Cheering for Global Warming: What Europe’s Climatic Past can tell us About our Attitudes Today

By Dagomar Degroot

Last March, 15,000 heat records were shattered across all American states. While monthly temperatures soared over 15 degrees Celsius above twentieth century American averages, unseasonal warmth also affected much of Canada. In Toronto, hushed, apologetic admissions that there might be something to climate change after all quickly yielded to unabashed celebration of global warming as spring sprung a month early. Of course, if a similar heat wave settled over the city in July or August a very different – if equally shrill – chorus might have drowned my Twitter or Facebook feeds. Still, much of the Northern Hemisphere is uncomfortably cold more often than it’s uncomfortably warm. A month ago I couldn’t help but think that individual, corporate and state responses to climate change in the west might be more serious if the world was cooling.

This is the third article in a series that explores how historians can engage some of today’s debates about global warming. In a previous post I described how I uncover relationships between the turbulent history of the early modern Netherlands and the climatic fluctuations of the “Little Ice Age.” Many historians are now aware that colder, wetter, stormier weather prevailed across most of the northern hemisphere between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, then, this Little Ice Age has been described as a vital influence behind everything from changes in fashion to the coming of the Enlightenment. However, such sweeping narratives ignore a simple reality: the Little Ice Age was neither little, nor entirely icy, nor an age. Some decades were certainly extremely cold, yet others were quite warm, and changes in, for example, patterns of prevailing wind were as important for contemporaries as shifts in temperature. More importantly, colder, wetter, stormier periods like the Grindelwald Fluctuation or the Maunder Minimum were interrupted by relatively warm, dry, tranquil decades. So how does that relate to our attitudes towards global warming?

Because the Little Ice Age was distinguished more by climatic variability than persistent cold, I study both warmer and cooler decades to explore what changed and what stayed the same. Before I examine how a particular manifestation of the Dutch Republic was influenced by climatic fluctuations, I often need to refine scientific reconstructions of the Little Ice Age. While ice cores or tree rings record seasonal changes in warmth or precipitation, surviving written sources like ship logbooks or weather diaries allow me to reliably track weather changes by the day and, sometimes, by the hour. In other words: I spend a lot of time figuring out what early modern Europeans thought about warmth, cold, and other weather conditions. As I considered whether to install my air conditioner in early March, I realized that their impressions might not have been so different from our own.

Literate Europeans described frigid winters in gripping detail. If you’re ever in the mood for some especially nerdy, historically minded entertainment, scan through the diary of Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary to the English Admiralty, during the coldest winters of his career. Writing during an especially chilly stretch of the Little Ice Age, Pepys on January 14th, 1664 described how, “I find myself as heretofore in cold weather to begin to burn within and pimples and pricks all over my body, my pores with cold being shut up.” On a freezing February night in the following winter Pepys related that, “it was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so as I was the less afeard for going through.”

Similar references to cold winter weather and its consequences – both petty and serious – abound in contemporary European writing. Cold weather that persisted deep into the spring was vividly described, while “years without summer,” where temperatures never approached their normal seasonal highs, entered into western folklore. Months of exceptionally cold weather were linked to earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disturbances, and most suspected some supernatural influence was behind it all, whether from heaven or hell. On the other hand, exceptional summer heat was frequently ignored in surviving written sources, except when it combined with unusual dryness to set the stage for fire. Warmth during spring or fall typically received only passing mention, usually when it thawed the last remnants of winter ice.

The written remains of early modern Europeans reveal that they – like us – responded more vociferously to weather that exacerbated the most uncomfortable or dangerous elements of their accustomed climate. Last April I spent a week in Phoenix, where temperatures had already exceeded 30 degrees Celsius. I asked a local how she coped with Arizona’s scorching summers, and she answered quite practically: the same way you Canadians handle your cold winters. After my plane made a harrowing landing through a winter storm in Toronto, I realized that global responses to a warmer planet might not be split only along economic or cultural fault lines. Voices from Europe’s climatic past remind us that as the extreme weather stimulated by global warming becomes more common, the widening schism between approaches in the North and South may be deepened by locally different meanings of warmth as threatening or benign.

Dagomar Degroot is a PhD Candidate at York University, where he explores the relationship between the climatic and human histories of the Dutch Republic. He is the creator of, and the co-administrator of the Climate History Network.

9 thoughts on “Cheering for Global Warming: What Europe’s Climatic Past can tell us About our Attitudes Today

  1. Mr Ed

    No need to be concerned about global warming.

    The present global warming started approximately 25 thousand years ago and is about to end as a new ice-age begins.

    The “Vostok Ice Core Data” indicates that long before the industrial age, temperature change caused an 800 year delayed change in the atmospheric CO2 level. If the periodic temperature cycling is as consistent today as it has been for the last 450 thousand years, an ice-age is due to start soon and it has nothing to do with human activity or the 0.038% of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Now you can be alarmed about the new ice-age instead.

    Equestrian Support Specailist

  2. AWatson

    Your last comment refers, I believe, to the Mylankovich Cycles. And, while I agree that these have had, and will have a profound effect on humanity, we should keep in mind that the shifts between ice ages have most often been longer than several human generations. That’s not to say we wouldn’t notice though…

    I’m also wondering whether the term ‘climate change’ isn’t more appropriate to use here? While the entire globe has experienced a collective rise in average mean temperatures, particular places around the world have experienced that change in somewhat (& profoundly) different ways. Excessive aridity, abnormal rainfall, colder summers, warmer winters, changing wind patterns, and greater difficulty predicting short-term weather forecasts. Does ‘global warming’ gloss over the changes that are happening because of anthropogenic GHG emissions?

  3. Dagomar

    AWatson: I address the use of the word “climate change” versus “global warming” in my first blog on ActiveHistory, which would can find here: Beyond the politically charged nature of these terms, I’d also add that “climate change” is as an even greater misnomer than “global warming.” Today’s world IS warming rapidly – especially at the poles – but climate is always changing, and hence “climate change” can refer to any historical period.

    Ed: I would urge you to look at some of the new ice core data I examine in my site (and also to pay some attention to the 98% of climatologists who have long since reached a consensus about global warming). If you’re referring to the Mylankovich Cycle . . . the world’s climate changes for more reasons than orbital inclination, which will have little relation to global cooling or warming in our lifetimes.

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  5. Mr Ed

    Dagomar & AWatson
    I am referring to the obvious temperature oscillations in the graph presented in the link in my comment and also mentioned in my comment as the “Vostok Ice Core Data”. However, everything pretty much orbits about everything else in this cosmos and results in cyclic behaviors. I do not know the exact cause. It could be solar, universal, cosmic or most probably a combination. I do know a little bit about mathematics, physics, chemistry, history and economics. According to the Vostok data the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere is 380 ppm = 0.038% = 0.00038 and is a very small proportion. The difference between natural and man made CO2 is approximately 0.008% = 0.00008 and probably has as much influence on the earths temperature as its magnitude suggests.
    I will look at the suggested if I have time.

    Here is a little poem I wrote

    When you look around at the people that you know,
    Are they all Einstein or just your average Joe?
    If objective thinking is a thing of the past,
    Democratic science is here at last.
    Take vote to determine who’s right.
    Force the minority to put out their light.
    Smite the dogs to silence their bark,
    It is better we count coup in the dark.

    and a bit of old time wisdom.

    If the majority of people believed in jumping off a cliff, would you follow them?

    When you are insecure about your perspective, flying with the flock is usually safer.


  6. Dagomar

    Your comment reminds me that a little more insecurity about our perspective would do most of us a lot of good. Climate is all about butterfly effects. Superficially minor changes in, for example, the concentration of atmospheric gasses – or orbital inclination, or solar radiation – can have dramatic effects. Think about it: how much sulfur is released into the atmosphere by a volcano, relative to the total volume of the atmosphere? And yet that ash can sharply reduce global temperatures for more than 2 years.

  7. Brian R

    Mr Ed is a little confused about the graphs in his linked page and the explanations.

    From the graph “Data 1” in your link, it looks like the temperature isn’t affected by C02 concentrations because of the large spike in CO2 without a corresponding reaction in temperature in the ice core extractions. This spike in the CO2 level is from the increased use of fossil fuels over the past 150 years during the industrial revolution; therefore, human activity has caused a very noticeable increase in C02. This spike is way bigger than any other part of the graph over the past 420,000 years.

    The article states that the reason why the temperature hasn’t reacted correspondingly during this “spike” in this graph is probably because of the oceans acting as a heat sink which delays the increase in atmospheric temperatures. They also say, “there are recent indications that the oceans are now warming, which will reduce their ability to act as a heat sink” so, we do need to be concerned about human influence in climate change.

    Another important point from the next page is that these ice core samples were taken from Antarctica which is in the southern hemisphere. The article points out that the southern hemisphere is less affected by global temperatures than the northern hemisphere which makes these core samples even less reliable: “It seems the northern hemisphere is affected more by global temperature changes than the southern hemisphere.”

    Even stronger evidence of human activity influencing climate change occurs on the next page. If you look at the graphs on this page, you’ll see that there is a correlation between C02 and other greenhouse gases, and the Earth’s climate. These graphs are more accurate because they are taken from air measurements and not from ice cores: “After 1958, the data are from annual air measurements, not ice core proxies, and are therefore of higher quality.” The graphs show that the exponential increase in CO2 from fossil fuels during the past 150 years during the industrial revolution is highly correlated to temperature increases.

    It’s clear in these articles that the writer believes that human activity does affect climate change and that we should be concerned: “As Wallace Broecker likes to say, the Earth’s climate system is “an angry beast” and one that we should not be poking with sticks, which of course is exactly what we are doing with all our carbon dioxide and other GTG (greenhouse trace gas) emissions.”

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