Historians Confront the Climate Emergency

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This is the introductory post to the series, Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.ca, 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. Firesmoke.ca via Wildfire Today.

Deadly floods in China, Niger, Somalia, India, Germany, Brazil, and Guyana, killing hundreds and causing damage in the tens of billions of dollars.

Drought in Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, and Madagascar, driving millions towards food insecurity and starvation (400,000 people in Madagascar alone are at risk of starvation).

Hurricanes, tropical storms, and cyclones battering the Caribbean and United States; Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia; India and Bangladesh; Mozambique and Tanzania.[1]

In case the burning mountains, sinking villages, swimming subway trains, and starving masses weren’t evidence enough, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released yet another alarming report stressing the imperative urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2015 Paris Agreement had laid out a goal of limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. But this newest IPCC report made it clear that those targets were by now almost unattainable, and devoted significant attention to the looming risk of “tipping points” – such as the melting of Arctic permafrost – that are likely to trigger cascading events and result in fundamental, and potentially irreversible, transformations to Earth systems.

The media rolled out phrases like ‘code red’ or ‘emergency’ or ‘wake-up call’.  “The alarm bells are deafening,” said the UN Secretary-General.

And – oh yeah – a pandemic whose genesis was almost certainly linked to climate change continued to ravage the globe, claiming its four millionth victim and showing little signs of abating – certainly not among the vast majority of the planet’s people who have not yet had the privilege of vaccination.

Meanwhile, amid this ever-growing list of ominous events, we – the authors of this post, but also many of you readers – carried out our work as historians: researching and writing books and articles, delivering conference papers, preparing syllabi, grading papers, processing evermore perplexing emails from university administrators, and all the rest of it.

It all seemed a bit disjointed, a bit discordant, a bit surreal.

Here was Ed, gazing up at a Montreal sky darkened by smoke from forest fires along the Manitoba-Ontario border, nearly 2,000 kilometres away, working away at revisions on a book about tobacco farm labour in 20th century Ontario.

There was Dan, preparing a syllabus on carbon emissions and interviewing people about historical climate change impacts on Lake Ontario, taking a break to read the dire warnings of the IPCC about the very survival of our planet.

We are in a climate emergency. But still the humdrum – and at times not so humdrum – beat of everyday life carries on. The dissonance of it all can prompt some big questions, even existential ones, for historians.

What does it mean to be a historian on a planet on fire?

What does it mean to study the human past when the human future is in dire peril?


This series does not claim to answer these questions. Indeed, the answers to them will be worked out by all of us, in collective dialogue and debate, over the decades to come.

Instead, we have more modest aims, but ones that we nonetheless hope will encourage scholars of the past – in whatever discipline they find themselves – to think in new ways about how the work of historians might speak to the totalizing crisis at whose precipice humanity now stands.

For this ten-part series, we asked a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary roster of contributors to respond to the following animating questions: how should we historians and academics respond to the climate crisis? And how are we already doing so, in our research and our teaching?

From its conception, a key aim of this series has been to bring scholars from fields other than environmental or climate history into the conversation about the climate emergency and how it relates to the work of historians. (Indeed, the very editorship of the series reflects this intention, with environmental historian Dan joining labour and migration historian Ed as co-editors). It struck us that since the climate emergency is not simply an environmental development, but also a social and political one, one that intersects with innumerable other processes – from colonialism to capitalism to migration to gender to racism to global inequality to diplomacy and so on – then it follows that historians from a diverse range of subfields should have lots to say about the crisis, leveraging their expertise towards a richer understanding of its origins, thereby enabling sounder approaches towards its resolution.

In practice, however, we found this to be a more difficult task than anticipated. In putting together the series a trend quickly emerged in which historians in the usual-suspect subfields readily said “yes” to participating, while bringing in voices from other fields proved more challenging (though well worth the effort given the stellar contributors we ultimately lined up). Perhaps this was a fluke and no grand lessons should be gleaned from it.

But perhaps it speaks to some of the barriers that exist to engaging with the climate emergency as historians. Incorporating a technical and science-heavy subject – and one that may seem more contemporary and future-oriented than historical – into writing or teaching can be intimidating for those who aren’t environmental or climate historians.

With this in mind, we in part envision this series as aimed at those folks who want to engage with the climate crisis in their work as historians but may be unsure about where to start. We hope this series can provide some avenues for thinking about, and incorporating, the climate crisis into their work as teachers, researchers, and writers.

Annual Temperature Change in Canada 1900-2100. CBC News.

The series will run over the next five weeks, with posts appearing on Tuesdays and Thursdays on both ActiveHistory.ca and NiCHE (and cross-posted on HistoricalClimatology.com and ClimateHistory.net). The contributions can be loosely grouped into two main categories: “Critical perspectives on the climate emergency” and “Climate in the classroom.”

The series features contributors from a range of scholarly disciplines with a diverse array of research interests, who run the gamut from emerging scholars to renowned experts in their fields. In titling the series, “Historians Confront the Climate Emergency,” we are claiming an expansive definition of historian that has less to do with disciplinary boundaries and instead simply refers to anyone who studies the past; and more to the point, for our purposes as “active historians,” to anyone who studies the past with an eye to better understanding, and thus better informing, the present.

Over the next five weeks, we are thrilled to share contributions from:

  • Ingrid Waldron, sociologist of health, whose book There’s Something in the Water about the effects of environmental racism on Black and Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia was the basis of the acclaimed eponymous film co-directed and -produced by movie star Elliot Page, on histories of environmental racism and the climate emergency.
  • Environmental historian Dagomar Degroot on common approaches to climate change in the history of science and climate history and their significance.
  • Literary scholar Barbara Leckie on the rhetoric of warning and the climate crisis.
  • Molly Swain, co-host of the Indigenous feminist science fiction podcast otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk, Métis in Space, and Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Native Studies at University of Alberta, on “land back,” Indigenous, and anarchist approaches to the climate emergency.
  • Thomas Wien, historian at the Université de Montréal, on temporal perspectives and the climate emergency.
  • Emma Moesswilde, Ph.D. candidate in history at Georgetown University, on rural climate adaptations in contemporary Maine and historic England.
  • And a trio of posts about “climate in the classroom” by historians Alan MacEachern, Philip Gooding, and series co-editor Daniel Macfarlane.

We begin on Thursday, 16 September with Dagomar Degroot, pick up next week with our first teaching post by Daniel Macfarlane on 21 September, and continue on Thursday, 23 September with an interview with Ingrid Waldron.

Stay tuned.

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, co-editor of The Otter-La loutre, and a member of the executive board of NiCHE, Network in Canadian History & Environment.

Edward Dunsworth is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University and a member of the editorial collective at ActiveHistory.ca.

[1] Examples drawn from a number of news reports and from the impressive International Disaster Database, from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

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