“… who, by altering the surface of the earth has changed the course of the atmosphere and thence the influence of the seasons.” Antoine-Alexis Cadet de Vaux, “Observation sur la sécheresse actuelle, ses causes, et les moyens de prévenir la progression de ce fléau,” Moniteur Universel, 26 August 1800.
This quotation is from a paper by Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity published in Critical Inquiry in 2012. Locher and Fressoz make a valuable contribution by placing the current climate debate in historical perspective, and in this post I attempt to summarise their paper. I can only find a paywalled source, but quote rather extensively from the paper in my post. [Update 27 April 2013: Geoff Chambers points out an open access copy in French here
In their paper, Locher and Fressoz (henceforward L&F) argue that current scholars of climate have a too simplistic view of the past that emphasizes “our own excellence and reflexivity”. By reflexivity they mean, I think, the idea that humans can both affect and be affected by the climate. L&F say: “There is an assumption shared by most postmodern thinkers today that for about two generations we have been experiencing a complete transformation of our relationship with the environment. After three centuries of frenetic modernism, we entered, at last, an enlightened era of environmental awareness.”
L&F’s evidence against this view of recent environmental enlightenment is the highly politicised debate about human effects on both local and global climate that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly in France, but also in other European countries and further afield. They trace the rise and fall of this reflexive “climatic paradigm” during the past two to three centuries.
The Rise of the Climate Paradigm
L&F say “during the 17th century, climate acquired a certain pliability”. Climate was no longer seen simply as a function of the latitude of a country, as suggested by Ptolemy’s Geography, but subject to the “role of human actions in its improvement or deterioration”. The climate had the potential to improve the health of populations and the productivity of agriculture, and as Abbé Richard said in 1770, was “useful in the broad scheme of governing men”. Human actions were seen as generally beneficial – the temperate climate of Europe was attributed to agriculture, and it was hoped that settlement and cultivation would mitigate the harsh American climate and that of other countries.
Indeed in the nineteenth century a number of attempts at climate engineering were carried out in north Africa, particularly in Algeria by its French colonists, such as draining swamps and planting eucalyptus trees, in order to improve the climate and the health of the population. There was even a proposal to create an inland sea in Algeria by digging a canal to the Mediterranean.
But man’s actions were not necessarily beneficial. “In England for instance, it could be used to discuss the consequences of the enclosures. In 1806, the horticulturist John Williams explained that the rainy and cold summers that had been prevalent for the last thirty years were the result of an increased evaporating surface of the country that was in turn caused by the replacement of agriculture by more lucrative pasturage and the extensive lattice of hawthorn fences that had been planted for that purpose.” And an epidemic in the Dutch Mollucan Islands was blamed on the destruction of clove plants whose “aromatic particles purified the putrid air from a volcano”.
In France, deforestation became of climatic concern in the 1790s, especially in the wake of the revolution (1789-1799). “The peasants … who had supposedly chopped and pillaged the noble timber were blamed for every meteorological incident”. The quotation in the title of this post comes from the same period.
In the early nineteenth century, the concern became widespread. “After the Tambora volcanic eruption in April 1815 that released an enormous amount of dust in the atmosphere, Europe experienced a series of anomalous seasons and bad harvests. In consequence, learned societies in France, Britain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands fostered research on climate change pointing to the possibility of its anthropogenic origin.”
“In 1821, the French minister for the interior sent out a strange circular to all prefects placed under his authority: ‘Gentlemen, for the past number of years, France appears to have been increasingly subject to a marked cooling of the atmosphere, abrupt changes in the seasons and hurricanes, partially attributable to deforestation of our mountains and land clearing. . . . But these are not irremediable problems.’ The minister ordered his prefects to conduct a survey of climate modification in their départment.”
Climate effects were viewed as potentially global. François-Antoine Rauch, a French civil engineer active in the 1820s, studied the “natural economy of water” and the potentially catastrophic effects of deforestation on rainfall and river flow. His view was that “many phenomena, ranging from droughts, floods, and bad seasons in temperate zones to the abnormal growth of polar ice caps were caused by human tinkering with nature.” Charles Fourier, too, wrote in 1847 that there had been “a decline in the health of the planet” and that “we need to get away from civilization”.
Scientists were co-opted “to answer politically pressing questions about climate change” but found that their current knowledge was insufficient to provide information about past climates. This led to the first development of historical climatology, such as using the dates of grape harvests to reconstruct historical climates.
The Decline of “Climate Reflexivity”
So how did this “reflexivity” disappear, so that recent writers can point to a stable pre-industrial climate in which humans had an insignificant influence and which also had little influence on humanity? L&F point to several factors that overturned the reflexive climate paradigm.
First, L&F mention the discoveries of Pasteur, Darwin and Mendel which all gained ground in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and started to undermine the idea that climate is the main determinant of human health and fitness. The microbial origins of disease led to new ideas on how to improve the health of the population, and advances in plant breeding and the science of inheritance gave a new understanding to biological identity, largely independent of climate.
Second, developments in earth sciences led to a better understanding of the geological history of the earth. The concept of ice ages was first proposed in the 1820s by Ignace Ventez, a Swiss engineer, but was not fully accepted until the second half of the nineteenth century. The term “Holocene” was introduced at a conference in 1885, which placed humanity in a temperate interlude between ice ages. Man “now appeared to be trapped in immense cycles of geological time and caught up in climatic mechanisms so vast that they defeat any attempt to change this most basic element of man’s environment.” Geological and climatic changes were seen as occurring almost imperceptibly slowly, and the role of humanity was negligible.
Third, L&F point to “the birth of sociology and the marginalist revolution in economics”. They contrast the eighteenth century view that climate was aligned with characteristics of political regimes and morals with the new “social physics” of Auguste Comte who sought to dismiss the role of climate on human behaviour in favour of the “law of the three estates”. Similarly, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the concept of “the economy” was developed that was “almost independent of politics, natural constraints and climate”. Human social and economic behaviour were therefore no longer seen as dependent on the climate, any more than ice ages were determined by man’s actions.
Reemergence of Climate as a Political Issue
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists began to develop theories to explain the ebb and flow of ice ages. L&F point to two main theories: “an astronomical theory attributing ice ages to plurimillennial changes in the earth’s trajectory and an atmospheric theory pointing up natural changes in the earth’s gaseous layers and their impact on temperatures … John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, and Thomas Chamberlin had one sole objective in mind: to substantiate and illustrate the atmospheric theory of ice ages. In an oft-cited article, Arrhenius estimated that a doubling in concentration of CO2 would push the earth’s average temperature up by 5°C. But he was not worried about the impact of man’s actions on the climate. Rather, he was looking to understand the hot climates of the Tertiary period when elephants and rhinoceroses roamed as far as the poles”.
L&F also discuss the development of climate science in the mid-twentieth century: “Much of this research was rooted in the efforts of the United States, which was in the midst of the cold war and had decided to elevate knowledge of the earth’s physical environment (globe, oceans, and atmosphere) to a strategic objective. The planet needed to be mapped, sounded out, modeled, and controlled for the deployment of ballistic missiles and nuclear submarines, and climate change was taken particularly seriously due to its potential impact on the North Pole ice cap, the future battleground of World War Three. Scientists commissioned to predict the climate impact of a global nuclear conflict (the famous nuclear winter) also gained new knowledge of atmospheric mechanisms as well as a much better idea of the potential climatic effects of human actions.”
“If the first warnings of climate change addressed to the US government were issued as early as 1947, the question was not widely discussed until the last quarter of the century, when a consensus gradually developed in the scientific community concerning the human-induced component of climate change. The issue barged its way into both the political and media arena as one of the main challenges facing humanity. After a long period out in the cold, climate was once again the focus of environmental reflexivity, albeit in a very different form.”
L&F end their paper by suggesting that some current “post-modern” scholars misrepresent the past by assuming that environmental awareness emerged only recently: “all these grand philosophical narratives seem to take for granted that the climatic question is entering our political and cultural arenas for the first time.” L&F note that environmental destruction has occurred in the past “not as if nature counted for nothing but, on the contrary, has occurred in a world of longstanding climatic theories that have earmarked environmental objects as the very things that produce humankind.”
I found this paper very valuable in placing current concerns in historical context. Without labouring the parallels, Locher and Fressoz give examples of how scientists were brought in on both sides of political debates, whether or not their scientific knowledge was sufficiently developed to contribute to policy decisions. I end with a final quotation from the paper: “when a deputy submitted draft legislation proposing to scrap the government authorization [for land clearance] the astronomer François Arago improvised a reply describing the catastrophic consequences of land clearance that included cooling of the atmosphere, hailstones, flooding, and so on. He added, ‘I do not claim this to be certain, but I do say that it is possible and that a serious examination is warranted’.”