Climate Change, Health, and the Anthropocene: Why We Must Study the Past

Climate Change, Health, and the Anthropocene: Why We Must Study the Past

By Alexander More | December 8, 2017

The alarming pace of climate change is cadenced by headlines repeating that this year, this summer, this month was the hottest on record, while polar ice reached the lowest extent ever documented, last year. Twelve U.S. government agencies just released a report declaring in no uncertain terms that human activity has caused global warming and associated catastrophic weather events. With such urgent concerns for current and future climate change, and its impact on human health and survival, what purpose could the study of the past serve?

In one word: perspective.

In order to understand how human populations react to climate change, we must use historical records to anchor scientific climate data in the immediacy of human experience. Scientists often discuss climate change with geological timeframes—tens of thousands to millions of years—or geographic scales—continents, hemispheres—that are distant and disproportionate for the general public.

If instead we show the impact of climate change on human lives and health in a time scale that is familiar, with detailed descriptions by those who witnessed it, we do two things. We bring to light the experience of past populations, which is writing history. And we explain the present by studying the past, which is, again, writing history. With an eye to the future, we also provide evidence to inform policies that can address and, hopefully, prevent further climate change. This is the objective of the emerging, trans-disciplinary field of planetary health, and it is one of the aims of many scientists and historians who study past climate patterns and crises. [1]

Common objections to evidence of climate change—such as “there is no evidence,” “it’s just a phase,” “it will correct itself,” “a hundred years is not enough” “the temperature record is not reliable”—dissolve in the face of tens of thousands of testimonies from hundreds of years of history, in consilience—that is, in independent agreement—with ever-expanding libraries of scientific data. The most compelling warnings about the dangers of current and future climate change come from past populations, who have left us descriptions of the less drastic changes that climatic crises wrought upon their lives. Their words contextualize scientific climate data and provide an invaluable point of comparison for the formidable scale of what we are facing today. …

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Alexander More is Assistant Research Professor at the Climate Change Institute and a postdoctoral fellow in the History Department at Harvard University, where he also earned his PhD in History and History of Science. His research focuses on the impact of climate change on human health and the economy, environmental history and the history of public health and medicine.

Ocean ‘Dead Zones’ Quadruple

Declining Oxygen in the Global Ocean and Coastal Waters/Science

Climate Change Has Quadrupled Ocean ‘Dead Zones,’ Researchers Warn
Suffocating oceans could lead to ecosystem collapse, the study says.

By Mary Papenfuss | January, 2017

The size of oxygen-starved ocean “dead zones,” where plants and animals struggle to survive, has increased fourfold around the world, according to a new scientific analysis.

The growth of the zones is yet another consequence of global warming — including increasing ocean temperatures — triggered by greenhouse gases and, closer to the coasts, contamination by agricultural runoff and sewage.

“Rising nutrient loads coupled with climate change — each resulting from human activities — are changing ocean biogeochemistry and increasing oxygen consumption,” says the study published in the journal Science. Ultimately, such changes are “unsustainable and may result in ecosystem collapses, which ultimately will cause societal and economic harm.”

The analysis of the oxygen-starved zones was conducted by a team of scientists from the Global Oxygen Network (GO2NE),  created in 2016 by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations.

Researchers determined that open-ocean “oxygen-minimum” zones have expanded since 1950 by an area roughy equivalent to the size of the European Union. The volume of ocean water completely devoid of oxygen has more than quadrupled in that time, the study found. The number of hypoxic, or oxygen depleted, zones along coasts has increased up to 10 times, from less than 50 to 500.

Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and lead author of the study, called the plunge in ocean oxygen “among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.” Oxygen is “fundamental to life in the oceans,” she said in a statement.

“If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” Breitburg told The Associated Press. “As seas are losing oxygen, those areas are no longer habitable by many organisms.” …

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Implementing UNDRIP in Canada

Implementing UNDRIP is a Big Deal for Canada. Here’s What You Need to Know.

By James Wilt | December 12, 2017

First opposed, then endorsed. It’s now pledged, but called “unworkable.”

In Canada the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is not ratified, nor from a legal perspective even really understood.

The history of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous rights has been a sordid one. But all that was supposed to change with the nation’s latecomer adoption of the declaration. After years of federal Conservative inaction on the file, Justin Trudeau took to the campaign trail with a promise to restore Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples.

The doctrine of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ is a touchstone element of the declaration and one that will have a potentially massive impact on how megaprojects — like pipelines, the Alberta oilsands, and Site C dam — are proposed and approved in traditional Indigenous territory.

Yet onlookers say the declaration’s implementation is now hung on an NDP private member’s bill in the House of Commons and while there is broad support for its implementation, the actual meaning of UNDRIP for Canada is unclear and, as a technically non-binding document, may mean less than many think it should.

Interpretation of UNDRIP Strongly Contested

This past week the private member’s bill C-262 — first tabled by NDP MP Romeo Saganash back in April 2016 — was debated following its second reading in the House of Commons.

The bill requires the federal government to “take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent” with UNDRIP and develop a national action plan to do so in “consultation and cooperation” with Indigenous peoples.

The concise bill received full support from the federal Liberals only two weeks prior to the second reading. That catapulted it very much into the realm of possibility.

Yet the actual interpretation of UNDRIP is strongly contested.

The declaration itself is a document that lays out the basic rights Indigenous peoples that should be afforded around the world. It outlines specific obligations on the part of nations in how they relate to Indigenous peoples and their land, and contains some clauses that fly in the face of Canada’s historic treatment of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.

The federal Liberals have seemingly contradicted themselves on multiple occasions about what UNDRIP means while some Indigenous scholars have an altogether different take on what the declaration truly means for Indigenous sovereignty and nationhood.

“When they say they’re going to support Bill C-262, I just view it as a PR stunt,” said Russ Diabo, a Kahnawake Mohawk policy advisor, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.

The federal government isn’t prepared to fully face the implications of UNDRIP, Diabo said, and how it could challenge Canada’s current legal frameworks. …

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Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia


Views of the Salish Sea: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Change around the Strait of Georgia

Howard Macdonald Stewart

Reviewed by Richard M. Hutchings

Books can be deceiving. The “Salish Sea” is all the fashion today, and like all new things its overuse and abuse is predestined. As a place name, the Salish Sea refers minimally to the contiguous transnational body of water defined by the Strait of Georgia, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound (Washington State, 2017). More broadly – and more practically – the term refers to the Salish Sea basin, including both watershed and sea (Stefan, 2009a, 2009b). Despite all the excitement about the Salish Sea, in both academic and public spheres, there are surprisingly few books written on the subject, and this is not one of them.

Views of the Salish Sea (2017, Harbour Press) is the published version of Howard Stewart’s PhD dissertation (Department of Geography, University of British Columbia) (Stewart, 2014). The title of his dissertation, Five Easy Pieces on the Strait of Georgia—Reflections on the Historical Geography of the North Salish Sea, indicates to me the stand-alone “Salish Sea” moniker was added after the fact, likely by the book’s publisher to enhance sales. Regardless, the term Salish Sea is used in context only once in Stewart’s entire dissertation (2014:10) and not listed at all in the published version’s detailed index (287). This begs the question, if not about viewing the Salish Sea, then what?

A more accurate title for Stewart’s book would be “An Illustrated Maritime History of the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, Canada, 1850-1980.” Unlike a holistic Salish Sea view, Views of the Salish Sea is limited by the self-imposed frame that is the colonially-defined “Strait of Georgia,” an exclusive, marine-centric approach that eschews that which is not provincial, Canadian, or corporate, including non-shoreline places, the southern half of the Salish Sea, and perspectives and uses outside of the historical mainstream. This is evident in the book’s three central themes: British Columbia, Canada, and industry, which constitute authorized heritage discourse (Smith, 2006). Stewart does try to challenge the dominant narrative, but only in a limited sense. But this still doesn’t answer the question of what this book is about.

The book contains seven chapters: (1) The Sea as Barrier, the Sea as Highway; (2) Empty Land or Stolen Land? The Colonial Strait; (3) Mining and Forestry; (4) Fish and Oysters; (5) The Strait as Waste Dump; (6) Recreation; and (7) Conclusions and Reflections. According to Stewart, “to really understand the Strait of Georgia as a highway or a barrier, an empty space or a stolen space, a resource mine, a waste dump or a recreational space, we need to know the other four stories and how all five relate to each other” (255).

Views of the Salish Sea is what I call a “hybrid” book, making it all the more difficult to pin down. Notably, the 274 page body of text includes 100 historic black and white photographs and maps, making it much more than your typical academic history book. Indeed, although annotated – some chapters significantly more than others – it is written and produced as a coffee table book for a general (non-academic) audience. It nevertheless addresses a range of themes and debates applicable to all.


Freelan, Stefan. 2009a. The Salish Sea and Surrounding Basin [Map]. Electronic document,

Freelan, Stefan. 2009b. The Salish Sea (and surrounding Basin). Electronic document,

Smith, Laurajane. 2006. Uses of Heritage. London: Routledge.

Stewart, Howard MacDonald. 2014. Five Easy Pieces on the Strait of Georgia—Reflections on the Historical Geography of the North Salish Sea. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia. Electronic document,

Washington State Legislature. 2017. Chapter 237-990 WAC, Appendix—Determination of Geographic Names. Electronic document,

Sea-Level Rise and Archaeological Site Destruction in Southeastern USA

Site incidence as it relates to potential loss from sea-level rise, grouped by elevation in meters above present mean sea level. All recorded sites within a buffer of 200 km from the present coastline are shown. Source: Anderson et al. 2017, Figure 3

Sea-level Rise and Archaeological Site Destruction: An example from the southeastern United States using DINAA (Digital Index of North American Archaeology)

The impact of changing climate on terrestrial and underwater archaeological sites, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes can be examined through quantitatively-based analyses encompassing large data samples and broad geographic and temporal scales. The Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA) is a multi-institutional collaboration that allows researchers online access to linked heritage data from multiple sources and data sets. The effects of sea-level rise and concomitant human population relocation is examined using a sample from nine states encompassing much of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the southeastern United States. A 1 m rise in sea-level will result in the loss of over >13,000 recorded historic and prehistoric archaeological sites, as well as over 1000 locations currently eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), encompassing archaeological sites, standing structures, and other cultural properties. These numbers increase substantially with each additional 1 m rise in sea level, with >32,000 archaeological sites and >2400 NRHP properties lost should a 5 m rise occur. Many more unrecorded archaeological and historic sites will also be lost as large areas of the landscape are flooded. The displacement of millions of people due to rising seas will cause additional impacts where these populations resettle. Sea level rise will thus result in the loss of much of the record of human habitation of the coastal margin in the Southeast within the next one to two centuries, and the numbers indicate the magnitude of the impact on the archaeological record globally. Construction of large linked data sets is essential to developing procedures for sampling, triage, and mitigation of these impacts. [Emphasis added]

Anderson DG, Bissett TG, Yerka SJ, Wells JJ, Kansa EC, Kansa SW, et al. (2017) Sea-level rise and archaeological site destruction: An example from the southeastern United States using DINAA (Digital Index of North American Archaeology). PLoS ONE 12(11): e0188142.

For a summary see:

Sea-Level Rise to Destroy Historic Sites on US East Coast

‘Buried in Marshes’: Sea-level Rise Could Destroy Historic Sites on US East Coast

By Oliver Milman | November 29, 2017

Large tracts of America’s east coast heritage are at risk from being wiped out by sea level rise, with the rising oceans set to threaten more than 13,000 archaeological and historic sites, according to new research.

Even a modest increase in sea level will imperil much of the south-eastern US’s heritage by the end of the century, researchers found, with 13,000 sites threatened by a 1m increase.

Thousands more areas will be threatened as the seas continue to climb in the years beyond this, forcing the potential relocation of the White House and Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and inundation of historic touchstones such as the Kennedy Space Center and St Augustine, Florida, which lays claim to being the oldest city in the US.

“There are going to be a lot of cultural sites lost and the record of humanity’s history will be put at risk,” said David Anderson, a University of Tennessee anthropologist who led the published research.

“Some sites will be destroyed, some buried in marshes. We may be able to relocate some. In some places it will be devastating. We need to properly understand the magnitude of this.”

Threatened areas, including locations on the national register of historic places, include Native American sites that date back more than 10,000 years, as well as early colonial settlements such as Jamestown, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. Researchers pinpointed known sites using topographical data and analyzed how they would fare in various sea level rise scenarios.

Florida, which has a southern portion particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, has the most sites in danger from a 1m raising of the oceans, followed by Louisiana and Virginia.

A 1m sea level rise by 2100 could prove optimistic, with several studies showing the increase could be much greater. Scientists have warned that the break up of the Antarctic ice sheet could significantly fuel sea level rise, pushing the global increase to around 6ft by 2100.

The latest US government estimate predicts a worldwide increase of 1ft to 4ft by 2100, although an 8ft rise “cannot be ruled out”.

The eastern seaboard of the US is at particular risk, with water piling up along the coast in greater volumes than the global average. The problem is compounded by areas of the coast, such as in New Jersey and Virginia, gradually subsiding due to long-term geological hangover from a vast ice sheet that once covered much of North America.

Sea level rise is expected to displace millions of people from the US coasts over the next coming decades, with Anderson warning this will create further damage to heritage sites as people move inland.

There is still some uncertainty over the exact timescale involved in the changes – it may take several hundred years for some coastal places to be at risk – leading to hopes that coastlines can be adapted in time in order to protect vital infrastructure and sacred sites. But losses appear inevitable. …

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Lower Similkameen Indian Band Wins Right to Remove Ancestral Remains from Private Property

First Nation says its Ancestral Burial Site was desecrated in February of 2016

CBC News | September 12, 2017

A First Nation in southern B.C. has won its fight to gain access to a private property in order to complete the removal of remains from an ancestral burial site.

Members of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band were granted the ministerial order to enter the property in Cawston following a meeting with government officials last week.

The First Nation says the move is unprecedented and will ensure that the reburial of the remains is expedited and sanctioned.

A press release put out by the band stated that the burial ground was desecrated on February 29, 2016.

“Under the Liberal government, LSIB was granted temporary access to collect approximately 500 exposed remains but additional collection was required,” stated the release.

Chief Keith Crow says the decision comes after more than a year and a half of waiting and is a step towards meaningful nation-to-nation relations in B.C.

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BC Archaeologists Violated Rules for Protecting Indigenous Sites, Must Re-Evaluate Site C Bridge Construction

Garth Lenz,

BC Hydro Violated Rules for Protecting Indigenous Sites, Must Re-Evaluate Site C Bridge Construction

By Emma Gilchrist | August 31, 2017

BC Hydro violated its environmental assessment certificate for the Site C dam project, according to a B.C. government report released Thursday.

The inspection report, from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, detailed how BC Hydro failed to develop acceptable mitigation measures for an aboriginal sweat lodge and suspected burial site, and cannot legally proceed with a bridge related to Site C highway relocation until it does so.

This means BC Hydro’s controversial highway re-location will need to be assessed again by the Environmental Assessment Office and an alternate route long supported by the First Nations may be considered after all.

“BC Hydro has not developed mitigation for known cultural values in the Bear Flats area, including the sweat lodge (and nearby camp) and the potential burial site…” noted the report, which points out that BC Hydro is well aware of the cultural importance of the area for local First Nations.

BC Hydro has been warned of non-compliance with regards to the 455-metre bridge BC Hydro planned as part of the highway relocation in an area of the valley called Cache Creek-Bear Flats, according to the 54-page report issued following a five-month investigation.

“As BC Hydro has been advised that the [Cultural Resources Management Plan] is not ‘to the satisfaction of’ the EAO and that it must be updated prior to conducting construction activities that may impact known cultural resources, it may be a non-compliance if BC Hydro were to proceed to conduct construction activities that may impact known cultural resources,” the report reads.

West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson welcomed the findings, saying that BC Hydro has been “out of line” with his nation and the Prophet River First Nation. They jointly filed a complaint with the EAO in early April.

“A Crown Corporation should be setting the bar on how other [resource project] proponents have to deal with First Nations,” Willson said.

“They’re supposed to be setting the benchmark on this thing. What they’re doing is lowering the benchmark.”

Willson said the two First Nations repeatedly asked BC Hydro and the former B.C. government to use a short-listed alternate route for the Site C highway relocation and Cache Creek bridge to avoid “desecrating” aboriginal grave sites and to protect the sweat lodge and traditional gathering place at the confluence of Cache Creek and the Peace River.

But BC Hydro contractors clear-cut much of the Cache Creek area in February and March, after expropriating property from third generation Peace Valley farmers Ken and Arlene Boon, leaving the land looking like a “moonscape,” according to Willson.

Willson said he was at a meeting in Vancouver in March with BC Hydro representatives to discuss the issue of the Site C highway relocation when the forest near the sweat lodge and grave site was mulched.

“They were cutting the right of way as we were down there trying to solve the issue,” Willson said. …

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‘Unesco-cide’: How World Heritage Status Harm’s Cities and Heritage

‘Unesco-cide’: Does World Heritage Status Do Cities More Harm than Good?

Laignee Barron | August 30, 2017

Many of the 1,052 destinations across the world that have been stamped with United Nations world heritage status struggle to strike the balance between the economic benefits of catering to visitors and preserving the culture that drew the recognition.

The heritage designation began in 1972 to identify and protect places “of outstanding universal value”. However, by raising the international profile of a location, the label also fuels a rush of visitors and opens the door to commercialisation that can dilute the site’s authenticity.

“It is an inevitable destiny: the very reasons why a property is chosen for inscription on the world heritage list are also the reasons why millions of tourists flock to those sites year after year,” wrote Francesco Bandarin, the former world heritage director at Unesco, in a 2002 manual called Managing Tourism at World Heritage Sites.

The phenomenon has even been given a name by Italian writer Marco d’Eramo, who argues that Unesco preserves buildings but allows the communities around them to be destroyed, often by tourism. He calls it “Unesco-cide”.

Laos’ Luang Prabang, for example, a world heritage town of around 50,000 people, now expects to attract more than 700,000 tourists by 2018. Researcher Chloe Maurel has written about the adverse affects of the status on the historic Casco Viejo neighbourhood in Panama City, which relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits following its Unesco validation – while the central district was flooded with tourists.

National Geographic has collated examples such as Xian, China, site of the famous terracotta warriors, where a poorly situated new museum may have negatively impacted the precious site. Writers Lauri Hafvenstein and Brian Handwerk also pointed to the controversial activity close to the Belize’s Barrier Reef, where developers are closing in and exploiting the region’s world heritage status to sell swamp land to customers over the internet.

For George Town and its clan jetties, the Unesco imprimatur seemingly provided a second wind. Established as the straits base for the British East India Company in 1786, the outpost attracted swells of artisans, sailors and traders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fishermen and porters from southern China’s Fujian province carved out an enclave above the reclaimed seafront. Each extended family – or clan – occupied their own jetty, and the makeshift settlements grew as relatives emigrated and added to the stilt homes interconnected by a wooden walkway. …

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