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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · February 18, 2015

Climate History is “The Room of Requirement”

WMQ 7 min read

By Joyce E. Chaplin–

Let the record show that I was asked to complain. The indulgent staff of the William and Mary Quarterly requested that I blog about what I thought the journal’s recent Forum on climate history, to which I contributed a piece called “Ogres and Omnivores,” might have included, given more time and space. What’s missing? Well, obviously, some attention to how to teach the topic. Teaching is not often discussed in the WMQ. But the proliferation of OIEAHC paratextual Internet platforms, including this one, now offers venues to discuss what we do in the classroom, so here goes.

I’ve taught climate history as parts of a large lecture course and a small undergraduate seminar, an overall experience which has taught me that students sort themselves into two groups: those who assume that climate history means activism and sign right up, versus those who make the same assumption and stay the hell away. That’s interesting. But I, probably as most scholars, tend to define climate history as an intellectual problem. My teaching materials, primary and secondary, are only elliptical ways of thinking about what we’re up against today, because the focus of those texts is mostly on the past and, in the case of the early modern period, a past that to twenty-somethings seems remote if not culturally alien. The results are a mismatch. Really, I should be pitching this culturally distinct and elliptically defined material—exquisite in its sensitive regard for time and place—to the students who stay away, because it is perfect evidence that climate history is not mere activism. Meanwhile, my actual audience, the students who have trustingly signed on, keep wondering when we’re going to make the connection between drought at Jamestown and the failure of the Kyoto Protocol.  True, there probably is a connection, but it seems a ridiculously reductive arc to trace, if it’s the only thing that supposed to matter.

But I can’t just tell these lovely young folks that their interests and approach are wrong. They face too many intimations of doom. They’re frightened about climate change. They’re angry that they inherit a world routinely described in terms of the worst disaster movie ever. They either want to be part of the solution—now, now, now—or else they want to be able to designate experts to solve the problem: now, now, please now.

Consider the honorable truism: historians often come up with the questions they ask because of problems “now” but they are rightly reluctant to answer those questions only according to present-day criteria. This rule is productive of excellent intellectual discipline. And yet it seems, in the case of climate history, a disastrous abdication of responsibility. Policy is a necessarily sharp instrument whereas a good grasp of history is necessarily a vision of the messy and contingent. It’s a circle difficult to square.

I don’t have a big wonderful solution but I’ve developed at the very least an opening pitch to my students. I start with the good news: long life to you! If the average age of my students is roughly twenty, and if they will live to an average age of seventy-five (a conservative estimate), then they have fifty-five years of the future to navigate. That may seem blessing and curse, given how the young can’t imagine getting old (it only happens to older people), but also given the future they’re likely to face. True, they will need to tackle immediate problems relating to climate, so they should please take the kind of class that analyzes the Kyoto Protocol. That will help them with whatever looms in the 2010s and 2020s. But can anyone accurately predict the climate problems of the 2050s or 2060s? Models of what the physical planet will be like at that point are themselves indefinite, and the surrounding socio-political landscapes even more so.

For that reason, the indiscriminate inclusiveness of history can actually be helpful. Think of the past (I say to students) as a big warehouse or, if I’m really pandering (and why not?), as a Harry Potter “Room of Requirement.” It’s packed with everything useful for understanding humanity, containing, as it does, the precedents, achievements, false starts, and failures of the human race. You never know what you’ll need but it’s probably all there, stacked-up, crammed-in negative or positive examples of how humans have exploited, nurtured, fought against, transcended, or been defeated by the non-human parts of nature. I don’t think we know what a post-fossil fuel future will look like. Looking back at a pre-fossil fuel past, such as early American history offers us, may therefore be helpful, perhaps even critical in finding a way forward.

And now it’s your turn. Please comment, complain even, about what I’ve said here. Heaven knows, we need a bigger conversation on climate history, now, now, now.


Thanks, Dagomar! Your comments make me think that a compendium of climate history teaching materials and strategies would be valuable, not least in getting more early Americanists to teach about climate. Perhaps a #vastearlyamerica project, with Karin Wulf's blessing?
Joyce Chaplin  •  February 22, 2017
Thank you for this elegant and thought-provoking reflection on teaching climate history. We've run some articles on the topic at and, including this one: Many of my students at Georgetown also take climate history courses because they are worried about the future. I tell them that our field gives us three tools: baselines, parables, and (rarely) specific predictions. By reconstructing past climates, we develop baselines that help us understand the magnitude of, and causes for, present and future climate change. By connecting past climate changes to human histories, we craft stories that serve as parables for the warmer future. We gain the ability to say, for example, that some kinds of societies might be more or less vulnerable to climate change than others. Finally, we might follow Mark Carey's lead in suggesting that some local or regional projections of the future impacts of climate change do not fully take into account the social relationships that govern how environments are exploited for human use. In such cases, we can indeed develop predictions about how climate change will affect communities that are more accurate than those created purely by scientists. Above all, I think climate history helps students appreciate that impacts of climate changes - really, all environmental changes - on societies are always mediated by human arrangements and decisions. And of course, the past tells us that the future will not unfold according to the smoothly curving lines of climate change projections. The human story is less predictable than that. This may free some students from the sense of powerlessness that often paralyzes young people who care about climate change. Climate history can therefore play a powerful role in motivating students to action.
Dagomar Degroot  •  February 11, 2017
[…] Chaplin, “Climate History is the ‘Room of Requirement’” (Uncommon […]
What We’re Reading: Week of Feb. 16 | JHIBlog  •  February 21, 2015

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