Climate change and world history

f13-iconChristopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas, Austin, interviews Sam White, Department of History, the Ohio State University:

Rose: Your first book, which is called The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, explores the far reaching effects of the severe cold and drought in the Middle East during the so-called Little Ice Age, and your current research looks at how New World settlement was affected during the same period. I want to start off by asking a really broad question: what is the importance of understanding climate and climate change in the broader field of world history?

White: That’s an excellent question. The importance is really twofold. One point is the importance of climate for history as history. Climate was something that past historians generally were not focused on, they were looking for political history, for social history, for economic history, really looking for everything but the environment. Environmental history as a field has really taken off over the past generation, that is to say, looking at ways that humans have changed the environment in the past, and the ways that environmental factors have affected the course of human history.

Climate, though, was not a large part of that discussion. There were some exceptions — I could name some important scholars of the past couple generations who have looked at it — but in the mainstream, even of environmental history, climate was not much considered. Now, though, with rising concern over global warming, climate is really starting to enter the picture. This is for two reasons. One is that historians, like all other people, have become aware of climate simply as a force in human affairs. Second is that, along with the rising concern over global warming, there has been a great deal more research into reconstructing past climates, so that we can know about climate much more than every before.

Now, with that greater understanding, we can see ways that climate fits into greater history in much more details and a much more convincing way than ever before. We can see how large scale climate changes have affected large scale developments, particularly in more extreme climates, particularly at the edges of settlement or agriculture, either in Arctic lands or deserts, and also in more particular short term ways as major climatic extremes have influenced the course of human events, as I discussed in my book about the Ottoman Empire. So, with that in mind, we can see climate really as an actor in history for really the first time.

The other part of this equation, too, is what does looking at the climate of the past — what does looking at the past experience of climate change help us understand about our current predicament, about how the world will face global warming now. Here, I have to say, we’re not going to give exact policy predictions. We can’t raise the bar too high, as it were. But, I do think there are wider lessons — wider parables, perhaps, that we can gather from looking at the experience of climate change in the past. With that in mind, we can look to see if there are bigger patterns in how people handle climate change and whether we can relate that to the present day. [Continue reading…]

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