What history teaches us about climate change

This superb book shows how history teaches us vital lessons.

Thoughts while reading Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris

The geographer Jared Diamond’s masterful Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005) should have convinced any of us still needing to be convinced that the West’s domination of the planet since the late 18th Century is not the consequence of differences in racial characteristics. It’s an artifact of geography. It was a geographical accident that the Middle East offered the earliest and best opportunities on the planet for the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal husbandry, which dictated that what we so pompously call “civilization” would originate in the Middle East and spread Westward across Europe and thence to the Americas.

The West’s dominance is only temporary

In Why the West RulesFor Now, Ian Morris, an archaeologist by trade, elaborates (and modifies) Diamond’s thesis to prove through close study of the archaeological and historical record that, in fact, the West’s dominance is only temporary. The geographical bonus awarded to the people of the Middle East, Western Europe, and, later, the United States gave the West a 6,000-year head start over the East (principally China), but the pattern of relative advantage fell apart in what most of us call the Dark Ages. China then began to surpass the West in every measurable respect and retained a significant lead until the latter half of the 18th Century, when most scholars agree the Industrial Revolution got underway in England.

But what else does history prove that helps us understand the world we live in and anticipate the future other than that racism says nothing about the “races” and everything about the people who fall prey to it? My current reading of Ian Morris’ extraordinary book has led me to another surprising conclusion: that climate change has profoundly shaped the course of human history.

Climate change has profoundly shaped the course of human history

It was the planetary warming that began at the peak of the last Ice Age about 20,000 years ago that permitted the hardy survivors of the cold to multiply and begin congregating in larger and larger communities which, at length, led to the creation of “civilization.” A sudden and drastic reversion to cold weather around 12,000 years ago—perhaps due to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption or a lull in solar flares—lasted longer than a millennium, drove the human race out of its growing settlements, and reversed the pattern of growing specialization as so many reverted to a meager existence from hunting and gathering. Once that extended cold spell came to an end, what Ian Morris calls “social development” resumed, resulting first in rudimentary agriculture and the taming of animals and eventually in the growth of early empires.

History teaches us how climate change has impacted our lives

Subsequent climate shifts during the 5,000 years of recorded history have had more modest effects on the conduct of human affairs. The so-called “Little Ice Age,” for example—a three-century period of cooling from about the middle of the 16th Century to the middle of the 19th—is a controversial concept among climatologists, who maintain the phenomenon was limited to the Northern Hemisphere and was anything but an ice age. However, its impact on farmers in Northern Europe and the Americas was pronounced—during a time when a large majority of people were still engaged in agriculture.

Since we’re now in the very early stages of another significant shift in climate patterns, we can only wonder what the future holds for us. Wonder, and hope—that policymakers in government and business will come to their senses and begin taking resolute action to roll back humanity’s contribution to the warming of the planet.

For further reading

For a contemporary view of the prospects for climate change, see my review of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (Climate change is worse than you think—much, much worse). I’ve reviewed many other Good books about climate change, too.

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And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

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Andy - 9 years ago

Resolute action is not darned likely IMHO given the political “climate”. Besides, the window for resolute action was a decade ago and we pissed it away. Even if we hit the breaks on increasing CO2 emissions tomorrow, the amount of warming “baked” into the climate system is going to raise temperatures enough over the rest of this century to cause major distruptions such as food shortages and populations migrations that are going to make previous disruptions pale in comparison. Weather events all over the world this year are the coming attractions for the new normal (ie., floods in Australia, wild fires and droughts in the southwest and Texas, floods in the southeast and north central US, increased tornado activity). I would also suggest you read Richard Alley’s “Earth, an Operator’s Manual, which was a companion book to a PBS documentary series. He is optimistic about what we can still do, but I am far less so. I am really, really sorry for the world I am leaving my descendants.

klem - 9 years ago

“Since we’re now in the very early stages of another significant shift in climate patterns, we can only wonder what the future holds for us.”

Um, you list plenty of climate shifts in history and now you say we about to embark on a new climate shift. Are you suggesting that somehow over the last few millenia the climate has been stable, as in flat-line stable? And we are responsible for this one? The same climate shifts that have occured in ancient history are still happening today, they will continue into the future. You can blame yourself for climate change if you like, but if all humans were removed from the face of the earth, the climate shifts would continue unabated. Trying to stop climate changes through solar panels and cap&trade is just tilting at wind mills. Its delusional.

    Mal Warwick - 9 years ago

    Unfortunately, “klem,” it’s you who are delusional if you believe that human actions haven’t influenced Earth’s climate. Andy Konigsberg’s comment here is, sadly, a fair preduction of the future we face. Certainly, solar panels and cap & trade won’t prevent that. Those steps are palliatives, hardly resolute action. A huge, global carbon tax would be a good start..

      klem - 9 years ago

      Rather than a carbon tax designed to beat up on poor people, I suggest if the climate alarmists feel so strongly about it, perhaps they should simply pay an annual carbon tithe of some kind to their local government or to the UN. They can pay all of the tithe they want, absolve themselves of all guilt, and leave the rest of us to wallow in our climate destroying debauchery.


Andy - 9 years ago

Yes, the Earth has had many climate shifts and will do so in the future. What is happening now is that the CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere is far in excess of the volume and rate generated by natural sources (ie, orders of magnitude greater than volcanic activity on an annual basis). In a couple of centuries, we have managed to put back into the atmosphere CO2 sequestered in geologic formations for hundreds of millions of years. The physics of global warming due to CO2 are quite straightforward and very well documented. So yes, we are responsible. The nearest analog to what is going on now is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago, where CO2 levels went to 1000 ppm in a few thousand years. We will do it in two centuries. That event lead to mass extinctions and population shifts of the fauna at that time. The Arctic temperatures were 15 C higher than today. We are altering the climate system far faster than any life can adapt. As I said before, we have missed our chance to really head off the consequences by now. A paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of sciences last year predicts that by 2100, there is a 1 in 20 chance that summer heat and humidity in “temperate” zones will be so high that unprotected people will not be able to survive outside. Put that in perspective – you have a 1 in 88 chance of dying in a car accident. We all wear seat belts to lessen our chances of that – but make sure our grand kids can live on this world – not a chance. Welcome to the future Klem – to quote Pogo – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Mal Warwick - 9 years ago

Well said, Andy. I just hope you (and the NAS) are at least partially wrong.

    klem - 9 years ago

    I have no doubt they are completely wrong.


Mal Warwick - 9 years ago

Klem, all I can say is, you stick to your faith, I’ll stick to science.

    klem - 9 years ago

    Since science has been my faith for over 40 years, I guess we gotta stick together Mal ol’ buddy.


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