Connecting History

Connecting History logo

Milestones

Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Transcript - Climate Change and Human Life

ice on Lake Baikal

 

Delegates from across the globe will soon gather at the Paris Climate Change Conference, set to begin at the end of November. Sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, conference representatives will endeavor—not for the first time—to find ways to "stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system." On this episode of History Talk, three environmental historians, Sam White, John Brooke, and Nicholas Breyfogle, discuss past patterns of climate change—both recent and others from the deep planetary past—and what these historical processes of climate adaptation and survival tell us about humanity's prospects today.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Leticia Wiggins
Welcome to History Talk, produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective at Ohio State University. I'm your host, Leticia Wiggins.

Patrick Potyondy 
And I'm your other host, Patrick Potyondy. Discussing climate change is nothing less than discussing human survival, let alone quality of life. The stakes are that high. On today's History Talk, we invite three Ohio State historians and Origins contributors to discuss the ramifications and history of global warming and climate.

Dr. Sam White 
Hi, my name is Sam White. I teach here in the history department at Ohio State University and I'm the author of The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire.

John Brooke 
Hi, I'm John Brooke. I teach in the department as well at Ohio State. I have been teaching for about 20 years in global environmental history and the author of Climate Change and the Course of Global History.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Hi, I'm Nick Breyfogle. I am one of the editors of Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. I'm also a member of the history department here at Ohio State and a specialist in environmental history.

Leticia Wiggins 
Wonderful. Thank you all for joining us today. We're really happy to have you here. To begin, we'd like to ask this question, how do historians define climate change? And how has the Earth's climate changed over time? This big question, we'll throw it to you first, John.

John Brooke 
Well, it's a very big question. How do historians define climate change? I think we define climate change the way scientists define climate change, which is looking for big patterns that change climate regimes. What are the standard patterns in which there might be some moderate change, moderate isolation, and then change means a shift in the general background regime. And usually the concern is abrupt change, rather this plain old simple change, and abrupt means happening in decades rather than overnight.

Dr. Sam White 
I would say there are different types of climate change. There are both more gradual patterns, at least as we see them in human time, changes over centuries or millennia. But then there are also the big abrupt events, such as winters and cold summers that fall in the wake of big volcanic eruptions. And both are important in history at different scales and for different reasons.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
And I think for humans, what's most important about climate change is temperature and access and availability of water. And the question of sort of predictability or stability of climate. So as we, as historians, I think, go back in time to look at questions of climate, those are the issues that are of particular importance to us, because those are the ones that affect our ability to get food, our ability to survive, and our relationship to disease and disease vectors and this sort of thing,

Patrick Potyondy 
In what ways has climate change over the past decades, centuries, or even millennia changed here and how have humans really come to shape the climate? And Sam, if you wanted to start us off on this one?

Dr. Sam White 
Certainly. So the Anthropocene is really two things and I think that's important to keep in mind. One is an actual proposal that is before the International Commission on Stratigraphy, that is the group of geologists who define how we periodize geological time. And it is very probable that within the next few years, the textbooks will change and instead of ending with the Holocene as our last geological epoch, we will end with the Anthropocene. So this will be an official change, recognizing that the degree of human impact on the environment leaves a clear trace in the geological record, worthy of being renamed a new epoch. Now, the Anthropocene is also a concept that has already been used, even though the official name change has not taken place. And that is essentially a recognition that we have changed the Earth's environment so much, that it no longer makes sense to talk about environmental change and human change as being two separate things. Global warming has been a very important part of this because it touches every part of the earth. There's nowhere on the earth you can go where the atmosphere is the same as it was before people began burning fossil fuels. And likewise, nowhere in the ocean you can go that the pH level, the acidity level will be the same, because oceans have been acidified, also by the emission of carbon dioxide. That said, there are still a lot of uncertainties around this concept. Some people advocate an old Anthropocene. That is to say that humans have changed the earth for thousands or hundreds of years, to the degree that we should have started the Anthropocene maybe thousands or hundreds of years in the past. Others advocate a much more recent Anthropocene connecting it to either the Industrial Revolution or just to big environmental changes that have occurred since the so-called "Great Acceleration" of worldwide economic growth since the 1950s.

John Brooke 
Well, that covers an awful lot right there. I can't agree more. I mean, the official debate among in the geologic community will probably take another two or three years. The essential problem is a debate about when and where in human history, in Earth's history, human action began to significantly change the shape of the earth system. How does the Earth's natural systems work? And what degree we've been intervening and making differences that both are observable on the one hand, but then significant on another. Not always the same thing. We can leave marks, that's very interesting, but when it has a significant impact on how these systems work, and how rainfall appears and doesn't appear, and temperatures shift, then we're into the significance arena, rather than just simply the marker of an impact.

Patrick Potyondy 
And it sounds like there's maybe some debate more among geologists rather than historians perhaps? Are historians in more agreement about this sort of idea, this terminology? Or maybe not.

John Brooke 
I think there's a debat e about when. I think there's still one argument that is put forward by William Rudiment, at the University of Virginia, who proposes that the acceleration of agriculture around 5000 years ago, the rise of the state and acceleration of population growth in the late Neolithic, in the early Bronze Age, began to just have a slight impact on greenhouse gases that may have had significant impact. So that's sort of the old, call it the old house, the old Anthropocene. Then there's a question of whether global colonization by Europeans had such impacts, including the death of large numbers of, huge numbers of Native American peoples, that they affected just the sheer changing carbon structure of the New World, changed atmospheres. And then there's the Great Acceleration idea, which says that, basically, we really want to focus on on the fossil fuel revolution of the last -

Patrick Potyondy 
Industrial Revolution also, right?

John Brooke 
Yeah, right.

Patrick Potyondy 
Okay.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
I was actually interested, we kind of laid out many of the different possibilities for when it might start. And this strikes me as one of the big issues with this concept is we don't really know, we haven't agreed yet exactly where it might begin, and even to go back, right, to the great kind of megafaunal extinctions of the late Pleistocene as another possibility of a moment of this sort of thing. And so I'm curious actually, to hear from you, we've kind of laid out the different possibilities, which ones you guys really lean towards? I mean, I'm very much someone who...I would go with the Industrial Revolution as the moment of great change. And so that, very early nineteenth century is when we start to see, in some ways, the beginning of this time, with the Great Acceleration of the 1950s and on, as a continuation of those larger processes. I'm curious, would you agree with that? I don't know where you guys fall in terms of this larger question.

Dr. Sam White 
So I would  be inclined to take an earlier Anthropocene. I'd be inclined to basically replace the Holocene, which is the most recent geological epoch that begins with the present interglacial period, and replace it with the Anthropocene. And I think the reason is, is that one of the most cogent changes in the geological record will be the fossil record. And there is a change that we have moved from mostly wild animals dispersed in different populations throughout the world to a world where in the future, we're going to find that most biomass was concentrated in people and in domesticated animals who have been exchanged throughout the world. And so to really capture that entire change, you would have to start fairly early with early agriculture and domestication. Otherwise, you'd just be looking for a change in degree rather than a change in kind. Also, it would be a bit awkward to have such a short Holocene epoch, then suddenly interrupted by the Anthropocene. So it might be more convenient simply to replace it. That said, I don't think there is necessarily one right answer. I mean, somewhat even dated as recently as say the first atomic fallout simply because that's a very clear cut marker in geological time. There's the radioactive fallout that is very clearly present in this stratigraphy.

John Brooke 
There's a term that they're using in the literature now called the "golden spike." Oh where is the "golden spike" that will mark the exact moment? And is it 1945? Is it actually the end of the Test Ban Treaty in 1964? Is it the...I must admit, I'd look at this in two ways. One as a teacher, one as a scholar. And the teacher one is more fun because it involves argument and I'm almost hoping they don't resolve this too soon, because then there's no argument anymore.

Patrick Potyondy 
It's a great teaching device.

John Brooke 
It is a great teaching device. And I know I don't resolve it in my class. I just say you can take whatever position you want, you got to support it and we can argue. Good arguments can be made for for Sam's position, which is that there is no Holocene, that the Anthropocene began with the end of the Ice Ages and the emergence of an ecologically active humanity.

Leticia Wiggins 
The planet has been through all these cycles of climate change over the course of its existence, and how has climate change then affected human communities at different times in human history? And what are some of the ways in which different communities at different historical moments have responded to this climate change? John, can you think of an example, I guess?

John Brooke 
Well, my big picture response to that is we are products of climate change. The earth has been cooling for about 50 million years, and it's been a long cooling process that has resulted in...Ultimately, we live in a little shelf of warm, warm platform of an interglacial climate in the midst of a bunch of major ice ages that go back for 700,000 years and really began two and a half million years ago when we were not humans. We are the product of an increasingly glaciated cycling, we are the product of climate change. There's a great book by Steven [Stanley] called the Children of the Ice. And it's a little bit...I would say, we are the children of droughts and stress and a brown Earth. We are the children of East Africa. We didn't really face the glaciers. But we are the product of the stresses of about two and a half to five million years of increasing volatility of climate change. So we, in our lives, experience what we assume is kind of normality, which is the world of the last 150, 200 years, maybe 10,000 years. The problem is that our actions in the Great Acceleration, our actions of the last hundred years, are having the same effect of reversing the course of cooling that took literally tens of millions of years to unfold and it's happening overnight.

Dr. Sam White 
Narrowing that down though, just to the last few thousand years of history, we can call that narrow. Okay, I guess I would see two kinds of changes. One are changes that are felt mostly in communities, on some sort of climate margin, as gradual change pushes them really beyond sustainability. So I think that is why we tend to think of examples like say, the Greenland Vikings. I don't know if that's a very typical example though, an important example, we think about how most climate change has affected most people. I believe most climate change has affected most people in the form of actual weather. That is to say, it's not the gradual change that people noticed. It's the greater frequency and extremes of weather. And those impacts have tended to occur at times when people are vulnerable for other reasons, whether its ecological reasons or political reasons, whether it's because their agricultural systems were overburdened or not diversified enough, or because of some political difficulties that they were going through that were ultimately exacerbated by climate, sometimes pushing communities into civil war by unrest or foreign war.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
And there's two things I guess I wanted to highlight. One is that the story of the human relationship with climate really highlights the real estate maxim, right, that it's "location, location, location" in the sense that where you are on the planet at a given moment affects how a community is going to be transformed or impacted by various changes in climate and globally. And so if you take, for example, the period, say from about 900 to 1300 of A.D., you can see the ways in which, in Northern Europe because the climate gets a little bit warmer and a little bit better for Northern Europe, there's a take off. And so there's this real opportunity for Northern Europeans at that moment. And it all comes crashing down in the early part of the fourteenth century, but for that period of time, generally it's a more welcoming type of climate and as a result, we see transformations of their societies at the same time. It's a disastrous series of occurrences in the U.S. south, what is now the U.S., in the North American Southwest, where that sort of increase in temperature makes that area extraordinarily dry and then many of the native civilizations there, the ancestral Pueblo or the Sinagua, the nicely labeled Sinagua, the Hohokam, these civilizations in some ways collapse, and they're unable to maintain themselves in the place that they were. And the location matters tremendously there. You asked also about sort of how people have responded. And I think that one of the things that's important as we study climate history, particularly going back over a long time period, is to realize the degree to which in the life of or in the experience of humans as a species, our response has generally been migration. That when climate change becomes difficult for us, we move somewhere else. And that's something that really sets us apart today. One of the things that makes us very strange, this moment in our species history, is that migration is much harder for us at this point in time, partly because we live in these settled and now primarily urban societies where we have fixed ourselves in the land.

Patrick Potyondy 
Maybe nation-states with more secure borders more or less too, that want or do not want migration? Right, from them?

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Exactly. I mean, I think that the more we see this in the people moving north into the United States, we  see people trying to come across the Mediterranean just recently and this sort of thing, that there are social and economic and political issues surrounding migration, but as well as infrastructural ones, and just the whole way we've created our urban industrial societies is quite different from what we've had in the past.

John Brooke 
Yeah, we have to really come to grips of the fact that...I always forget exactly when the one billion mark was hit, I think it was about 1800. Roughly speaking, I mean, we're now at seven billion people and when I was a child, it was about three and a half billion people in the early 1950s. I mean, that's the kind of overriding density of human population on the planet. It totally transforms the circumstances. We can look at the past and see how they responded to climate changes that affected them, usually drought, and often it could migrate, but now we're just living in a totally different circumstance and in some measure, we have exceeded our capacity.

Patrick Potyondy 
And so now we've kind of moved into a topic I've really wanted to bring up and I'm really eager to jump into here, for kind of current day debate politics, how should we as a species be responding to climate change today? And as we've kind of been touching on a little bit already, are certain types of political structures and systems more or less able to respond to the pressures that climate change is creating? And Sam, maybe if you want to start us off here?

Dr. Sam White 
I think in time we will come up with more useful insights from history to really give us practical policy lessons in adaptation. We're not there yet. I don't think.

Patrick Potyondy 
Okay.

Dr. Sam White 
And the reason is that for so many years, we were just trying to make the case that climate changes and extreme weather were important. And now I think we've made that case, but we now have to go and find more good examples of successful adaptation and see if we can really look at those in detail and find out why they were successful, especially compared to other examples where climate really pushed the society into some sort of crisis. So I think the biggest lesson, of course, is that we as a species should be trying to stop climate change, or at least slow it down to a manageable rate. Until we have a better sense of whether we really can adapt, that seems to be the most prudent course.

John Brooke 
The question of how current societies should adjust, adapt, and mitigate. What struck me in the last five years is how much major decision-making bodies, sadly, non-democratic decision-making bodies, have begun to adjust, begun to realize. One of the things I like to show to my students is, look at the military! The military's joint operating environment manual has enormous amounts of material about population growth, migration, climate change, drought. They are very concerned about this being their operating environment. Insurance companies are very concerned about their operating environment because it's costing them tons of money. And even energy companies are understanding that they have to adjust to the future. And some of it...So what's sad is that the democratic process has been blocked in many countries, perhaps this one, particularly, to make decisions about what is clearly a wrenching reality. That would be nice to not have to think about, but it is happening. And we can't leave our heads in the sand, so the process is unfolding. And wouldn't it be nice if the democratic structures could be part of that process and not essentially be shut out of that process. But what is striking is how we are not totally stuck in the sand, that important decision-making bodies are actually moving very rapidly. And the market actually is beginning to work. People are beginning to invest large sums of money and it's having discernible effects, which is one of the most important things that we should realize. Over the last 150 years, economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions have tracked each other perfectly. And one is essentially a mirror image of the other. This last year, they diverged. Greenhouse emissions flatlined, Chinese emissions dropped, U.S. emissions dropped in a context of economic growth. Last year was the first time. We will look back at 2014 as a major rupture, and so we're beginning to move away and actually, if you look at the numbers about the relationship between the scale of economic growth and the rate of economic growth and the rate of of greenhouse gas emissions, it began to diverge in about 1985. You see the beginnings, maybe 1990, see the beginnings of a slight break in the rates of patterns. And now we have a situation where we may be getting into negative growth of emissions with positive growth of the economy. That, it may be too little too late, but that's incredibly important step.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
I think that there are, if there aren't specific kind of policy considerations we might be able to give and sort of saying, "Oh, you know, you should do XYZ," it seems to me that the study of kind of climate and environmentalism more broadly offers us some kind of big picture ways of thinking that I think could be...and I think that some of the things that historians have to offer to the broader public is to offer ways of understanding the process kind of broadly. And there's several things that I think I would highlight. One is that we have to remember the degree to which we as humans, as a species, have a small little window in which we can survive and live, right. The Goldilocks, just right porridge that we can live in. And if it's too hot and if it's too cold, if it's too wet, if it's too dry, then that poses problems for us as a species. We're not a species that can live in a huge, wide range of different kind of hydrological or temperature-based kind of structures. And that we need to be reminded, I think, of the degree to which climate change is not something that's just happening now, that it is a part of our planet's history, right from the get-go and it's changed multiple times. And so that rather than thinking about, as John said, this sort of normal that we have, we all think, "Well, this is sort of normal," and we think about, "Well, last year was a little bit colder than this year. This year has a little bit more snow than last year," these sorts of things, but that the change is part of planetary history, and that we have to be thoughtful in terms of how we structure our societies and economies to realize that change is happening and changes will happen and they have happened. Small changes can make a really big difference. And, Sam, when you talk about the Little Ice Age, when it was about a one to two degree on average Celsius difference -

Dr. Sam White 
Probably less than one degree Celsius.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Less than one degree Celsius, so that several hundred years ago when we hit the Little Ice Age, which has a tremendous impact on the planet, I mean, the change in temperature, on average, is tiny. And I think that for public, we have to realize that we think one degree and we think, "Well, I can't tell the difference between 58 degrees Fahrenheit and 59 degrees Fahrenheit." But it's certain times in certain places that can be enormously important, so little change is going to have big impacts and we need to be conscious of that. And it also strikes me that we have to be aware of the degree to which it's an immensely complex system that we live in. The whole climate or the Earth's climate structure and environmental structures, as well as the the human socioeconomic, political, cultural, religious structures within, are enormously complicated. When changes happen in those, even little changes, it develops these kind of feedback loops, sometimes that we can predict and sometimes that we can't, and that we need to be very conscious of the way in which you have these self reinforcing types of processes that are at work so that these kinds of broader patterns and ways of understanding, I think, are enormously important for us, to be context in which we frame and construct our ways of thinking about how to implement actually specific policies.

Leticia Wiggins 
This is an important thing to bring up because especially here in the United States, despite significant amounts of the scientific evidence, scientists are fairly unsuccessful at persuading people about climate change. And we talked earlier about the Anthropocene and putting that in books and I can't imagine that not meeting some resistance.

John Brooke 
Yeah.

Dr. Sam White 
Yeah, I would say that I do believe that people tend to look at science as producing theories, which is a little bit unfair, and they look at history as producing facts -

Dr. Sam White 
- which may also be unfair. But, and for that reason, though, if we as historians say the climate has changed and is changing, and we can draw upon various types of scientific and written evidence to say that, then it does communicate to a certain audience, including an audience who's often more skeptical of climate change science, that this change is real. Also, we can draw on a range of stories, of anecdotes, of colorful images and narratives that often make what can seem like a very abstract problem seem much more real and convincing.

Leticia Wiggins 
Right.

Patrick Potyondy 
That's great.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Yeah, I think that for me, I was just going to add, I think the storytelling is extraordinarily important for what historians can do and what the humanities can do.

Dr. Nicholas Breyfogle 
Because when you see a graph of CO2 levels, and it looks like a hockey stick, but you don't really know what the difference between the 301 parts per million or 400 parts per million really is to be able to tell a human story of what that actually means in terms of the daily lives of peoples and families and communities. That that's a tremendously important thing that we can bring.

Patrick Potyondy 
Totally.

John Brooke 
Sometimes we obviously need to tell stories. But I think sometimes the stories get a little too obsessed with telling stories on too small a scale. I think that we do need to ask the public to think hard about...They think hard about money, that's numbers. I think they can handle the numbers when they come to...Oh, I'll throw some numbers out there. So we're up above 400 parts per million. Well, when I was a kid, the normal, the reality back then, was about 315, 310 parts per million CO2. The normal before any car, before Industrial Revolution was about 280 parts per million. Okay, so that's a difference now of 120. We've gone up 120 from a base of 280. So what was it like during the ice ages, when there was a half a mile of ice on top of Lake Erie? The CO2 levels were 180 parts per million. So that is not a small one degree, you know, in terms of the greenhouse gas pressure on the global system, we have done an ice age in reverse. We have heated, we have injected greenhouse gases in less than a hundred years, in fact, in 60 years, we've injected 100 hundred parts per million into the air which is an ice age scale change on the same scale as a major ice age, not the Little Ice Age but the Pleistocene. When there is literally a half...and the way I like to describe this is, boys and girls in my classes, we are the frog in the pot. But we are also, the term I like is the slingshot. We are pull the slingshot back, we haven't quite let go yet. The full effects of this have not been realized. And when they do, and it could happen in a nonlinear fashion, and things will suddenly shift very fast.

Patrick Potyondy 
I think that's a really great metaphor here to end on, as we've covered a lot of topics here on our discussion. So I'd like to thank Sam White, John Brooke, and Nicholas Breyfogle, for joining us today on History Talk. Thanks, guys.

Leticia Wiggins 
This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, iTunes and on Soundcloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.