Much excitement: Late Antique climate change has been in the news this week!

The evidence being put together by Ulf Büntgen and the Euro-Med2k Working Group about Europe’s changing climate is creating a fantastic resource for understanding better the relationship between climate and the course of history. Some of their conclusions are terrifying, particularly that present average summer temperatures have no parallels over the past 2000 years. Let’s not deny climate change is a real thing.

And yet. There is, as my friend Monica Azzolini put it this morning, a need for a ‘more nuanced environmental history that actually uses both micro-historical tools and macro-historical tools together’. The reporting of what is now being called ‘The Late Antique Little Ice Age’ makes this a real case in point.

The idea that there was some environmental change in the period is not new. There have been discussions for years about evidence for a major volcanic eruption around AD536 – an eruption Büntgen now reckons was three in relatively quick succession which forced a drop of maybe up to 4°C in some areas. Michael McCormick has already published articles arguing that environmental instability helped to destabilise the Roman Empire and to provide conditions for the Justinian Pandemic (ie plague) of the sixth century.

So, onto the new reports.

First up, I saw ‘New “Little Ice Age” coincides with fall of Eastern Roman Empire and growth of Arab Empire’. In this article, Büntgen is quoted saying ‘with so many variables, we must remain cautious about environmental cause and political effect, but it is striking how closely this climate change aligns with major upheavals across several regions’. (I like ‘We must remain cautious… but…’ there – a classic academic sidestep). The big story should now apparently be: sixth-century tribes moved from the steppes of northern China, formed an alliance with the East Romans, and helped to defeat the Sasanian Empire in Persia in the early seventh century, paving the way for the rise of the Arab Empire.

What has been ‘explained’ here? As put in the article, the movement of the steppe peoples, prompted by climate change, explains everything that happens thereafter. But it doesn’t. The course of the reign of Herakleios (r.610-641), which covers the defeat of the Persians and the first major successes of the Arabs, was highly complex on almost every conceivable level. Here is the briefest summary. Climate change may explain some aspects of some factors in play, but it does not explain ‘what happened’.

Then there was this story in New Scientist: ‘125-year mini ice age linked to plague and fall of empires’. Again these links are a bit vague. ‘There was dramatic social, cultural, and political change in this period. Perhaps aspects of the changes were exacerbated by a colder period’, suggests Late Romanist/ Byzantinist Shaun Tougher. Francis Ludlow adds ‘ultimately there can be very little doubt that these sorts of abrupt climate events place great stress on societies, and can sometimes tip them over the edge’. Both of these statements are entirely reasonable. Neither of them actually addresses whether the changes in the environment had any actual role to play in the shaping of the events the article is about.

The article finishes with some comments about ‘weather winners’, as some people may have benefited from climate change. Good. Büntgen returns here, suggesting that the Arab conquests of the seventh century may have been helped by increased vegetation caused by climate change. Fine. And Buntgen does not seem to be suggesting that this was ‘the cause of the Arab conquests’. But without any context, it is awkward. There is no suggestion that the Arabs were taking advantage of an East Rome weakened by its recent struggles against the Persian Empire, no suggestion that the leaders were energised by the teaching of Muhammad (d. 632) – there were a lot of political and cultural factors in play, and explaining the Arab conquests on the basis of feeding camels alone is EXACTLY why invoking environmental factors remains controversial.

It does not need to be a competition, environment vs people. Let’s be honest: ‘it was a combination of factors’. Changing climate can trigger important changes. People, being people, respond to these changes in different ways. Tying climactic patterns to large-scale ‘rise and fall’ patterns isn’t necessarily helpful, if it promotes a clunky monocausalism. Sometimes people do things, achieve things, despite what the weather is doing.

This was why I was undertaking my mini ‘Climates of Crisis’ project already. We need to understand better the ways in which environmental crisis becomes a human crisis. We need to understand how climate changes intersects with political, religious, and cultural thinking. The work of Büntgen and his colleagues is fantastic – and more historians need to bring their tricks to the party.