Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Weather matters

Climate trends frame the context in which human action takes place. They are therefore a significant factor in history. Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 does an excellent job of putting (European) history in the context of the Little Ice Age. He is particularly good at giving vivid descriptions of the tragedies of everyday life that climate and climate change could create. But he is also very well aware of institutional differences – C18th England and France confronted essentially the same climate, but England’s institutions dealt with resulting stresses a great deal better than did ancien regime France.

My major criticism is his use of the ‘hockey stick’ presentation of the world temperature trends, which purports to show that the warming in the last 100 years is much faster and greater than in the previous 900. Actually, it is quite clear from Fagan’s text (e.g. pp 16-17) that the C12th-C14th was warmer than the world is today.

Despite Fagan’s fashionable greenhouse-ism, which his open-mindedness saves from being too dogmatic (for example, his discussion of evidence, p.216, that fossil fuels are not the major problem), the book is a good read. He puts the French Revolution, for example, in very revealing context.

Fagan's description of An Ghorta Mor, the devastation of the Irish potato famine is heart-rending, not least when he notes that Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the 1782/83 famine, the Earl of Carlisle, acted with a prompt intelligence in banning grain exports and placing a large (100,000 pounds: roughly equivalent to $70m, on the 100pds=$70,000pa income basis) bounty on wheat and oat imports, which contrasted appallingly with the theory-bound inadequacy of Peel’s Government in the 1840s. But Ireland still had its own separate government in 1783, which it did not after the Act of Union. Still, desite Fagan's vividness, Tom Bethel’s The Noblest Triumph contains the best analysis of the Irish disaster I have read (and, yes, the English were to blame, but primarily for the institutional structure they created which impoverished Ireland).

So, climate sets context but does not determine: institutional responses matter and matter rather more the more our technology and organisational capacity improves. A good read.

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