Historians and Global Warming

      18 Comments on Historians and Global Warming

Rising tide on Dutch coast, 2010.

By Dagomar Degroot

It’s always been my belief that historians either consciously or unconsciously situate their histories in the context of the present. History is inevitably “active,” no matter our occasional insistence on pursuing history for history’s sake. This is no surprise to environmental historians who, more than colleagues operating in any other historical genre, explicitly address contemporary issues in their often declensionist narratives. As part of a small but growing number of environmental historians exploring the relationship between climatic changes and human affairs, I am drawn into modern debates about global warming whether I like it or not. That’s why I decided to use my first few blog posts to reflect on how my research as a historical climatologist has allowed me to address some big ideas in the discourse about global warming today.

A couple years ago I spoke to a former Liberal member of parliament who had played a key role in developing Canada’s climate policy in the 1990s. He related to me that one of the key difficulties of his job was tackling the enormous complexity of the projected climate shift, where warming in one region might coincide with cooling somewhere else. “After all,” he said matter-of-factly, “it’s not global warming; it’s climate change.” Since then I’ve heard this distinction elsewhere, particularly in reference to periods of unusually cold weather, like the last two winters in Europe. Far from mere semantics, to me the use of the term “climate change” rather than the more alarming “global warming” seems like a new wrinkle in the attempt to discredit or diminish the reality of a warming climate. It also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a climatic shift.

I study the social effects of the Little Ice Age, a period of climatic variability and general cooling that lingered from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. As a result I know there’s some truth to the idea that a climatic shift means different things for different regions. Owing to a specific intersection of environmental and social structures there are places that are more or less vulnerable to the weather patterns typical of a prevailing climatic regime. Moreover during the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age some regions experienced more precipitation and some less; some areas were wracked with storms, while others grew more tranquil. Indeed, some years, even decades were warmer than average, not just for isolated regions but for the world as a whole. Finally, different parts of the world can have different climatic chronologies: China and Japan appear to have been warm when Europe was cold after the fall of Rome, then cooled as Europe experienced unusual warmth in the high medieval period.

All this complexity can, in the right hands, deliberately obscure a very simple reality: climate deals with nothing more than generalized weather. For all its complexity the Little Ice Age cooled the world’s climate for several hundred years, just as the world’s climate is rapidly warming now and will continue to warm for at least the century to come. After all, the winters that chilled Europe in 2010 occurred during one of the warmest years in record. It is important for policymakers to avoid the assumption that every region will experience a climatic shift in similar fashion, but it is even more important that we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Dagomar Degroot is a PhD Candidate at York University, where he explores the relationship between the climatic and human histories of the Dutch Republic. His website can be found at www.historicalclimatology.com.

18 thoughts on “Historians and Global Warming

  1. Dave Hall

    “…often declensionist narratives …”

    Stopped reading on hitting this example of pompous ass spoor. There is no excuse for actively obscuring your point if you have something relevant to say. And if you don’t have anything to say, this will not hide that fact.

  2. Jim Clifford

    Thanks for pointing out the use of an overly academic phrase. We do try to avoid it on ActiveHistory.ca. However, I hope you’ll consider reading the rest of the post, as Dagomar provides some interesting and important historical context for today’s debates on Global Warming.

  3. Anya Harrison

    “Pompous ass spoor”? If you are going to write a rude insult to a well thought out article in a public forum, at least spell it correctly. Another classic example of douchey internet commenting. How about, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all?

  4. Anya Harrison

    Okay, my bad, spoor is spelled correctly. But still douchey. And not a little pompous.

  5. Jen Hassum

    The content of the post itself is quite good. Historians absolutely must confront the contemporary meaning of their work. It is interesting to hear about the study of landscape and the environment, as social history examples are often the ones featured in comprehensives like Fogel’s Time On The Cross or Milkman’s article “Women’s History and The Sears Case.” Keep up the great work Active History!

  6. Ashlee Bligh

    “it’s not global warming; it’s climate change.”
    That this distinction was made by a (former?) policy maker–while not surprising–is nonetheless unsettling.
    As you are suggesting here, historians must always be attentive to the potential (mis)uses of the histories we compose.
    If the warming-of-the-globe that we are currently experiencing is being naturalized, incorporated into a cyclic history of mere “climate change”, I think this is cause for alarm. I am working in a very different sub-field of history, so I must plead ignorance and ask: is this the case? Is the more neutral language of ‘climate change’ being used to “discredit or diminish the reality of a warming climate”? Based on the last couple of Discovery-Channel documentaries that I have watched, I suspect the answer is yes…
    Thank you for your post – I look forward to the next one.

  7. Madeleine Chartrand

    Great post! Very clear and insightful. Thank you for addressing this important topic.

  8. Sara Howdle

    Thanks Dag! I look forward to incorporating environmental frameworks into my own research. It’s facinating how the environment complicates or shapes social change. Look forward to seeing more of your work!

  9. Jamie Trepanier

    This is a thought-provoking piece, particularly Dagomar’s reflections on the potential consequences of using “climate change” instead of “global warming”. One rationale for the term’s use, which has not been pointed out here, is that those in policy-making circles (ie our MPs, lobby groups and the civil servants who carry out policy) have begun to use the “climate change” moniker as a means of diverting the inevitable derision towards the concept when we face a cold snap, or record snowfall or cold, wet summer (all of which have happened in the last few years in Central Canada). They (and up until now, I included myself in this category) believed that using a more general term to refer to how an increase in greenhouse gases can have varying and uneven effects on weather patterns around the globe was a more accurate and, in the Canadian context, pertinent way of portraying the effect we are having on our planet.

    I think most of the “climate change” activists are aware of the less accurate terminology they are using, and its perhaps less alarmist implications, but in a country such as ours, with its national myths around cold and northern ruggedness, the different immediate implications of “global warming” likely demand the slight shift in rhetoric in order to keep the issue on the front burner (or at least try to).

  10. Matthew Paterson

    Far from mere semantics, to me the use of the term “climate change” rather than the more alarming “global warming” seems like a new wrinkle in the attempt to discredit or diminish the reality of a warming climate. It also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a climatic shift.

    This was one reading in the 1990s of the shift. But others read the shift in discourse from global warming to climate change as more alarming – that global warming could signify less severe winters, etc., while climate change could be interpreted as more sinister, generally destabilizing. I remember reading things about this at the time, and mention it a little in my Global Warming and Global Politics (1996); Andrew Ross also mentions it in his Strange Weather, and it comes up a few times in literature on the cultural construction of climate.

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  15. Mr Ed

    The article discloses interesting subtleties climate commentaries seem to ignore. I do appreciate the admission of microclimate diversity. However, it gracefully avoids a moral question that drives my interest.

    What was the real incentive behind falsified data and exaggerated predictions of climate catastrophe? Why were such claims so forcefully expressed in the media? Despite all the climate change hype, the evidence for human caused climate change is still questionable.

    Yet, we already have carbon credit schemes and CO2 regulatory legislation.

    Individuals are on this planet for one life time. Freedom allows individuals to soar with their inspirations creating wonders that inspire others. There are always some who spite creativity in others and look for opportunities to publicly tarnish achievements. There are also those who are envious of success and look for excuses to extort instead of attempting to be creative and earn. Industrial pollution has been far less damaging than living without the food, clothing, shelter, transportation and luxuries that industrial capitalism has provided.

    What is the real incentive for using force to confiscate wealth, censor expression and generally oppress great economies?

  16. Mr Ed

    Fossil fuel is a renewable resource. “Thermal Depolymerization”, developed in the USA, turns almost any organic based refuse (plastic, rubber, lawn clippings, meat processing waste, etc.) into water, minerals and high quality fossil fuel. It mimics the earth’s natural process in an accelerated time. “Thermal Depolymerization” pilot plants have been profitably running in the USA for over eight years.

    YouTube – “Thermal Depolymerization”

    CO2 is not the global warming culprit that we were led to believe. The below theories provide more accurate climate predictions than the IPCC claims and are significantly independent of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The periodic nature of the VOSTOK ice core graph also supports these theories. These theories also predict planetary cooling in the near future.

    Dr Habibullo I. Abdussamatov – “Total Solar Irradiance”
    Piers Corbyn – “The Solar Weather Technique”
    YouTube – “The great global warming swindle”

    The only argument in favor of the IPCC theories then becomes the claimed list of prestigious supporters. Nicolaus Copernicus was encouraged by the Spanish Inquisition to publicly denounce his beliefs and agree with a conflicting theory that also had a large list of prestigious scientific supporters. A large supportive list usually indicates a lack of supporting evidence.

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