What historians have to say about global warming​

An innovative course in environmental history offers new ways to think about the past — and the future

This is the first in a series of articles that describe how scholars at Washington University in St. Louis are bringing their varied skills to bear on the issue of climate change and global warming.

In this famous image from Très Riches Heures, a book of prayers to be said at canonical hours made for the Duc de Berry between 1412 and 1416, a peasant plows the fields in March, early even for France. The book was created toward the end of the Medieval Warm Period, five centuries of warm, settled weather in Europe. What is the relation between the climate and the settlement of Greenland, the Crusades or even the building of cathedrals? Until recently, these weren’t even “historical” questions. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the past few years, there has been a noticeable shift in the way people talk about climate change at social events. The argument over the physical science is effectively over; people accept the reality of global warming and would prefer not to debate it anymore.

Instead, they’d like to move the conversation on, although they’re often not sure just where they want it to go. Yes, there is climate change . . . and then what?

An innovative course at Washington University in St. Louis offers a way forward by making available the efforts of historians to integrate natural history and human history over the past 40 years.

Taught by Venus Bivar, PhD, assistant professor of history in Arts & Sciences, it is an introduction to a discipline called environmental history, with a special focus on climate change.

Bivar’s reading list is an immediate tipoff that this is not just a run-through of climate science. The list includes The Long Thaw, by David Archer, a geophysicist, but that is probably the only text that might be assigned in a science course.

Archer makes a crucial point, however: global warming is not a short-term problem we can simply outwait. It will take hundreds of thousands of years for rock weathering to draw down the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere, he says.

Bivar outside the castle in the city of Angers in northwestern France. Bivar, whose dissertation was about the industrialization of agriculture in France in the 20th century, was in Angers to do research in the archives there. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

“Topics in Environmental History: Climate” has two parts, explainedBivar, who plans to teach the course again in the fall of 2015. The first part is an introduction to environmental history and the second consists of readings on global warming to which the class is asked to respond in the light of environmental history.

Environmental history emerged as a sub-discipline in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a general cultural reassessment and a growing awareness of the scope of environmental problems. It was in large part a reaction to the idea that history is the story of the rise of civilization that is marked by continual economic growth and ever-increasing technological mastery.

William Cronon, one of the founders of the field, says that environmental historians are “trying to write histories as much for the earth and the rest of creation as they do for the human past.”

A farmer and his sons take shelter from a dust storm in Oklahoma in 1936. People have told the story of the Dust Bowl in surprisingly different ways. (Credit: Arthur Rothstein/Wikimedia Commons)

The class begins by reading an essay by Cronon that examines six completely different accounts of the Dust Bowl, ranging from a heroic tale of frontier progress to the inevitably disastrous outcome of a culture that sought to dominate the land.

“We cannot escape the challenge of multiple competing narratives in our efforts to understand both nature and the human past,” Cronon said.

Just realizing that the Dust Bowl story has been told in so many different ways helps us to escape the grip of ghost narratives: old narratives that continue to structure our thinking without our being fully aware of their influence.

In another destabilizing essay, Bivar quotes a French writer on climate change: “We are plagued by drought and science says, we must not accuse nature but man who, by altering the surface of the earth has changed the course of the atmosphere and then the influence of the seasons.”

But this sentence was penned in 1800, at a time when there was widespread alarm about the degradation of forests and the effects that was having on climate.

According to historians Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, people were even entertaining climate-engineering schemes at the time, such as planting large stands of eucalyptus trees that would purify the air and banish ‘miasmas.’

How startling to realize that climate change was a preoccupation of post-Revolutionary France! Locher and Fressoz echo Cronon, saying that “the dominant narratives used to reflect upon the contemporary environmental crisis are too simple” — as demonstrated by our tendency to think our concerns about climate are unprecedented.