According to the most recent summary for policymakers published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts” by exacerbating the socially destabilizing influence of poverty and economic shocks. While the IPCC attaches “medium confidence” to this claim, it is hardly controversial. Similar conclusions were made in the IPCC’s 2007 assessment reports. Since then, several studies have established that warfare is correlated to climatic stress, although their methods ignore social and cultural contexts. Many of the world’s most advanced militaries are now at the forefront of state adaptation to global warming. The American military, for example, is not only curbing its greenhouse emissions, but is also actively preparing for conflict stimulated by future climate change.
But how is the conduct of war – not just its origins – actually influenced by climate change? In the latest issue of the journal Environment and History, I published an article that explores this question. In the seventeenth century, three wars between England and the Dutch Republic – then the leading maritime powers of their day – were fought during the onset of an especially chilly stretch of the Little Ice Age in Europe. In my article, I argue that the weather that accompanied the coming of this “Maunder Minimum” affected military operations during the wars in complex and often counter-intuitive ways.
The First Anglo-Dutch War, contested between 1652 and 1654, actually preceded the cooling of the Maunder Minimum. I used ship logbooks, correspondence, intelligence reports, and diary entries written during the war to demonstrate that frequent westerly winds can be associated with warmer temperatures during the early 1650s. That usually allowed English fleets sailing from the west to claim the “weather gage,” the windward position from the enemy that, in naval combat, granted initiative in attack and, occasionally, retreat.
The English navy had developed revolutionary tactics in which ships of great size would bombard enemy hulls while sailing past them in line formation. By contrast, Dutch tactics still mandated grappling, boarding, and firing at enemy rigging (ironic, since a Dutch admiral had first debuted “line of battle” tactics some 15 years earlier). English tactics required favourable winds, and English fleets got them in the first Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch Republic was rich enough to survive several naval reversals, and its shipyards productive enough to stave off defeat. However, on the balance the First Anglo-Dutch War was far more costly for the Dutch than it was for the English.
Human and environmental structures had shifted by the onset of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1664. Seasonal temperatures were more variable but generally cooler, storms had become more frequent and more severe, and easterly winds had grown more common. Meanwhile, the Dutch had adopted many of the most effective elements of the English naval system. Dutch fleets sailing to battle from the east now did so with the weather gage, and they were often victorious. Moreover, because English vessels had three tiers of guns while the Dutch only had two, many English guns were located near the water, and had to be retracted in high winds that were more common in a cooler climate. Easterly winds also allowed the Dutch fleet to raid up the Medway River in 1667, forcing the English crown into a peace that clearly benefitted the Dutch.
In the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the climate of the Maunder Minimum manifested in weather that was defined less by easterly winds than incessant storminess. This time, the Dutch Republic was invaded by French and German armies while besieged at sea by a united Anglo-French fleet. However, in the summer of 1672 relentless gales kept the allied fleet from supporting a naval invasion, just as the Dutch fleet was partially disbanded so its soldiers and artillery could defend against invasion on land. Thereafter, Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter conducted a remarkably successful guerrilla campaign, aided by frequent easterly winds. The Dutch Republic survived its greatest crisis of the seventeenth century, and England signed another concessionary peace in 1674.
So, what does this seventeenth-century story tell us about war and climate change today?
First, it demonstrates again that climate change is mediated by human decisions, institutions, and cultures. The Dutch Admiralties might not have prevailed in the second and third wars had they not learned from the success of the English, who might have won the third war were it not for the leadership of De Ruyter. Second, the article reveals that military operations are influenced by short-term weather, which is often but certainly not inevitably affected by long-term climate change. The distinction is important, because the weather that most influences a battle can actually be an exception to the climatic trend.
Ultimately, far more studies are required that explore not only how climate change contributes to the cause of war, but also how it shapes wars once they begin.
Note: this article is a greatly condensed version of dissertation chapters that also examine how climate influenced weather that affected shipbuilding, marine intelligence networks, privateering, and warfare on land during the Anglo-Dutch Wars.
Dagomar Degroot, “‘Never such weather known in these seas:’ Climatic Fluctuations and the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century, 1652–1674.” Environment and History 20:2 (May 2014): 239-273.
United States Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report. February 2010.