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 past. Mark 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?