How much does climate change affect the course of human history? With the issue of Global Warming on everyone’s mind, this is a highly pertinent question. In his book, “The Littlie Ice Age,” Brian Fagan attempts to provide a logical, science-based answer.
Unfortunately, proper record keeping of climatic indicators is a relatively modern development. To look farther back, Fagan has to rely on more empirical evidence taken from cross referenced eye witness accounts and historically documented events. Coupling these with new evidence taken from tree rings and ice core samples, Fagan can draw reasonably accurate conclusions about how weather came into play during the time frame of this book, roughly 1300 to 1850, the period now known as the Little Ice Age.
The evidence is clear enough to provide one very clear answer: although climate cannot be said to cause human history, its effects certainly exacerbate the conditions that give rise to many human tragedies and often violent responses.
From cod to the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to the Great Potato Famine in Ireland of 1845-9, Fagan shows how the weather affected events. Sometimes a single stretch of bad weather contributed, but more often it was long term weather patterns that came into play. Cooler water near the Arctic drove cod and herring southward into the North Sea and Atlantic, taking the wealthy fishing industry from Scandinavia and bringing it to Holland and England. An abandoned Viking outpost in Greenland is linked to ice floes in the region, in turn caused by a decade of cooling trends, in turn fostered by a change in ocean salinity due to an earlier warming trend that melted the ice and dropped the salinity of the sea water. A fleet of ships bent on invading England is dashed upon the rocks of Ireland by an early severe storm brought on by climate change. Decades of abnormally short growing seasons renders England incapable of producing grapes mature and sweet enough to become wine. Two decades of drought, coupled with a local reluctance to adapt more efficient ways of farming helped, if did not directly cause, the French Revolution.
From 1300 through 1850, the earth, as far as we can tell, grew colder. Such periods are normal, part of the earth’s complex and barely understood climatic cycles. Volcanoes erupt, spewing ash into the atmosphere and temporarily blotting out the sun. Seas change their salinity by a percentage point, or their temperature by a degree, and affect where storms hit and don’t. Glaciers advance and retreat. Humans, like fleas on the back of a dog, adapt, adjust, survive. The cycles shift all the time.
The worry today is that human activity might be speeding up the cycles or even changing the patterns. Since 1850, humans have poured their by-products onto the earth and into the sea and skies, and, like it or not, the earth’s surface is growing hotter. No one is sure what that means for the future, except that the weather will affect us somehow. Fagan presents his arguments concisely and in an interesting, approachable, highly readable way. There are no great truths buried in its pages, only strong suggestions. Those suggestions are profound.