Climate Change in History

We have spent a lot of time in class talking about large-scale weather patterns across great distances of time and space. From the point of view of a climatologist, these scales of patterns are important for inferring future weather patterns and the effects of heightened CO2 for biological processes and weather phenomena. Yet for social scientists, or historians, attempting to examine how the weather effects individual human and social behavior often requires far different weather monitoring scales.
To investigate human reaction to weather, historians examine data from the Vostok ice core as well as records of things like grape harvest, wheat production, and entries kept in a contemporary journal. Other examples include dendrochronology (studying tree rings to infer weather) and palynology (the study of pollen grains, found in lakes and bogs)(Robert Claxton, Climate and History: From Speculation to Systematic Study, Historian, 45:2 (Feb:1983) p.224). They even re-examine extreme events in history to determine the role weather played. Thus understanding human reactions to wild weather fluctuations of the past (presumably to help predict the future) is often as much science and as it is art.
Climate change has happened in the past, with perhaps the most specific extreme example being the Little Ice Age, which some historians and climatologists suggest lasted from 1300 until 1850. The most extreme temperatures seem to have occurred during 1680 and 1730 (Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, Basic Books, NY, 2000 p.113) We know that many of those years living in Europe, as well as throughout the world, was brutal. “A climatic deterioration occurred in …Europe, marked by falling annual temperatures, a curtailed growing season, pervasive meridional cold streams from the poles, extreme winters, a lowering of the snowline on mountains, and the advance of Alpine glaciers” (Wolfgang Behringer, Weather, Hunger, and Fear: Origins of the European Witch Hunts in Climate, Society, and Mentality, German History, 13:1 (1995) p.7). See Figure 4 from Christian Pfister’s paper, once I figure out how to upload it, “Climatic Extremes, Recurrent Crises and Witch Hunts: Strategies of European Societies in Coping with Exogenous Shocks in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” (The Medieval History Journal, 10: 1&2 (2007).
Besides an onset of extreme cold, which led to widespread famine, there is substantial evidence that the European witch hysteria was caused by the extreme weather. For example, most of the accusations leveled against suspects were weather-based (Behringer, Fagan, Pfister).
While the Vostok ice core and the Keeling curve, as well as other climate and CO2 studies, can help to contextualize where the earth stands in regards to global climate change, it cannot show us the way out of global warming. As Professor Currie pointed out, global climate change is not about saving the Earth, but rather about saving ourselves from a looming and ominous future we helped create. The very crossover between science and humans processing of the environment is to a large extent what connects the two core classes: the combination of decision-making with hard science.

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