Copenhagen, Climate Change, and History

      8 Comments on Copenhagen, Climate Change, and History

Politicians from around the world are meeting this week in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference, in order to discuss global warming and propose policies to combat this social and environmental concern.  Because global warming revolves around the concept of change over time, it is a subject to which historians can make a valuable contribution.

There are at least two mutually-inclusive avenues through which historians study climate change.  Whereas some scholars attempt to measure shifts in temperature throughout space and time by critically analyzing historical evidence, others present histories of global warming as a socio-scientific construct and topic of public policy.

A number of historians – within and outside Canada – have made their work accessible to a wide audience through the internet and other forms of accessible media.  These scholars understand the need to place climate change within a historical perspective, and the importance of making this work widely available.

Spencer Weart’s “The Discovery of Global Warming” website analyzes “how scientists came to (partly) understand what people are doing to cause climate change.”  Weart, a trained physicist and practicing historian, uses the website to expand ideas from his Discovery of Global Warming, published in 2003 and revised in 2008.  He takes advantage of hypertext to allow the reader to journey back and forth on specific topics of interest.  Weart presents what he calls a “total history” of global warming: a story that considers scientists, mathematicians, politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and ordinary people.  Although Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first published in 1896 the idea that the burning of fossil fuels raises the Earth’s temperature, Weart emphasizes how increased government funding for scientists in the 1950s – motivated by Cold War security concerns towards weather and oceans – facilitated the improvement of techniques for climate measurement.  Following on the heels of modern environmentalism, global warming first garnered “wide public attention” in 1988, the hottest year on record.

A number of conferences have focused on the role of climate within history.  In October 2008, for example, the University of Western Ontario hosted a Canadian Climate History Workshop.  Part of the Early Canadian Environmental Data project of NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment), the workshop’s presentations are available for viewing online .  Presenters focus on case studies and methodological concerns in climate history.

Historians have also offered their analysis of climate change through short papers on specific aspects of the phenomena.  History and Policy, a British website concerned with connecting historians, policymakers, and the media, hosts three pieces on the relationship between climate, resources, public policy, and the pastMark Roodhouse’s “Rationing returns: a solution to global warming?”, for example, looks back to British debates over rationing and taxation at the start of the Second World War as a means to evaluate contemporary policy options on the best means to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Finally, historians have appeared in other forms of popular media.  Stephen Pyne, a respected historian of fire and professor at Arizona State University, participated in a discussion on climate change with scientist Stephen Schneider on Idaho Public Television.  Pyne discusses global warming within a longer trajectory of humanity’s use of fire as a defining characteristic of our species, “a symbol of who we are.”  The show is available for viewing online.    Weart is also bringing a historical perspective on climate change to a broad audience through the media.  Most recently, he has actively participated the recent climate change controversy surrounding the University of East Anglia’s Climate Change Research Unit.

Our understanding of climate change, an issue concerned with change over time that affects all species on this planet, benefits from historical analysis.  Clearly, historians are taking advantage of the internet and other forms of media to present their research on climate and global warming to a wide audience.  In what other ways can historians make their work on climate easily accessible?

8 thoughts on “Copenhagen, Climate Change, and History

  1. Pingback: Canadian Historians and Climate Change « Andrew Smith’s Blog

  2. Amelia Bedelia

    Jay,
    For more complements, why not also give an alternative view to the pro-climate change links you list. Here’s one that tells of the 30,000 (thirty thousand) scientists who don’t agree with Copenhagen etc.:
    http://ilovecarbondioxide.com/
    Some historians may be interested in both sides of the story.

  3. Jay Post author

    The purpose of my post was to illustrate that historians have made a significant contribution to the study of how the earth’s climate has changed over time, and that a number of historians are making their research widely available. It also outlined that global warming, as an issue of public policy, benefits from looking back at historical examples of how humans have dealt with resource limits. I don’t think I would characterize all the links I posted as “pro-climate change”, unless by this term you mean simply that the earth’s climate has changed over time.

    Historians are reluctant to predict the future, but examination of the past can help our knowledge of the complex relationships between humans and their environments. Humans have always impacted their environment, and the environment has been a strong agent of change throughout the human past. However, the large-scale burning of fossil fuels as part of the greater phenomena of industrialization, which began in the late eighteenth century in Britain and spread across the globe, has impacted the earth’s climate on a scale incomparable throughout human history.

  4. Dagomar Degroot

    Amelia’s website is absurd because it completely – perhaps deliberately – fails to understand the central arguments presented by the overwhelming majority of scholars analyzing climate.

    The website argues that carbon is essential to life, that higher levels of carbon dioxide lead to environmental recovery rather than degradation, that the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere pales in comparison to levels reached in the distant past, and that the world’s climate has been warming continuously since the “time of the cave man.”

    The latter claim is patently absurd: while the world’s climate indeed warmed for several thousand years following the last great Ice Age, the Earth’s climate has fluctuated by at most two degrees Celsius ever since, and then only over the space of a couple decades.

    The other claims are neither here nor there. Of course carbon is the building block of life. That does not mean carbon dioxide – not the only greenhouse gas, by the way – is not destructive in high quantities. A look at the atmosphere of Venus will tell you as much.

    The other two claims are even weaker. Global warming is potentially catastrophic not because it necessarily threatens life on earth, but rather because it threatens the nature of life on earth, particularly as expressed in our precariously balanced civilizations. Fauna and flora as we know them today will, in many cases, not survive a protracted increase of 2 or more degrees Celsius, particularly if this coincides with the other pressures our societies are exerting on the environment. Our societies are also dependent on the maintenance of a climatic status quo. Increasingly severe storms, desertification, rising sea levels, and changing climatic regimes will in the coming century place tremendous strains on our societies and jeopardize the world’s food supply.

    Ultimately there is little sense in entering this “debate.” I simply question the reason – or at least altruistic motivations – of anyone who argues that impact of 7 billion human beings burning countless billions of tons of fossil fuels has a negligible, perhaps even positive effect on the earth’s environment, that truth resides in a tiny minority of specialists funded by energy companies or special interests with libertarian political agendas. I’d love to discover what that malicious consortium of academics pushing the global warming hoax is gaining from their schemes, because it certainly hasn’t reached me yet.

  5. Pingback: “Copenhagen is PM’s big chance”, History PhD Candidates Argue | ActiveHistory.ca

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