Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming, revised edition. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008); a concise readable history of modern climate science and global warming politics.
Journals and Other Publications
No standard journal for climate and history exists. Leading research frequently appears in short format in the major scientific periodicals Science, and Nature, sometimes accompanied by helpful, nontechnical perspective and review articles.The journal Climatic Change includes full-length technical articles of climate reconstructions from written and physical evidence, and WIREs Climate Change publishes advanced reviews on climate change topics.