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.