Climate History, the History of Science, and the Climate Crisis

Global temperature anomalies over the last 2,019 years. Ed Hawkins using data from PAGES2k and HadCRUT4.6.

This is the second post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

By Dagomar Degroot

Historians have always concerned themselves as much with the present as the past. Some do so explicitly, their work guided by a conscious desire to provide context for a matter of present concern. Others do so implicitly. They may study the past because it makes them curious, but that curiosity is inevitably shaped by their day-to-day lives. One way or another, history as a discipline is the outcome of the history historians must live through.  

Today no challenge seems more daunting than the climate crisis. Earth’s average temperature has warmed by over one degree Celsius since the nineteenth century, and it is likely – though not inevitable – that much more warming is on its way. Global temperature changes of this magnitude, with this speed, profoundly alter both the local likelihood and severity of extreme weather. Human-caused heating will reverberate through the Earth for millennia – by slowly melting ice sheets and raising sea levels, for example. 

Our lives and livelihoods will be – in many cases, are already – shaped by this crisis. No surprise, then, that ever more historians now think urgently and seriously about the implications of climate change for their scholarship. Forecasts of the warmer future are still dominated by economics and climate science, but few now deny that scholars of the past – including historians – can offer unique perspectives on how we entered this crisis, where it might be taking us, and how we can avoid its greatest dangers.   

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Cycling in Search of the Clyde Timber Ponds

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By Jim Clifford

This is the second in a series, “History En Vêlo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with NiCHE.

I am always looking for an excuse to ride a bike and work at the same time. During the extreme challenge of balancing work, parenting and exercise during COVID 19, I’ve done most of my “reading” while biking. Did you know Bathsheba Demuth’s exceptional Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait is available as an audiobook? Or Anne Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World? You can also listen to classics by William Cronon, Stephen Pyne, and James Scott or best sellers by Andrea Wulf and Charles C. Mann. I’ve managed to bike my way through a lot of audiobooks in the past 18 months (there might have been a little nordic skiing in the mix, along with too many hours riding my bike on a trainer in my basement). Without audiobooks, I don’t know if I would have read any history books during COVID or been able to keep exercising without feeling guilty about all the work I was behind on.

I’ve spent hours cycling on the gravel grid roads around Saskatoon, escaping to follow whales off the coast of Beringia, mushroom pickers in forests in Oregon and Japan, and Alexander von Humboldt as he summited mountains in the Andes. Continue reading

Historians Confront the Climate Emergency

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This is the introductory post to the series, Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by, NiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment), Historical Climatology and Climate History Network.

By Edward Dunsworth and Daniel Macfarlane

What a summer.

In late June, a “heat dome” stalked the Pacific regions of Canada and the United States, pushing thermometers close to the 50-degree mark and causing the sudden death of 570 people in British Columbia alone.

By July, hundreds of forest fires raged throughout the west coast and in the prairie regions of northern North America, their smoke billowing out across much of the rest of continent. Parts of Turkey, Macedonia, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia were also devastated by forest fires (with Argentina hit during the southern hemisphere’s summer months earlier in the year).

Smoke forecast for 11 p.m. EST, 31 July 2021. via Wildfire Today.

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Historia Nostra: Was the Pays d’en Haut really a Middle Ground?

By Erin Isaac

I remember being intrigued and a bit confused after my first reading of Richard White’s classic work The Middle Ground, which had been assigned for a fourth-year history seminar on French colonial history. My peers, likewise, found the ideas proposed interesting but a bit idealistic. Coming back to this text as a PhD student, the questions that my peers raised on that first reading have stuck with me.

Like Heidi Bohaker’s work on Anishinaabeg doodem, we wondered how White’s assumption of a cohesive or collective identity among Algonquian-speaking peoples distorted his findings, and about how the book’s emphasis on French-Indigenous relations disproportionately emphasized French authority in a landscape where they occupied a relatively minor “space of power” (to use Elizabeth Mancke’s framework) in a region that included numerous complex Indigenous polities.[1] Continue reading

History En Vélo

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By Claire Campbell

Limestone Run (left) and Buffalo Valley Rail-Trail (right), haze from western forest fires (above), July 2021.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to close in last March, the safest place seemed to be outside. (With all of us at home, I also needed to get out of the house regularly to avoid murdering anyone.) One pandemic resolution was to ride the local rail-trail once a week, and to cycle as much as possible on errands and suchlike. (Not easy to do in small-town Pennsylvania, which toggles between the Ford F-150, the Amish buggy, and far too many soccer-mom SUVs. God bless America.) I am neither an American nor an historian of the United States, and have no desire to become either of these things; but when life hands you a border closure, you adapt. Biking was the only way I could leave town. My current research is about water in Atlantic Canadian cities; Halifax and Charlottetown were two days plus (until recently) a quarantine away. But there are towns along the Susquehanna River that have altered their fresh water routes in ways that echo, on a smaller scale, the urban narrative of the North American Anthropocene. Continue reading

History Slam 191: #BlackinSchool

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By Sean Graham

All across the country, students have either returned, or are gearing up to return, to school. While there is great uncertainty about what the school year will look like and the safety measures being implemented in the midst of the pandemic’s fourth wave. For thousands of young Canadians, they will also be returning to spaces that are hostile and efforts to improve the situation have been rebuffed.

Systemic racism in school is the subject of Habiba Cooper Diallo‘s new book #BlackinSchool. A memoir profiling her experiences in high school, Diallo powerfully documents the systemic racism and stereotypes found in the education system and how she processed and resisted this while in school. A great writer who has won multiple awards, Diallo is able to not only document her experiences, but also elicits a strong response from her readers, who are encouraged to think about educational structures and what we can all do to make the classroom a more welcoming place.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Habiba Cooper Diallo about the book. We discuss her experiences in school, system racism in education, and the impact on racialized students. We also explore how to identify microaggressions, the connection between curriculum and school culture, and how we can work together to eliminate racism in school.

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Humanity, Humility and Humour: Dr. Gerhard Herzberg’s Pursuit of Scientific Study & Progress

By Denisa Popa

On January 17th, 1985, Dr. Gerhard Herzberg attended a dinner in his honour after receiving the Great Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany.[1] At this event, he looked back on his scientific career and life journey, highlighting the various people, places and values that had influenced him. In 1935, Gerhard Herzberg and his wife Luise had left Nazi Germany and found safety at the University of Saskatchewan. Herzberg would later join Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), where his ground-breaking discoveries in spectroscopy earned him a Nobel Prize. While accepting his award, Herzberg highlighted the three attributes he valued most as a scientist: humanity, humility and humour. [2]

“Gerhard Herzberg with immediate family, age 7 years, Germany 1912” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.

From an early age, Herzberg developed and maintained a keen interest in chemistry and physics. He saw his Nobel Prize as acknowledging “a long series of studies extending practically over my whole scientific life.”[3] While Herzberg’s successful scientific career and Nobel Prize grew in part from the ample resources and scientific freedom afforded to him in his later career at the NRC, it would be misleading to simply equate his professional success with institutional support.[4] His personal and scientific journey not only embodied those “three h’s” but was one that he did not travel alone.[5] Indeed, while Herzberg encountered obstacles throughout his life, he overcame them with the support of numerous individuals within his professional and social networks. His extensive support system, his scientific brilliance and keen intellect allowed him to overcome hardships to gain international acclaim for his work. Continue reading

History Slam 190: Not for King or Country

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By Sean Graham

Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to lead immersive educational programs of Canada’s First World War history through Belgium and France. One of the best parts of these programs is visiting Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries where students have selected a soldier killed during the war to present on their life and military service. These can be remarkably powerful moments that serve as stark reminders that each stone represents a unique story.

There are thousands of tales of how someone ended up in western Europe, their war experiences, and the loved ones back home. That’s the power of biography. Where large numbers and general overviews can be, at times, difficult to process, it can be easier to relate to, and empathize with, individual stories. And when a great biography comes along, it makes you truly care about the person you’re reading about.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Tyler Wentzell, author of Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Part of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War. We chat about the benefits of biography, the mystery and hearsay surrounding Cecil-Smith’s life, and the challenges of researching someone who didn’t leave much of a paper trail. We also discuss Cecil-Smith’s childhood in China, his transition from banker to communist activist, and how the Great Depression influenced his worldview.

If you want to hear more about Cecil-Smith’s time in the Spanish Civil War and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, be sure to check out Tyler’s chat with The New Canadian History series from the Wilson Institute and Canada and the Spanish Civil War. You can also learn about the research material Tyler found after the book’s publication in his post from earlier this summer. And for more on the Mac-Paps, check out my chat with Janette Higgins about her father’s experience during the Spanish Civil War.

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History Slam 189: Historians’ Road Trip Playlists

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By Sean Graham

After a year of lockdowns and staying at home, more and more Canadians are taking advantage of the summer to get out explore some of the amazing places across the country. The pandemic certainly isn’t over, but national and provincial parks have been booked solid as people look to get outside. To get to these sites, many are taking road trips.

One of summer’s great traditions, road trips come with soundtracks. One of my favourite in-car activities is belting out a song rolling down the highway. But what makes a good road trip soundtrack? Everyone has their own tastes, to be sure, but are their universal qualities of music that works best on a road trip?

In this episode of the History Slam, I’m joined by historian of hip hop culture and Black music in the Americas Francesca D’Amico-Cuthbert to try and answer this question. We talk about the connection between playlists and mixed tapes, the art of creating a playlist, and what makes a good playlist for a road trip. We then share with each other playlists that we put together for the show, respond to each other’s choices, and discuss the commonalities between our choices. And be sure to listen to our playlists, which are embedded below.

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