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Climate Change: A brief (1000 year) history

 I’m writing this third post partly because I am concerned at the level of what is called ‘climate anxiety’ in the general population, and particularly among young people. This has clearly been caused by the media heavily emphasizing every possible negative climate story, as well as talking up the disaster theories, not least because these headlines ‘sell newspapers’, as we used to say (!). Our current climate mania seems still to be stuck in the ‘hockey stick’ era, with every new piece of research seized upon by the media and stacked up with all the rest to create terror; and the scientists have - understandably but I think without fully considering the effects of all the media hype - allowed this to happen because it captures public attention and increases the likelihood that policy makers will actually address the issues. However, this global anxiety is, in my view, largely misplaced and may actually be dangerous, not only to individuals who are being made anxious, but also because panic, whether by the public or by governments, never brings about meaningful, lasting and sensible change.

So I think a brief but dispassionate look at the history of climate change may be useful. Most of the climate ‘records’ that are being broken all the time, according to the media (‘warmest July ever’ or whatever) go back no further than 1659, and then only in one region of the UK. These are actual readings recorded by contemporaries of rainfall, temperature and so on. As you get into the next century, these become more widespread, and by the Victorian era climate readings were being taken in various locations across the globe. But in climate terms, such records are incredibly recent. Other written documents give us an idea of the ups and downs of climate change in the slightly more distant past, such as the English Medieval Warm Period, dating from around 1000 to 1250 CE (depending on which historian you read), a period when the UK growing season was reliable and wheat harvests generally abundant, and vines flourished in much the same latitudes as they do today; or the Bronze Age warm period in Europe, about 8000 years ago, when upland areas were extensively cultivated which are now barren and bleak, and sea levels were high. Neither of these ‘warmings’ were influenced by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. In between climate fluctuated, as it always does, giving us a cold period during the Dark Ages, between the relatively warm Roman era, when European climatic conditions are thought to have been similar to today, and the start of the Medieval Warm Period, and the so-called Little Ice Age between the Medieval Warm Period and the twentieth-century warming that continues.

In the fourteenth century, the year when the Black Death first arrived in England was marked by cold wet weather that was commented on by chroniclers, and the Great Famine of the early part of that century (both of these mentioned in my novel Thirteen Forty-Nine) suggests that climate change of a cooling kind was occurring at that point. Greenland was also abandoned by its Viking settlers amid dire stories of the collapsing climate there. But I have not yet found anything written by a climate scientist to explain why any of the fluctuations I’ve mentioned occurred. There is much controversy, also, about exactly how far from the average these fluctuations took temperatures – and we need to remember that temperature is not the only measure of climate. Tree rings, one of the main proxies for climate, measure rainfall as well as temperature, for example, and some warming periods seem to have coincided with drier weather, while others coincide with more rain.

All the climate historians I have read suggest that these fluctuations, both the warming and the cooling variety, are caused by complex factors involving many different global and solar mechanisms, and I would suggest that modern ‘global warming’ is likely to be similarly caused. This is not to say that we should be blasé about what is currently happening, for we must certainly address the likely consequences of the warming that is clearly happening; but it is to recommend that we look at the broader picture and do not see everything that happens as further evidence of the dreaded ‘global warming’. That way madness lies.

The Bronze Age warming, the Roman era, the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age are (in climate terms) relatively modern fluctuations. If we go back a bit further, into the Pleistocene Age that preceded our current Holocene, we come upon much greater and long-lasting climate change dating back long before modern Homo Sapiens even existed. That will be the subject of my next blog.


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