The climate changes. How does that affect societies?

We may be facing unprecedented global warming but the past can still help us to frame and understand the relationship between environmental change and history. There is a growing scholarship on this and has been since Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie started exploring the subject in the 1950s and 1960s. Recently, the challenge has been how to engage with growing evidence from climate studies based on ‘proxy’ evidence: ice core data, tree-ring evidence, studies of coral growth.

Michael McCormick at Harvard has a big project looking into this with leading experts from around the world and you can see him talking about it here:

As you will get from the video, McCormick has long been an advocate of bringing together scientific evidence and traditional historical documents to investigate the past. This has led to useful observations about the climate more stable when the Roman Empire was at its height and less stable when it was in decline, and thoughtful exploration of how plague spread in late Antiquity. Some of the published papers can be found here.

Not everyone buys into environmental explanations, and even McCormick is justly cautious. For some historians, they feel awkward about invoking factors for change which seem to be outside the written material. For others, they are not convinced about directed causal relationships. (The great volcanic eruption of 536 is often invoked in discussions of late Antique environment, but it seems too late to explain much about ‘The Fall of Rome’, and too early to explain much about ‘The Arab Conquests’, and ends up being ‘A Bit of a Nuisance During the Justinianic Wars’). The important thing is to have the conversation about what is might all mean. Also, open access policies mean that lots of the scientific material is easily available, even if it often impenetrable. (You may need other experts to hand).

I have long been interested in this material. My father was a biochemist who later in his career wrote about theories of how catastrophes affected evolution and history and he lives in the same small town as me, so it comes up in conversation now and then.

Most recently, it came up in conversation with a journalist, who was interested in why people today don’t react to the apocalyptic warnings about climate change. (He writes in Dutch but, if you don’t read Dutch, his articles are also always beautifully illustrated: see here). In Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages, he pointed out, I had argued that apocalyptic discourse was a useful way of motivating people. Now Nicholas Stern can say everything is absolutely bleak and barely anyone blinks.

Not everything is necessarily the same of course. It makes a difference when charismatic leaders take a stance. It is easier to act when there is hope and a clear objective. It is maybe easier to tune out now than it was then. Everything changes. But again, it is worth wondering what it would take to make people act differently.

For now, I will be looking a little bit more into the relationships between climate, apocalyptic rhetoric, and calls for action, to see if it leads anywhere. The paper will be presented in various locations in March and May next year, so more soon.