Introduced by Professor Dagomar Degroot.
This semester, I taught a course about the environmental history of climate change. My students were a diverse and passionate group. None were history or science majors, and two were foreign exchange students. I challenged them with a difficult essay assignment that encouraged them to think like a professor of environmental history. This is a condensed version of the assignment instructions:
"Choose a topic relevant to the history of climate change. Be as creative as possible! Next, hunt for primary and secondary sources that will let you write an essay about your topic. You can also search through Georgetown’s libraries, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other resources in Washington, DC. Your secondary sources should include at least six books, where one book is equivalent to two articles. A scholar who is not a historian must have written at least two of your books (or four of your articles).
"If I approve your topic and sources, write an original, 15-page environmental history of climate change. Primary sources should be central to your thesis, but your interpretation of these sources, and your investigation of their context, should be supported by secondary sources. Be sure to contextualize your thesis in light of the arguments raised in your secondary sources (we will discuss how to do this in class).
"Write a one-paragraph, single-spaced abstract of your essay. With your permission, I will post your abstracts on HistoricalClimatology.com. You will be able to browse one another’s abstracts, and people from around the world will learn about climate history through your research."
My students responded with some wonderfully creative and sophisticated essays. Here are some of their abstracts:
Three Years of Arctic Hell: Europe, Climate and War, 1939-1942
Between 1939 and 1942, a global climatic disruption occurred, bringing extreme weather conditions to much of the world. The disruption signaled a transition from the warmer climate of the early 20th century to the cooler climate of the mid 20th century. In Europe, the climatic disruption had particularly acute impacts because of the ongoing influence of World War II. Using speeches, newspaper reports, and diaries, I show how the weather caused by the climate disruption altered conventional battle plans of states and changed the psychologies of soldiers fighting on the battlefield. Developing an understanding of climatic disruptions is particularly important because human activities are increasingly contributing to abrupt climate changes.
The Effects of Climate Change on Social Instability Through the Lens of the Syrian Civil War
It is important to consider not only how to end the war, but how to prevent wars like it in the future. As a result, observing the big picture of the crisis can allow many of the aforementioned issues with the Syrian regime to be prevented. It is important that governments across the world note the potential effects that climate change may have on the instability of a country. As leaders gather across the world to discuss how to save the planet from rising sea levels and warming temperatures, they should also note the potential to save thousands of lives from conflict between nations or within nations regarding scarce resources. If governments were able to coalesce around means to limit climate change, countries could see the results across all sectors, politically, economically, and ecologically.
Climate Change, its Influence on Agriculture, and the Course of Irish History in the 18th and 19th Century
Climate change played a significant role in changing Ireland’s agriculture in the 18th and 19th century. I examine W. Bence Jones’s first-hand journal written for the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1873. He describes the climate and agriculture of Ireland, and how the agriculture has changed over time with the weather. Then, by looking at three major famines of Ireland, I assess how climate change indirectly influences political, social, and religious aspects of Ireland through its impact on agriculture.
Climate Causes Crisis: How Syrian Refugees are Environmental Refugees and Why They Should Be Protected As Such
The crisis in Syria can best be explained as a complex combination of many factors, all of which ultimately tie to a changing climate in the Fertile Crescent. One of the worst droughts to ever hit the region resulted in a water shortage, which created conflict over resources, compounded social stressors and diminished the state’s ability to react to the situation. Together, these factors encouraged millions of Syrians to flee the violence that ensued. I will argue that because this mass migration was ultimately caused by climatic forces, the Syrian migrants should be labelled as environmental refugees, and the United Nations should recognize them as such. Only then will we be able to care for the millions more who will be displaced due to climate change in the near future.
Main Contributors to Low-Lying Island Migrants
Climate changes in the last several decades have mostly been attributed to anthropogenic green house gas emissions. These climactic changes go far beyond an increase in temperature, creating hostile conditions for people around the world and forcing them to leave their homes as climate migrants. For low-lying islands, particularly the near the Pacific Ocean, the threat of their submergence because of climate-related rising sea-levels is increasingly popularized in many media outlets. While inundation and erosion that lead to the disappearance of islands should not be disregarded, they are not the major threat. Through several first-hand accounts of the deteriorating conditions in low-lying islands, its is obvious that the lack of food, water, and other adverse socio-economic conditions exacerbated by climate change, are presenting the biggest threat for climate migrants.
Analyzing the Effects of Drought on the Early Settlers of the The Parched Colony: Jamestown Colony, 1607-1611
The extreme drought conditions in early-17th century Jamestown revealed by both dendrochronological analysis and oyster shell composition analysis was the underlying factor which caused malnutrition, disease and strained Anglo-Indian trade relations among the early English settlers of the Chesapeake Bay region between 1607 and 1611. These three ramifications were exacerbated or perhaps even caused by the drought, and ultimately gave rise to the monumentally high mortality rate (50%+ in the first 5 years) experienced by the early Jamestown settlers. Historical accounts written by the settlers themselves, namely John Smith and George Percy, will be used to corroborate scientific evidence, with both sources indicating an adverse and inhospitable Virginia climate. Though determining any one cause of death in such a deadly environment like Jamestown, with such a myriad of potentially lethal factors, drought will be shown as the main climate “sickness” whose symptoms ultimately killed most of the early Virginia settlers.
The Fifth Column: the Role of Climate Change in the American Civil War
The American Civil War is traditionally conceived as a political and military conflict between two competing visions of governance in the United States. This view, while compelling, ignores the role of climate-driven stressors on the outbreak and outcome of the war and produces an incomplete account of one the United States’ most important historical episodes. This paper combines firsthand accounts of participants in the conflict, most notably recollections of Union and Confederate officers, and modern studies of Civil War environmental history to correct this mistake. Moderate fluctuations in the Earth’s climate resulted in myriad unpredictable weather patterns that exacerbated underlying political tensions, driving the country towards war, and even altered the day-to-day planning of officials on both sides by altering the terrain, access to supplies, and exposure to deadly diseases.
Settling the Dust: Effects of Precipitation Cycles on the American Civil War
Historians have often neglected to take into account the importance of weather and climate patterns on historical events. This paper argues that unusually high levels of precipitation in the winter and spring, recorded by an amateur meteorologist named Reverend C. B. Mackee, played a significant role in the outcomes of three major military expeditions during the American Civil War. In order to determine whether these high levels of precipitation were an anomaly or a reflection of a larger climate pattern, data collected from tree rings is also referenced. These data provide information about largerscale climatic patterns in the eastern United States for the past 1,000 years. The essay explores the effects of precipitation on Union General Ambrose E. Burnside’s infamous “Mud March” in 1862 and Confederate General T. J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s march on Romney in 1862 and his march on Chancellorsville in 1863.
Climate Change and the Qing Dynasty: The Paradox of the Yellow River
While climate change was not the only influence of historic changes in China, historians must start to analyze its large impact on the development of Chinese history. This paper studies the impact of climate change on the agricultural society of the Qing Dynasty. I use "Memorandum relative to the Improvement of the Hwang-ho or Yellow River in North-China” published by the Royal Dutch engineer J. G. W. Fijnje van Salverda in 1891 to demonstrate the significance of the Yellow River to Chinese civilization. I use this geographic landmark as a foundation from which to evaluate aspects of climate change, including floods and droughts that created the need for water management practices. Temperature fluctuations during the era had significant economic, social, and political impacts on Chinese society, leading to social instability and influencing the formation of the dynastic cycle theory. Finally, I explore the implications of anthropogenic environmental change from the case study of the legend of Yu the Great to premodern China.
Find out how scholars in diverse disciplines are studying past climate changes.