The Coming Climate Crisis

The Little Ice Age could offer a glimpse of our tumultuous future.

Firefighters try to control a blaze as it spreads toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston in California on July 31, 2018. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters try to control a blaze as it spreads toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston in California on July 31, 2018. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters try to control a blaze as it spreads toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston in California on July 31, 2018. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last couple of decades, as the impact of global warming has intensified, the discussion of climate change has spilled out of the scientific and technocratic circles within which it was long confined. Today, the subject has also become an important concern in the humanities and arts.

Discussions of climate tend to focus on the future. Yet even scientific projections depend crucially on the study of the past: Proxy data, such as tree rings, pollen deposits, and ice cores, have proved indispensable for the modeling of the future impact of climate change. Based on evidence of this kind, scientists can tell us a great deal about how trees, glaciers, and sea levels will respond to rising temperatures.

But what about the political and social impact of global warming? What effects might a major shift in climate have on governments, public institutions, warfare, and belief systems? For answers to these questions, we have to turn to history (keeping in mind that historical inferences are necessarily impressionistic).

Of course, there has never been anything directly comparable to the current cycle of human-induced global warming. But there have been several periods, now intensely studied by historians, during which climate has drastically shifted, either locally or globally.

Perhaps the most intensively researched of these periods is the Little Ice Age, which reached its peak between the late 15th and early 18th centuries. This early modern era is of particular interest because some of the most important geopolitical processes of our own time trace back to it. This was the period, for example, when the first stages of globalization were inaugurated. It was also in this period that great-power conflicts began to be conducted on a global scale. The struggles for supremacy among the Spanish, Dutch, and British that unfolded during the Little Ice Age were thus the precursors of the strategic rivalries of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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During part of the Little Ice Age, decreased solar irradiance and increased seismic activity resulted in temperatures that, as Geoffrey Parker writes in Global Crisis, a groundbreaking global history of the period, were “more than 1 [degree Celsius] cooler than those of the later twentieth century.”

The current cycle of human-induced global warming is likely to lead to a much greater climatic shift than that of the Little Ice Age. What is striking then is the sheer magnitude of the ecological, social, and political upheavals of the era.

Droughts struck many parts of the world—including Mexico, Chile, the Mediterranean Sea basin, west and central Africa, India, China, and Indonesia—frequently bringing famine in their wake. These disasters were often accompanied by mass uprisings, rebellions, and war. England endured the greatest internal upheaval in its history, Europe was convulsed by the Thirty Years’ War, and China was torn by decades of strife following the overthrow of the Ming dynasty. Ottoman Turkey, Mughal India, and the Russian and Spanish empires were all shaken by rebellions. And from England to China, millenarian sects sprang up, seized by visions of apocalypse.

Parker estimates that in the 17th century “more wars took place around the world than in any other era.” So terrible was the devastation that contemporary observers around the world produced similar records of famine, plague, and death. One French abbess, for example, believed that the global population declined by a third.

But some states still thrived, most notably the Dutch Republic, which became the world’s preeminent naval and financial power. According to Dagomar Degroot, the author of The Frigid Golden Age, the Dutch owed their success in no small part to their flexibility in adapting to the changed environmental conditions of the period. Moreover, the Dutch status as an emergent power gave them an advantage in relation to the Spanish empire, which was weighed down by its size and historical legacy.

What lessons can be drawn from this history for our own time?

The first is that the sensitivity of human societies to climatic factors may exceed all expectations. The sensitivity of human societies to climatic factors may exceed all expectations.Climate-related conflicts and displacements are already changing the political complexion of many of the world’s most important countries, most notably in Europe. Ten years ago, few would have predicted the extent to which immigration would become the spark for political upheavals across Europe and the Americas.

Second, the history of the Little Ice Age suggests that, apart from catalyzing all manner of political and economic crises, a major climatic shift would also affect the global order, favoring those who are best able to adapt to changing conditions. Whether these conditions favor emergent powers will depend on the degree to which the status quo powers of our time are impeded by their historical legacy, as the Spanish empire was.

In this way, the legacies of the carbon economy may themselves prove to be major impediments. Fossil fuels are much more than mere sources of energy; they have also engendered a wide array of cultural and social practices. Fossil fuel use has shaped the physical, cultural, and imaginative landscapes of the United States, Canada, and Australia to such a degree that significant sections of their populations remain psychologically and politically resistant to recognizing changing environmental realities.

Similarly, fossil fuels—oil and natural gas in particular—have shaped the United States’ strategic commitments in ways that may also hinder its ability to adapt. One example of this is the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, which has proved as much a constraint as an asset, especially regarding a transition to renewable energy.

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To the same degree that these legacy commitments serve to impede the adaptive abilities of the United States (and the West in general), they also serve as incentives for emergent powers to adapt as quickly as possible. For Beijing, a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is desirable not only for ecological and economic reasons but also because it could effectively set China free from an energy regime in which the rules were largely set by Western powers and their allies.

There are, of course, very significant limits to what can be extrapolated from history, not least because the great powers of the past did not possess weapons that could destroy the (human) world many times over. The crucial question for the future is whether the established and emergent powers of our time will be able to manage their rivalries even as their own populations become increasingly subject to the disruptive and destabilizing effects of climate change. If not, then human beings could bring about a catastrophe that would far exceed anything wrought by the warming of the planet.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Amitav Ghosh is the author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Twitter: @GhoshAmitav

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