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Transcript: Climate Change: Insights from History

 

A conversation with Ohio State University Department of History faculty members, John Brooke, Jennifer Eaglin and Samuel White about the historical context of climate change.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Hello, everyone and welcome from the College of Arts and Sciences. Thank you so much for joining us for climate change insights from history. A special thank you to Nicholas Breyfogle, Associate Professor in the Department of History and the director of the Goldberg Center for making this program possible. Now over to our moderator, Jennifer Eaglin, Assistant Professor in the Department of History.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
Welcome to our discussion, "Climate Change: Insights from History." So this event is coming to you from the history department at Ohio State University. My name is Dr. Jennifer Eaglin. I am an assistant professor of environmental history in the department I study Brazilian energy development and I'll be your host today. So I'm so happy that everybody is able to join us. With fires raging across the US West, record high summer temperatures in many places across the planet, including the Arctic and Siberia, melting glaciers, disappearing permafrost, changing precipitation patterns and more, climate change represents one of the greatest most existential threats to humanity as we know it. Despite almost complete scientific agreement on the subject and strong public support for aggressive action, climate change remains politically contentious, and surprisingly difficult to confront on an international level. So we are delighted to welcome two of the world's leading experts on climate history to address how climate change history can help us find a way forward. they'll discuss past patterns of climate change both recent and others of the deeper planetary past, and what these historical processes of climate adaptation and survival tell us about humanity's prospects today. John Brooke is the Warner Woodring Chair in the Department of History and author of Climate Change and the Course of Human History: A Rough Journey. And Sam White is Associate Professor of environmental history whose research explores the impact of extreme weather and disasters in the 16th and 17th century. He directs the climate history network and is editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Climate History. Both John and Sam have taught an interdisciplinary course on climate change with faculty in earth sciences and biology. Thank you both for joining us. A quick kind of outlook on how we'll proceed, we'll open with a discussion among our panelists and ask the panel to respond to you all's questions. Many of you already submitted questions when you registered, others, we welcome that you all continue to submit questions through the q&a, through the chat feature, and we will do our best to address them. So without further ado, John, and Sam, to get started, what is climate history? And what can we learn from it? And why do you think it is important to study climate in the past?

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, where do I start? A climate history is two things. It's a, it's a branch of environmental history, which emerged about 50 years ago, and the mission of environmental history is to study the relationship of people and the planet, which we occupy... culture and nature. And so the question of climate, what was the nature of climate? How did it change was of interest to the early environmental historians? They couldn't really do it very well, because a science of climate change had not started very powerfully. What's happened in the last 40 years is a massive accumulation of knowledge about the natural climate change and how it has unfolded as well as human produced anthropogenic climate change.

Dr. Sam White 
So in working on climate history, we've tried to accomplish several things. We've tried to see what we can do with historical records to better reconstruct climate variability and change at a really high level quickly over the last few centuries, but before the modern instrumental record. And sometimes we do that just with the documents, sometimes we do that working with climatologists and you know, paleoclimate sources, like tree rings. We've also tried to look at how human perceptions and understandings of that climate variability and change have evolved over time. And most of all, to look at the human experience of that climate change. And really how people have dealt with it, adapted, or in some cases not adapted.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
So really, you guys are both have both illustrated that we've been dealing with this climate thing for quite some time. So how has climate change been a constant characteristic throughout the long history of the planet? And what is the difference between natural or paleo climate change and the current anthropogenic climate change that we are experiencing today?

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, that is an enormous topic, Effectively, effectively, the entire geological history of the planet involves changing configurations of greenhouse gases and the relationship between greenhouse gases and water and the Earth and that produces shifting climates. And there have been some dramatic, dramatic shifts that run back billions of years. That is striking, we know that. So what are the, what are the fundamental relationships between natural and anthropogenic climate change, natural climate changes have been happening, and much of it was, took a long period of time, but involves enormous processes that are almost beyond our imagination. We are actually doing it really quickly. We are doing, we are forcing climate change in 100 years, or more rapidly than is certainly what's happening in 10,000 years, and we are replicating the scale of climate change during the ice ages. And we are pumping, how we are doing it, we are pumping the products of previous climate change, aka, coal and oil from the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, suddenly in a year, immediately, suddenly, massive amounts of energy is being converted into carbon dioxide, methane, etc., and squirted into the atmosphere. Alright.

Dr. Sam White 
So I'd also add that there are really two things that we have to keep separate, even though they are related here. That's climate variability and climatic change. So the climate system is quite complex. It's really actually a complex relationship among several systems in the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere. And it therefore, we can expect that things are going to change year to year, decade to decade a little bit, just on its own. And then there are also what we call forcings that come from outside of that, whether we're talking about organic corruption, changes in solar cycles, or changes in orbital cycles, or as the case is now, greenhouse gas forcing from carbon dioxide, methane emissions. So those are often we think of is causing change, especially over the longer term. I'd echo John, though, and say that what is really most notable and disturbing about anthropogenic climate change is just how fast it is occurring compared to anything we've experienced over the last several 1000 years, and how it's really occurring all over the world. Whereas most of the kind of shorter and smaller climate changes we've seen over the past few centuries will tend to be more local. So, that it's also what we're dealing with right now and what we can do with reducing carbon emissions.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
So we've used this word anthropogenic, and you all talked about climate change on a broad scale. And so has this always, has climate change always been man made, and how have humans confronted earlier moments of climate change as they've occurred?

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, there is a debate that's been unfolding among the climate scientists, whether or not early agriculture might, which is, or even the rise of concentrated populations might have produced enough greenhouse gases to slightly tip the composition of the atmosphere toward and away from a potential Ice Age. Now, that's still up in the air. But basically, the answer to that is no. I mean, you know, for most of us, let's not worry about that Neolithic climate change impact as they're so incredibly slight. We are dealing with something new, completely new, the pumping of vast amounts of CO2 methane into the atmosphere out of ancient, ancient deposits. This has moved, this is, nothing like this has ever happened before by human hands. Certain things like this have happened the Permian extinction, something that dwarfs what we're doing now, but it happened, you know, killed off the entire planet. So we don't want to do that.

Dr. Sam White 
So I again, I echo the importance of distinguishing variability from change. So year to year, things do change a bit. But if you know that that can be due to natural forces, just the inherent instability and chaos in the climate system. But when we're talking about the decade over decade trends towards warming that's entirely and as to how people have seen climate change in the past. I think it is interesting to see that there were, we might call sort of religious views of how people responded to extreme disasters in the past. And as we get into the early modern period, there's some recognition on a local level, how people's change in the landscape might change local weather. Oftentimes those ideas were tied to fears over deforestation, or sometimes the opposite, actually hoping to moderate the climate, changing the environments, especially prominent in 18th century America. But really, in terms of recognizing the modern climate change driven by greenhouse gas forcings, that's a process that really built up over the late 19th century. Some of the first predictions were made back into the 1890s. The first scientist who's really credited with recognizing that it was happening is often a Guy Callendar in the 1930s. We had really, we've built up a fairly firm scientific consensus by the 1980s, which was indisputable by roughly the beginning of the 21st century.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
So this, the climate changes that we're seeing today, the extreme climate changes, like the fires and etc., are those cyclical? Do we think that they will kind of ebb and flow as we've seen maybe in this kind of climate history past?

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, if you burn up the entire West, yeah. It will be cyclical. There won't be anything left to burn. But no, this is not cyclical. I mean, there are patterns in the past that look, they might be cycles, but they are in the past. What we need to be able to do today is to show a diagram of say, greenhouse gases, and they just run all during the last 10,000 years that are roughly somewhere between 260 and 270, 280. And then, by the time I was born, in 1953, it was at 315 parts per million. And in my lifetime, it has jumped to four, you know, where we are now 415, 420 parts per million has leapt off the charts. And just in a lifetime, this is not a cycle. This is a fundamental shift that the likes of which minimally has not been seen since the emergence from the Ice Age 12 13,000 years ago. And we're really looking at changes that will put us back millions of years in terms of the scale of heat and greenhouse pressure in the atmosphere. So that the pressures on the effects of fire and effects of increased hurricanes, this is a, it's the same as putting it, this is a linear change. This is a change in a direction. It's not a change in cycle, a variation.

Dr. Sam White 
So year to year, I couldn't tell you, for instance, whether next year is going to have more heat waves or droughts in the West than this year did or the year after that. But I could tell you with fair certainty that if nothing were to change, you know, the next, the average over the next 20 years is going to be worse than the average was over the past 20 years, which was in turn worse than the previous 20-year average. So it's really a question of thinking about both the longer direction given that there's going to be some variability along the way. Now there are two different things again to separate here, though. One are the underlying conditions that give rise to something like fires out in the West. The other is our vulnerability to that, which of course is in our hands to change. So we could cut back on the number of forest fires in the West over the next 20 years, for instance, by reducing our vulnerability, reducing development in sensitive areas, taking other precautions, perhaps. But assuming we don't do that, then we can expect more fires to be there.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
So what historical factors have kind of influenced the politicization of the very concept of climate change? You all have laid out a compelling argument about the environment and the changes that we are experiencing, and how have those continued to be debated? And also kind of how has apathy around toward climate change kind of built over time? And how does that affect the way we are approaching it today?

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, you know, the history of the politics of climate change goes back to the late 1970s, and a series of senior nuclear scientists who were called in to assess climate modeling, with deep connections to the military industrial complex, and the Republican Party. On the, literally embedded in the transition from Carter to Reagan, they became very important during the early years of the Reagan administration. And then really in 1982, some of us might remember, was a major recession. Nobody wanted to talk about the questions that we put before the public about greenhouse gases. And so there was a cycling back. What drives this increasingly is, on the one hand, there has been funding for incredibly good climate science. So we have this trajectory toward greater knowledge and general, you know, vast consensus about what's happening. On the other hand, there's been intense politicization in, you know, think tank organizations that have driven a message that there's a debate. There is no debate. The debate is only, you know, asterisks here, by interested parties many which are funded, I hate to say it, by the fossil fuel industries. Fossil fuel industries have got an enormous investment in the status quo and reality is that to make the change, we need to change the amount that we're ejecting in the atmosphere. That would have a huge impact on people's back pocket. So how does this unfold? We have a trajectory toward knowledge, and we have a trajectory toward resistance to, because of, economic and political interest.

Dr. Sam White 
So I would say there are two angles to this as well. On the one hand, we have to look at the psychological barriers to action on climate change. And this is not my expertise. But there's been some excellent work done on this by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, among others. And what they really found is that climate change is often just the proof in terms of actually getting motivation for action. On the one hand, it doesn't seem to have any immediate effects for those who have the power to do most about it, particularly those who are more in higher positions in wealthier countries. It often seems like something that can always be pushed off towards, until later. It's going to affect other people down the line and not us immediately now. However, for those who do feel its urgency, it often simply seems overwhelming. And the focus on the overwhelming impacts of it, the potentially existential nature of it, as you said at the introduction here, actually tends to demotivate people it just seems like too much to do. It's a real challenge to strike the right balance. So there is concern, but not naked fear which really drives people not to take the precautions the actions they can. In terms of the political inaction, I think that's really a separate topic and I think John's hit on that. What I would add to that is while we have the disinformation campaign worldwide this still raised the question as to why it's been particularly resonant in America. The rise the fossil fuel industry and lobby here is certainly a part of it as is sort of the ideological leanings of the Republican Party. But I think that there may be something more to it in the sense that it's one more environmental issue that has created an identity politics that has been especially strong here. People tend to adopt their decision ahead of time based on what group, what tribe they feel they belong to, as opposed to on an even-handed assessment of facts and needs.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
So, I mean, one of the kind of attached questions to climate change is, well one I mean, as the Earth's population is, the human population is growing, how is that accelerating decelerating, affecting the climate change that we are experiencing? And also, I mean, you make the point about kind of identity politics and who is disproportionately affected by climate change and particularly how our communities of color and minority communities are globally affected differently than some of the richer constituents that Sam pointed out, can push the, push that impact off or push that... address it at a later date.

Dr. John Brooke 
Well, we have to think of two directions, two trajectories since World War II. Since World War II global population, particularly in the developing world, has increased dramatically. And there actually is a, you know, either part of the increase in greenhouse gases is the product of more people driving cars, burning fires, just living fairly simple lives, you know not even driving the cars. But you know, but just simple, just the simple reality of more people once we got the, we got demography under control, and mortality rates came down. The other side is the, the so-called developed world and the you know, the rapidly developing world has produced way more CO2 per capita, just off the charts. I mean, US, US CO2 per capita, it's on the order, has been on the order six tons per person, per year and relative to, you know, microscopic amounts from the developing world, the global world. And what is particularly striking is that most of the CO2 production from economies, you know, exaggerated per capita CO2 production is coming from a strip of countries around the northern mid latitudes, which have not been feeling the effects of climate change that dramatically. We here in Central Ohio, it doesn't look that bad. It's going to get a little warmer, it's going to get a little wetter, nothing like what's happening in the tropics. Nothing like what's happening in the Arctic. So we are sitting here in this little world, a protected world, generating vast amounts of CO2, vast amounts of greenhouse gases, and other people somewhere else are being affected outside this country. This means people, when they, when things do happen, people of color, based on poverty, based on location, based on, you know, location of residence. The impacts, for example, eastern North Carolina is a very poor black region, and they get overwhelmed by hurricanes at least once every two years. And so, you know, there is a, there's a pattern how inside the United States about how race and poverty has created a vulnerability to the effects of climate change, fire, flood, drought.

Dr. Sam White 
So on the question of population, I really emphasize that it's a growth in economy and energy use much more so than growth in population that seems to be the driving change here. Looking forward over the next 50 years, whether population doubles and high assessments are whether it would suddenly more or less level off with the same number of people. Either way, it really presents us with the challenge of significantly decarbonizing our economy. So it will probably not make too much difference one way or the other. In terms of the unequal impact of climate change, I think John's hit on the important ideas here that on the one hand we have a large-scale geographical issue, that is to say that many of the regions of the world that will be most severely affected are ones where we see Indigenous peoples of color. It's largely not the areas that are the largest emitters that will actually see some of the greatest impacts. But there's also a micro geographical issue here. That is to say, through long histories of segregation, or long histories of oppression and discrimination at local levels, we have often forced people of color, poor people as well, into neighborhoods, into locations that are more vulnerable. And through a legacy of discrimination and inequality, we also see that they often have fewer means in order to adapt or to resist impacts. And of course, this is what we saw, most famously in the case of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. But we can see this everywhere. I mean, for instance, the city of Los Angeles has produced its own map of its local, you know, zip code by zip code, climate change vulnerabilities. And you can see the same thing, even there. And it's often tied to access to green space, access to, you know, ways out of the city, they wouldn't be blocked by traffic in the event of a major disaster and other local microenvironment factors.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin
All right, believe it or not, I've only got seven minutes left. And so I'm hitting you guys with a big question here. So what can we do to mitigate the effects of climate change that we see today? And I want to add into that, how important are national and global level agreements or collaborations and the US's participation in those to actually addressing this issue, or trying to?

Dr. John Brooke 
One of the examples of what's happened in the last 30 years is the module protocols on the issue of the ozone layer and fluorocarbons. And what is striking is how effective that was, when you had an international agreement that was more or less adhered to, the potential expansion and in fact the production of this stuff declined dramatically. And there was mitigation. And sometimes I think and I know this is wrong, but I think God, this has only been since roughly my childhood. We should be able to reverse this, if we could act together. This is, you know, it, the problem is there's an enormous weight of CO2 in the atmosphere that's not going to go away. There's no magic formula to get it out of it. But we need to you know, the entire world and the majority of the United States is behind national and international climate action. One entity, the Republican Party, stands in the way. There's just no other way around it. I'm sorry. Hate to be political, but that's just the bare raw fact. And we there are, you know, the biggest concern has been what will be the impact on the economy? Well, there's going to be a massive amount of investment in jobs in infrastructure to make the energy transition that is necessary. And we are fighting a fight about how we're going to get there. And in fact, some of this has already been achieved by market and technological forces already. It's beginning to be a little cheaper to produce electricity by renewable means than it is by burning coal. So coal plants are on the way out. The problem is getting everybody on board. China has just issued a fairly ambitious but long-term CO2 plan that may or may not have any muscle behind it, but they fully understand at the national level what they need to do. The problem is getting it to happen at the local level.

Dr. Sam White 
Sam, you want to bring us home on this question?

Dr. Sam White 
Sure. So I definitely agree with John. I mean, the priority is global scale agreements to reduce carbon emissions or sequestering carbon. I do want to add a quick historical perspective here, too, which is that when we see the major impacts, the major crises induced by past climate changes, it wasn't necessarily societies that were the most exposed or the poorest. But oftentimes, those who had deep underlying vulnerabilities in their politics, their economics that made them unstable. It was the feedbacks between the immediate impacts of climate change on say, health and agriculture, and the way those rippled upwards through the economy, politics, and culture that often brought on the worst crises. So I just want to emphasize that in addition to mitigation, if we can't get there, it's a question of building resilience within all levels, in all ways, from the personal up to the political.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
Okay, well, I guess I mean, I want to leave us on one, one final question if we can. Which is, if you guys have any final words, final thoughts, in one sentence, thoughts that you can give us on climate change historically, and the present and the future?

Dr. John Brooke 
We need to act. There's my sentence.

Dr. Sam White 
I guess, again, just a tiny, tiny historical lesson here. I would say that the lesson from history is not, "we had past climate variability, and we made it so it's no big deal to have anthropogenic global warming." It's really the opposite the past climate variability we saw, it historically is relatively small compared to what we're facing today. So but at the end, it already had a significant impact in the past, and that raises real alarms for the future.

Dr. Jennifer Eaglin 
Thank you all for that, for this thought-provoking conversation. I'd also like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences who made this possible, especially Clara Davison, the history department, the Harvey Goldberg Center for Teaching Excellence, the magazine Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective for their sponsorship. And again, thank you to the audience for joining us, for excellent questions and, you know, continuing to connect with Ohio State. Stay healthy, stay safe, and see you all next time.