Geoffrey Parker outlines his book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, and explores how the lessons learned from the global cooling in the seventeenth-century can be applied to the climate crisis today. You can also read the prologue of Global Crisis for free below.
Global Crisis sidesteps the current debate over the causes of global warming, and instead looks at the effects of the last world-wide catastrophe caused by climate change: global cooling in the 17th century. Why bother?
Because ‘Studying climate without considering the history of climate is like driving without a rearview mirror: it provides not just parables but also parallels about past climate change and its effects’ (Sam White, historian.) Moreover, since ‘there is no single template for anticipating and adjusting’ to weather-induced disasters, there is ‘no substitute for a good case history of successful practice’. We therefore ‘need to follow examples of successful anticipation’ and adjustment in the past ‘in order to offer the best set of learning experience for others to follow.’ (Tim O’Riordan and Tim Lenton, Earth scientists.)
- Global Crisis provides the best – and worst – examples from both northern and southern hemispheres of how to confront a climatic catastrophe the last time it happened.
- Global Crisis examines how a fatal synergy between climate change and human inflexibility eradicated one-third of the planet’s human population and unleashed an unparalleled spate of wars, invasions, and revolutions. Personal and scientific data alike show how extreme weather disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests, bringing hunger, malnutrition, forced migration, and disease, and later, as material conditions worsened, economic chaos, political anarchy, war, and social collapse.
- Global Crisis argues that only Japan “got it right”. Episodes of extreme weather that killed half a million people convinced shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu to create more public granaries, to upgrade communications infrastructure, to control migration, and to avoid wars in order to accumulate sufficient food reserves to cope with each new weather-induced disasters. Ieyasu also issued stringent laws to control food production and consumption (rice only for eating, never for saké); and he enforced them with draconian punishments (those caught hoarding grain were publicly executed.) Although extreme weather persisted, Japan enjoyed peace and prosperity under Ieyasu and his Tokugawa successors.
Humans probably played no part in causing climate change in the 17th century, but they still confronted, suffered and died from its primary effect: a 2ºC fall in global temperatures. They lived, as English poet John Milton wrote in 1660s, in a “universe of death.” The fact that today we face a 2ºC increase in global temperatures will not reduce the extreme weather events associated with changes of this magnitude or the adverse consequences for humanity.
Human beings never seem to prepare for natural disasters. Wars, pandemics, recessions and climate change always come as a surprise – or as something that happens only to other people. We prefer to live in a comfortable present than prepare for an uncertain future.
Historians have a duty to address this complacency and demonstrate that it is always better – and cheaper – to prepare than to repair. How much cheaper? In 2011, a study of the impact of climate change prepared for New York State, based on thirty years of empirical data, quantified the equation: ‘There is an approximate 4-to-1 benefit-to-cost ratio of investing in protective measures to keep losses from disaster low.” The study was published just eleven months before Superstorm Sandy struck.
The climate-induced global crisis of the 17th century killed tens of millions of people. A natural catastrophe of similar proportions today – whether or not humans are to blame – will kill billions. Our “universe of death” will also see dislocation and violence, and compromise international security and cooperation, but it will be an order of magnitude larger than the one witnessed by John Milton.
Unlike our ancestors who faced the challenges of climate change 350 years ago, however, we possess both the resources and the technology to mitigate the consequences through good policy and legislation. The consequences of inaction, in the 21st as in the 17th century, are intolerable yet the choice is simple: we can either pay to prepare now – or prepare to pay much more later.
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About the Book
An accessible synthesis of the prescient best seller exploring seventeenth-century catastrophe and the impact of climate change
First published in 2013, Geoffrey Parker’s prize-winning best seller Global Crisis analyzes the unprecedented calamities—revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, and regicides—that befell the mid-seventeenth-century world and wiped out as much as one-third of the global population, and reveals climate change to be the root cause.
Get 30% off selected Yale environmental books, including Global Crisis, until 30th November. View all the books on offer and claim your discount here.
We are also taking part in the COP26 virtual books showcase. You can read Strange Natures, A Better Planet, A World Without Soil and Adapting to Climate Change for free until 22nd November in our virtual reading room here.