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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 04, 2015

The politics of climate history

WMQ 8 min read

by Anya Zilberstein—

Like most anything to do with climate these days, climate history is the target of controversy and polemics.

A particular community of earnest climate change skeptics sometimes appeals to the historical climatology of the Atlantic world to make their case that global climate change is a process of natural, cyclical variability far beyond humanity’s reach. The Little Ice Age, as scientific studies of ice cores and tree rings convincingly show, was real. But the unprecedented, possibly irreversible effects of greenhouse gas emissions on glaciers and rising surface temperatures, they aver, are figments of an alarmist imagination, the product of an unconscionable politicization of science.

Among these doubters are a few who recently became intrigued—as I did, for different reasons—by early nineteenth-century letters exchanged between whaling captain William Scoresby and Royal Society President Joseph Banks, which they found through online searches.

In 1816 and 1817, Scoresby publicized reports of rising sea temperatures and unusually big ice floes in the North Atlantic. These reports prompted Banks and the Royal Navy to revive British efforts to stake claim to the coasts of an ostensibly ice-free Arctic Sea. Soon the polar thaw ended. But, in the meantime, Britain continued to sponsor often fatal expeditions to the North American Arctic.

Bloggers interpret Banks’s brazen willingness to act in response to current knowledge on behalf of national interests as an allegory for the contemporary hazards of climate change policy, especially in light of what denialists allege is a corrupt entanglement between government funding agencies and scientific researchers.

When I got snagged in this online thread while researching my article for the William & Mary Quarterly’s January forum on climate history, my first impression was that it was a supremely ironic misuse of a historical document taken out of context, a demonstration of the importance of the history of science, especially in the Age of the Internet and the Anthropocene, when rapid exchange of information in the blogosphere coexists with the global acceleration of environmental change.

Banks scholars know that he not only never endorsed anthropogenic changes to the climate—as did so many early Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—he was a belated, reluctant, and never entirely convinced adopter of theories about climatic variability due to physical causes.

Moreover, as a practicing naturalist and, at the same time, the most important scientific patron of his time, Banks understood perhaps better than anyone else, the dynamic, messy relationship between science and government. Understanding the older politics of science in which he was enmeshed can illuminate the ineluctable partiality and social mediation of scientific knowledge, perhaps helping us get past the impasse of the current debate.

The Scoresby-Banks episode briefly converged with the imperial history of wild rice, important pieces of which I also located through online searches. I first found references to wild rice and its transatlantic travels in manuscript collections of Banks’s correspondence with early Americans at the British Museum of Natural History, Kew Botanical Gardens, Massachusetts Historical Society, and Harvard University Archives. Originally I thought I would simply add another vignette about an obscure (because failed) novelty to the now-overflowing cart of Atlantic world histories about edible commodities like white rice, sugar, chocolate, cod, potatoes, and Madeira.

I was astonished to find that Banks’s interest in wild rice was partly a result of his engagement with transatlantic debates about climate change. My discovery of this connection probably would have been impossible without the serendipity and speedy cross-referencing enabled by access to powerful search engines and digital database collections of historical print sources. But it was a genuinely surprising discovery only because I presumed—as did most historians—that Banks took climate to be an unchanging feature of the natural world. While I saw no evidence that he endorsed anthropogenic climate change, I learned that Banks’s experiments with wild rice pointed to his experience of unusual seasonal patterns and a dawning if hesitant recognition that such variability might portend permanent changes—the culmination of which was his keen interest during the last years of his life in the political and economic implications of glacial retreat.

These are just two historical examples among many others of the centrality of climate to policy-making in the British Empire. Arctic exploration was largely a scramble for control of resources, whereas wild rice experiments offered a way to adapt to environmental and economic uncertainty. Though both ventures failed—albeit with vastly different stakes—it’s significant that they were responses by scientists and powerful officials to what they perceived, based on the best evidence at the time, as climatic instability. It shows that thinking about natural history and human history together was pervasive before the modern period. Long before the professionalization of the sciences or the development of ever more sensitive instruments, naturalists articulated a variety of theories to account for perceptible transformations in the weather and climate.

It should be thoroughly unsurprising if few to none of these theories that proved persuasive in the remote past remain durable into the present. Whether or not the ideas underlying their decisions were correct in hindsight—that is, whether or not experts now consider Enlightenment science to be bad science—should not really matter for reflecting on the relevance of this history to contemporary problems.

So why study the history of climate science? The past might usefully prefigure the present or offer us a set of comparative concepts and case studies. Maybe most importantly, it points to the limitations of contemporary public controversy. In earlier periods at least, people accepted that knowledge about the complex causes and consequences of environmental change, including climate change, was necessarily provisional and unavoidably mediated by political, economic, and ethical concerns.

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