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,