Magazine, Vol. 4: Changing Climate
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“Humans have long thought that people could change the climate”


Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting LIV: Carabayllo, Lima, Peru, 2008 © Sayler/Morris

Antiquity, Colonisation, Industrialisation – A Historiographic Perspective on Climate Change


Historians are specialists in reconstructing the past, but in the case of climate change, they have played a critical role in understanding the present. In his interview with 42 Magazine, Dr Richard Staley explains how historians have changed climate science, and how climate scientists have shaped the history of the climate. He suggests that we need to acknowledge the historical forces that have produced carbon-economies, and the relationship between colonialism and climate change.

We often think of climate change as a strictly scientific problem – but you’ve argued that climate scientists are also historians of a kind. In what ways is climate change a historical issue?

Climate scientists, on one level, have rewritten the history of the climate itself. In the early to mid-twentieth-century, most climatologists understood climate to be little more than ‘average weather’. Scientists acknowledged that such averages might change, but only gradually. They knew that there had once been Ice Ages and did attempt to explain these. These are periods of global cooling and glaciation that have occurred numerous times in the history of the earth, the most recent encompassing the period of c. 115,000 to c. 11,700 years ago.

So, in the early days, climate scientists were looking for evidence of global cooling rather than global warming?

Yes. In the early twentieth-century, searching for evidence of Ice Ages was far more important and some of the measurements their studies produced have been useful to present-day scientists. At this point, scientists thought that feedback loops and the circulation of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans and earth might be important in understanding the causes of Ice Ages.  After the Second World War, the accumulation of carbon from industrialisation took on increasing importance, but it was always understood within a complex network of natural phenomena which included uptake of carbon by the oceans and other factors. In the 1970s climate scientists started to pull all this information from ‘natural archives’ such as ocean floor sediments, ice cores, and fossilised pollen together, in order to develop long-term accounts of past climate change. In the 1980s to 1990s, it became clear that these changes could happen stunningly fast. Through studying these ‘natural archives’, scientists changed our understanding of the history of the climate.

Historical methods such as the analysis of natural archives and historical sources thus shaped climate science?

That’s right, and such evidence has shaped mathematical climate models. After World War Two, meteorologists began to use new computer technologies in attempt to predict future climates, based on concepts of ‘average weather’. They extended models that initially could only forecast a few days ahead to deal with decades or centuries. Historical, empirical evidence forced scientists to create mathematical and computer models that could deal with not just long-term but rapid change.


“Weather records help us understand the effects of major events”


What about archival records, such as meteorological observations taken on-board ships from the 16th to the 19th century?

These records have been extremely important. Weather records were frequently taken in the past because they were critical for transport and agriculture. They are both mundane and, in their extremes, help us understand the effects of major events like the catastrophic Mount Tambora eruption in 1815. Ships took measures in the 16th to the 19th centuries, and scientists and historians have looked at these records, often languishing in archives, and tried to incorporate them into models of climate change. This is difficult work, but one of the most fascinating things about climate change science, as it has led to very interdisciplinary work.

What about the other side of this – the history of the changing climate: At what point do scientists and historians accept that anthropogenic climate change began?

This is a topic in constant debate. Some scientists have placed this very far-back, such as Bill Ruddiman, who noticed that records of carbon and methane concentrations in ice core samples deviated from standard patterns in interglacial periods, the periods between Ice Ages, at around 7000 to 8000 years ago.

Around the time of the dawn of agriculture?

Exactly. Ruddiman wondered what could have caused that change and speculated that early agriculture might have been carried out on a much more widespread scale than we previously thought. His early anthropogenic hypothesis illustrates that practices of slash and burn may have had a far greater and more extensive impact on the climate than we expected. The idea that agriculture might change climate is actually very old.

How far back does this kind of thought go?

As early as the Ancient Greeks, but particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the colonisation of the Americas. Thomas Jefferson thought that the increasing intensity of the wind off the seaboard was a result of colonists cutting down trees. Changing the landscape, he thought, would change the climate, and these changes needed to be studied. This indicates something that is often forgotten in conversations about climate change. We think this is unprecedented. We’re right in that the rate of change, and the idea that climate could be changing globally, is unprecedented. But in fact, humans have long thought that people could change the climate through altering the environment.

You’ve identified two unique factors about climate change in recent years: Its global nature, and its unprecedented speed. When did such changes start happening?

This would mark the beginning of what climatologists call the Anthropocene. In 2000, climatologist Paul Crutzen was in a conference and delegates were talking about the Holocene, the geological era we were once understood to be in. Crutzen was irritated by this term and suggested a new one. Humans, he argued, were changing the climate so fundamentally that we needed to define a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. He, along with his colleague Eugene Stoermer – who had already been using this term – published a paper defining this concept. Humanity, they argued, was clearly having a major impact on the environment in many ways: from the extinction of species’ to changing urban environments, to sea-levels and climate. This paper discussed eight or nine factors, and all of them were tied to humanity.

The relationships here are so complicated that it is impossible to pull out a single human cause here. But one major cause was industrialisation. The development of fossil fuel economies was the key causal element behind the rise of carbon emissions. Stoermer and Crutzen suggested a rough date of 1800. Their proposal has been taken up by stratigraphers, and also within the humanities. Others have argued for different dates: one example is 1492, since the subsequent settlement of the Americas resulted in the deaths of so many Native Americans in the next 100 years that it may have led to the regrowth of forests in areas they had previously managed, and thereby helped cause the Little Ice Age.


“It is important to consider both an inner and external colonial story”


The year in which Columbus began his voyage, eventually reaching the Americas. This is a critical point. Often, we think about the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for climate change, and this is something usually localised in Europe. But, of course, there is a colonial side to that story.

Yes, and it is important to consider both an inner and external colonial story. The industrial revolution was fuelled by coal and steam, but the product it thrived on was cotton and textiles, and cotton has a very clear colonial dimension: cotton was closely linked to the slave trade.

These large plantations in the Americas also involved massive clearings of land, forests, and other carbon-dioxide absorbing plants.

Yes, which results in greater carbon emissions. But colonialism also transformed numerous economies around the world into coal-based, carbon-emitting economies. A good example of this is 19th Century India, where British colonial surveyors found new coal fields to exploit. Here, the question of labour was pertinent. British colonial administrators had to find ways of enticing local people to work in mines. To accomplish this, they imposed property ownership laws, and demanded that tenants absolve their duties towards colonial landholders by mining. In this way, a region that had previously not used coal and steam power was forcibly shifted towards a steam and coal-based economy.

So, one could argue that colonialism, climate and European proto-capitalism are linked?

They are, and this is one of the places in which the need to decolonise the sciences arises.

How would you go about decolonising climate change science – or has decolonisation of a kind already taken place here?

That’s a very interesting question which takes us to the institutional structures of the climate sciences at the moment, as well as understanding its effects. Here, the research of anthropologists and historians who have worked with people like the Inuit is actually critical. Indigenous peoples are often told that they must change their lifestyles because climate change is occurring. Yet such bureaucratic policies don’t take indigenous people into account as much as one would want. The Inuit, in particular, have their own experience of their land changing in response to climate. It is clear that the arctic regions are changing much more rapidly than the rest of the world, and the Inuit are working to adapt to these changes all the time. But if efforts to meet climate change come only from scientists and bureaucrats outside of their communities, who demand that they change their lifestyle, they simply won’t be as effective. Scientists need to take the Inuit, their knowledge, and culture much more seriously.

Decolonising climate science also means accounting for the needs of formerly-colonised countries which may face some of the most detrimental impacts of climate change.

Through the efforts of the scientific community and the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – decolonisation in one form has already taken place here. Most of the scientists on this panel are from Western societies – particularly Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France and the USA. When these scientists began to realise that climate change might be a fundamental global phenomenon in the 1970s to the 1980s, they began attempting to engage their governments in dealing with it. From the outset, the USA argued for the foundation of an international body for studying and regulating climate change, partly because they didn’t want to take on responsibilities on their own!

The USA helped fund the IPCC, which attempted a scientific assessment of global warming, taking into account its enormous social and economic consequences. It set up structures to mediate between local circumstances and the need for scientific assessment. In this framework, developing countries have been able to articulate their perspectives as well. Critically, in the early 2000s some argued that we need to consider not just temperature, but carbon cycles in soil and vegetation, and rising sea-levels as well. A decolonisation of the scientific community and climate models has occurred through that framework.


“Studies of climate change must be carried out in individual locations, place by place”


An international framework has therefore enabled developing countries to articulate their views on this matter. But speaking historically, have there then been tensions between global and local forces in climate change policy? Is there a way in which the expertise of people such as the Inuit can be incorporated into discussions about climate change?

Unfortunately, local perspectives have often been rendered more marginal than they should be. It is central to the biggest problems we will be facing in the next decades that we develop a fine-grained understanding of climate change within the social environment in which it is being met. An early example is the regional study of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2005, which my colleague Michael Bravo has described really well in a wonderful 2009 paper. Studies of climate change must be carried out in individual locations, place by place. Global temperatures rising are devastating for agricultural communities. Rising sea levels threaten coastal cities. Each needs to be approached individually.

Do you think the colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, North America, and various others have a responsibility to acknowledge and deal with their complicity in this history?

The question of historical justice is really important, but the language of ‘complicit’ needs to be understood historically. We know things now that weren’t known in the 19th and 20th centuries. We know the importance of carbon in climate change, and that steam engines contribute far more carbon than animal, human, or water power. We need to investigate the relationship between climate and carbon dioxide, and also the historical environment in which the carbon-economy was developed.

This said, the historical relationship between labour, climate, knowledge, and economies does need to be taken on board. We must acknowledge that with or without knowledge of carbon and climate change, the development of carbon-based economies has led to climate change. In Western countries, we need to take responsibility for decreasing our carbon use, and for creating relationships with people in different areas that render them the masters of their own fate.

History can help us understand the forces that have led to anthropogenic climate change. But can it help us fight climate change as well?

Historians have essential skills in tackling the challenges posed by climate change. History deals with the multifaceted relationships involved, and how these relate to different areas of expertise that must be integrated in addressing it. Scientists have an extraordinary role to play in managing climate change, but their knowledge is often highly specialised. Historians are experts at bringing together different forms of knowledge and understanding the social relations that are implicit in them.

So, history is critical in weaving together multiple perspectives – social, political, economic, scientific – when we think about climate change.

Yes, and one way to think about this, is to study some of the most important controversies in the history of climate change, as historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway have. Oreskes has changed how the scientific community viewed itself. One of the big questions raised by climate sceptics in the early 2000s was whether there was scientific consensus that global warming was anthropogenic. Sceptics argued that the idea of consensus on climate change was a misrepresentation of the science and that the issue was not yet settled.

How did Oreskes challenge this view?

In a 2004 paper, Oreskes studied about 1000 peer-reviewed scientific papers on subjects related to global warming to determine whether they accepted that climate change was anthropogenic. Famously, she argued that almost entirely they did. This threw down a gauntlet to climate sceptics. Here, a historian offered a perspective on the scientific community, which helped the scientific community understand itself, and tackle questions of climate scepticism. Later she and Eric Conway offered critical insights into the long-term strategies utilised by climate sceptics, and identified connections between them, scepticism about the ozone hole, and earlier about tobacco causing cancer.

This is their famous book, Merchants of Doubt?

Indeed. It’s a fantastic book where the argument is stated in its title: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. She and Conway showed that a small group of influential scientists who had been important on committees on the ozone, tobacco smoke, and global warming, were almost always arguing for the need to promote economic freedom. Critically, they argued that the science wasn’t settled in service of that aim. Oreskes and Conway have shown the strategic work that lay behind that, and the publicity surrounding it.


“Sceptics are not trying to tear down science entirely. Some of the most important rely upon their own status as scientists”


Consequentially, ideas of climate sceptics need to be situated within their particular socio-economic contexts?

Yes, but we can also push the analysis of Oreskes and Conway one step further. Most commentators have tended to approach sceptics as people who try to tear down science. This is true, and an important element of how sceptics operate. But they are not trying to tear down science entirely. In fact, some of the most important rely upon their own status as scientists to present their arguments.

But many of these scientists are not necessarily experts on the topics they are criticising.

You’re right, but they’ve been able to present accounts of the climate science community plausible enough to win political support, especially in the U.S. I’ve developed a concept called ‘partisanal knowledge’ to address this. In some contexts, scientists enter debates as partisans. This is not just an issue of scientific knowledge, but a much broader one which depends on how we understand relationships between politics, science and economic issues. Both sceptics and scientists always present their knowledge within the context of the society in which they are situated. Climate sceptics don’t just deny climate science, they also offer rival accounts of the relations between science, society, and politics, and between academic experts and the public: we won’t understand the sources of the power they still have without recognising that other side of their appeal for conservatives.

Interview: Jules Skotnes-Brown



Richard Staley

© Elisabeth Emter

Dr Richard Staley is Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. He studies the history of physics broadly-construed and has published widely in the history of relativity, climate change, anthropology, astronomy, and meteorology.

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