This site explores interdisciplinary research into climate changes past, present, and future. Its articles express my conviction that diverse approaches, methodologies, and findings can yield the most accurate perspectives on complex problems. To contextualize modern warming, for example, we can reconstruct past climate change using models developed by computer scientists; tree rings or ice cores examined by climatologists; and documents interpreted by historians. We gain far more by using these sources in concert than we would by examining each in isolation. Yet we must approach such interdisciplinarity with caution. The problems presented by climate change scepticism provide lessons for academics crossing disciplinary boundaries, and for policymakers, journalists, and laypeople interpreting interdisciplinary findings.
In academia, climate change scepticism is usually interdisciplinary. To attack climate change research, academic sceptics use credibility and, occasionally, scholarly methods accrued in relevant disciplines but often unrelated fields. For example, in the late 1980s and 1990s, eminent physicists William Nierenberg and Fred Seitz were among the most outspoken critics of the global warming hypothesis. According to historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the scepticism expressed by Nierenberg and Seitz grew, in part, from their belief that the ends of supporting unfettered capitalism justified the means of deliberately distorting scientific evidence (Oreskes and Conway, 190). However, another part – perhaps the most damaging – emerged from the conviction that their disciplinary backgrounds gave them special insight into climate change research
Physicists – including one of our own editors – play a crucial role in modelling and interpreting climate change. Yet not all physicists are alike. Nierenberg was a renowned nuclear physicist who oversaw the development of military and industrial technologies for exploiting the sea. Seitz developed one of the first quantum theories of crystals, and contributed to major innovations in solid-state physics. Owing to their similar academic backgrounds, both Nierenberg and Seitz distrusted the lack of certainty in climate modelling, and both would have despised the occasionally fuzzy probabilities that must accompany climate history. Their scepticism effectively takes the most tenuous elements of climate science and argues that they are not science, because “real scientists” know better.
These attitudes highlight one of the most important but least appreciated aspects of interdisciplinary research: humility. When we step into another field, we step into another culture with characteristics that often have sound reasons for existing. Before challenging assumptions that inform a discipline, we should thoroughly learn the language, methods, and concepts of scholars in that discipline. Only then can we appreciate their findings.
Climate scepticism can also reveal that differences between subfields within academic disciplines can be more significant than distinctions between those disciplines. An environmental historian, for instance, can have much more in common with a climatologist than a postmodern cultural historian. Another example: Fred Singer is an atmospheric physicist who played an important role in developing the first weather satellites. However, he has little respect for the methods or conclusions of mainstream climate research.
In 2006, Singer told the CBC’s The Fifth Estate that “it was warmer a thousand years ago than it is today. Vikings settled Greenland. Is that good or bad? I think it's good.” In an interview with The Daily Telegraph three years later, he acknowledged that “we are certainly putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” However, he argued that “there is no evidence that this high CO2 is making a detectable difference. It should in principle, however the atmosphere is very complicated and one cannot simply argue that just because CO2 is a greenhouse gas it causes warming.”
Vikings did settle in Greenland, and the atmosphere is very complicated. However, global temperatures are warmer now than they were a millennium ago, and we can certainly trace relationships between modern warming and atmospheric concentrations of CO2. Singer may be an atmospheric physicist, but he is hardly qualified to offer any observations on the state of climate change research.
Distinctions between different kinds of scientists – and different agendas among scientists – are always worth remembering when exploring the study of climate change. In a recent article, the popular website Reporting Climate Science described a disagreement between physical oceanographer Jochem Marotzke and meteorologist Piers Forster on the one hand, and “climate scientist” Nic Lewis on the other. Marotzke and Forster recently published an article in the journal Nature that confirmed the reliability of climate models for predicting climate change. Lewis accused them of circular reasoning and basic mathematical and statistical errors.
Lewis is, in fact, a retired financier with a degree in mathematics, and a minor in physics, from Cambridge University. Does that make him a climate scientist? He is certainly qualified to challenge mathematical approaches, and he does not deny the basic physics of anthropogenic climate change. For policymakers, journalists, and even scholars in different disciplines, it can be difficult to discern with what authority he speaks.
Similar problems are at work in another recent academic debate. This one unfolded in the pages of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. As described on this website, two economists took issue with the notion of a “Little Ice Age” between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. They waded into an established field – climate history – and assailed one of its most important themes – the existence of a Little Ice Age – without appreciating the methods and findings of recent scholarship.
For example, they used a graph of early modern British grain prices as a direct proxy for contemporary changes in temperature. But those grain prices were influenced by so many human variables that, for modern scholars, they can, at best, suggest only how one society responded to climate change. While attacking the rigour of climate reconstructions, the economists actually introduced data that is far less rigorous than climate historians use today.
Within academia, most instances of climate change scepticism are case studies of interdisciplinary approaches gone wrong. Interdisciplinarity can help us approach thorny issues in new ways, but such work should be collaborative. When adherents of one discipline or field dictate to those in another, the results are usually destructive.
Note: the cover photo was taken by our editor, Benoit Lecavalier, during a recent trip to Greenland.
Last month, world leaders met at UN Headquarters in New York City for Climate Summit 2014. As protests raged across the globe, diplomats established the framework for a major climate change agreement next year. The aim will be to limit anthropogenic warming to no more than 2 °C, a threshold established by scientists and policymakers, beyond which climate change is increasingly dangerous and unpredictable.
Just days after the 2014 summit, policy expert David Victor and influential astrophysicist Charles Kennel published an article in Nature that called on governments to “ditch the 2 °C warming goal.” Kennel and Victor argue that the rise in average global temperatures has stalled since 1998, as warming is increasingly absorbed by the world’s oceans. Variations in global temperature therefore do not directly reflect climate change, and governments should adopt other benchmarks for action. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, they contend, more accurately reveal the relentless advance of climate change. In any case, limiting the rise in global temperatures to just 2 °C would impose unrealistic costs on national economies.
Not surprisingly, responses to Victor and Kennel have been swift and comprehensive. For example, physicist and oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf argues that short-term temperature variability does not undermine the case for a 2 °C limit, especially when there is little evidence for a “pause” in global warming. He explains how scientists and policymakers selected the limit, and cites studies synthesized by the IPCC, which conclude that holding the rise in planetary temperatures to 2 °C would cost no more than 0.06% of the world’s annual GDP. Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, claims that Victor and Kennel have confused the roles that should be pursued by scientists in international climate change negotiations. Like Rahmstorf, he maintains that the 2 °C limit is neither misplaced nor unachievable. As a climate change advisor to the British government, he explains that, “the UK, almost overnight, conjured up over £350b to bail out the banks and stimulate the economy – but it has earmarked just £3.8b for its Green investment bank!” Physicist Joe Romm argues that a new study, which finds that scientists may have underestimated the extent of global warming, only strengthens the case for a 2 °C limit. To their credit, Victor and Kennel wrote a lengthy response in the New York Times to these and other critiques.
Missing from this debate are perspectives from those who study the past: the ways in which natural climate change has actually influenced human history. This is unfortunate, because historical relationships between climate and society can yield important insights on the usefulness of a 2 °C limit.
Take, for example, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans entered the Arctic and Subarctic as never before. Journeys of exploration gradually transformed scholarly understandings of the Far North and shaped popular attitudes towards nature and empire. They paved the way for new settlements and laid the groundwork for the exploitation of marine resources that would alter European diets, stimulate the continent’s northern economies, and transform Arctic environments. All this during an early modern “Little Ice Age” that cooled temperatures across the Arctic and Subarctic by at least 0.5 °C, relative to the twentieth-century norm.
This apparent paradox is a focus of my recent research. I have learned that it can be tempting to assume that global cooling or warming will have straightforward impacts at the regional or local level, but such assumptions are often wrong. It often feels as though climate history is the study of bewildering, sometimes infuriating complexity. I frequently find myself using eclectic sources to trace, for example, how changes in solar radiation altered global temperatures, regional cyclonic activity, a series of storms above a town, damage sustained in that town, and how people understood what was going on. This is a part of what makes climate historians so useful to the broader historical discipline: we are always coming up with new ways of understanding how the local reflects the global, of discerning how – and why - things change over time.
Lately, I have used cutting-edge scientific data to reinterpret journals written by Arctic and Subarctic explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I discovered that some expeditions to the Far North benefitted from unusually warm ocean currents and hot summers that actually reflected counter-intuitive links between local environments and the globally cool Little Ice Age.
I have also started to investigate the seventeenth-century rise of the Dutch and English whaling industry around the island of Spitsbergen in the seas north of Norway. It might seem obvious that Arctic whaling expeditions would suffer in colder decades, and indeed the pack ice between Spitsbergen and Greenland would expand as regional temperatures cooled. However, at the same time bowhead whales prized by hunters would congregate near the pack ice, which made them much easier to hunt. The whaling industry therefore enjoyed its best years during the coldest phases of the Little Ice Age.
In other words, my research has revealed that when our focus is strictly on warming or cooling trends, we can lose sight of how climatic shifts actually affect people.
Still, interdisciplinary scholars of past climates trace climate change by reconstructing variations in average temperature. We classify our climatic past according to these swings in average temperature, and how they influenced the advance and retreat of glaciers. Hence our (little) ice ages and warm periods, our minima, maxima, and anomalies. Archeologists, historians, and scientists of many stripes then investigate how humans and animals responded to particularly warm or cold periods. Of course, many continue to dig deeper, considering diverse weather patterns and reaching sometimes-surprising conclusions. Nevertheless, our initial focus on average temperatures usually shapes the kinds of questions we can ask.
Does that mean we miss the mark? Should we stop assuming that climate change and average temperature change are one and the same?
Perhaps not. In reconstructing past climates, scholars of past climates often find that while changes in average temperature do not tell the whole story, they can and should tell us where to start looking. Average temperatures are closely linked to changes in the solar energy earth receives and absorbs, which ultimately drives the environmental changes that reflect climate change. Shifts in regional precipitation, wind dynamics, or ice cover therefore usually respond to shifts in average regional temperature, which are closely correlated to fluctuations in average global temperature.
In that light, the 2 °C limit makes a lot of sense. A focus on average temperature might miss some of the complexity of climate change and its possible ramifications for our future, but changes in temperature are closely linked to the kinds of environmental conditions that Victor and Kennel would rather track separately.
Moreover, nuance is less important in climate change mitigation than it is for climate change adaptation. Greenhouse gas emissions need to decrease because temperatures can only increase so much before they imperil our civilization. The mechanisms and technologies for limiting emissions exist today; now is the time to implement them, rather than adjust our acceptable thresholds.
After all, the human history of past climate change also provides a warning. During the Little Ice Age, a moderate decline in average temperatures profoundly and often disastrously affected societies around the world. What will unprecedented warming do to us?
In order to keep global warming below 2° C, there is desperate need for urgency in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. However, national and international policymakers have yet to take action on the scale that would prevent catastrophe. In the most recent issue of Nature Climate Change, Cambridge University geographer David Christian Rose explains why even the governments that have publicly acknowledged the threat of climate change have been so slow to address it. He then introduces practical ways for researchers to communicate more effectively to policymakers.
Most scholars understandably assume that policy should respond to the weight of evidence. To them, influencing policy is simply a matter of articulating abundant evidence with clarity. However, Rose argues that evidence derived from “scientific rationality” is just one factor among the many that influence policy. Rose draws on principles developed by political scientist John Kingdon, who holds that even ideas backed by the best scientific evidence do not become policy unless they fit prevailing political conditions.
To Rose, nothing is more misguided than the continued focus on producing better evidence, undertaken most famously by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Increasing the certainly of anthropogenic change from 90% (in the IPCC’s fourth report), to 95% (in its fifth), does not account for the ways in which policy is actually formulated.
Rose argues that, in climate change negotiations, progress is rarely impeded by a lack of sufficiently reliable evidence. Instead, Rose claims that talks break down because of questions such as: “Who wins? Who loses? Who decides?” Scientists and other scholars should therefore figure out how their evidence can be presented to policymakers in ways that give it maximum leverage alongside other influences.
Scientists and other climate researchers have a tendency to advertise the peril of inaction. Their frequently apocalyptic narratives are both evidence-based, and intended to galvanize policymakers and the public into action. However, Rose finds that telling “good news stories” can be much more effective, because policy is rarely agreed upon without concrete evidence that it will work. By better communicating these stories, academics and activists alike can demonstrate that adaptation is both possible, and applicable in policy.
Finally, Rose argues that climate change policy recommendations presented by scientists should be attached to issues that are political winners. As an example, he explains that European researchers campaigning against the trade in wild birds were only able to influence policy when they tied the issue to the spread of bird flu. Given the other political influences faced by policymakers, animal welfare was a political non-starter, but public health was not.
Ultimately, the guidelines presented by Rose will strike many academics as cynical recommendations that threaten to turn scientists into lobbyists. Academics, they might claim, should have an unimpeachable voice precisely because they do not employ the tactics used, for example, by big oil lobbyists. Some activists may hold that the inability of political systems to respond directly to evidence is, if left unaltered, a long-term threat to meaningful environmentalism.
However, we do not live in a world where these lofty ideals can always yield practical, short-term solutions of the kind necessary to mitigate, and adapt to, global warming. Rose therefore presents a convincing case: if researchers want policymakers to take action, they should start thinking like policymakers.
David Christian Rose, "Five ways to enhance the impact of climate science." Nature Climate CHange 4 (2014): 522-524.
In 2012 the Canadian government infamously announced changes to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) that made it much harder for researchers to access their country’s documentary heritage. The LAC’s mandate was transformed: rather than acquiring and maintaining a “comprehensive” collection, it now aimed merely to gather a “representative” assembly of Canadian documents. Funding was slashed, employees were laid off, new acquisitions were paused, documents were sold to private bidders, and resources were decentralized across Canada.
In the last month, interviews with scientists by The Tyee have revealed how the conservative regime’s attitude towards the environment meant that environmental archives suffered the most. Government scientists, who have asked to remain anonymous, report that the chaotic closure of world-class environmental libraries resulted in the destruction of priceless documents relevant to environmental and climate history. The same scientists allege that the government falsely assured that all documents were preserved through digitalization.
"The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda,” one scientist told The Tyee. “No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions."
The rich resources for environmental research at the St. Andrews Biological Station in New Brunswick are gone, as is the Freshwater Institute Library in Winnipeg, and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in Newfoundland. At a time when historical climatology has increasingly turned to ship logbooks, the 50-volume logbook of the HMS Challenger has been destroyed. In 1876 the Challenger completed the first global marine research expedition, and its logbooks contain priceless data about the contemporary biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere. A copy of its logbooks exists outside of Canada, but it is less accessible for Canadian researchers.
The attack on environmental and, in particular, climate history by Canada’s Harper government demonstrates yet again that scientific or historical research into the environment is inherently political. Sadly, Canadian researchers cannot take even their archives for granted. We must do our best to digitalize what we can, ourselves, before it is lost forever.
Note: in coming years, digitalized sources relevant to climate history will appear on this website, where permission is granted.
1. Save Library and Archives Canada.
2. Canadian libricide: Tories torch and dump centuries of priceless, irreplaceable environmental archives.
3. Fisheries and Oceans Library closings called loss to science.