In the 17th century, a world wrecked by climate
Geoffrey Parker’s unsettling new look at an earlier moment of upheaval
Droughts, wildfires, floods, storms: Climate change appears to be exacerbating these phenomena around the world. And in the United States, at least, preparations for the impact of global warming on our lives are paltry.
If history is any guide, however, these “natural” disasters may be just the beginning—at least, that’s the implication of a comprehensive new book by British historian Geoffrey Parker, “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.” Behind a tumultuous and grueling series of revolutions, wars, and famines, which ultimately killed off a third of the human population, was a culprit, he writes: a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age. Extreme weather caused crop failures, which led to hunger, disease, and forced migrations, which in turn translated to political and social chaos.
The idea for “Global Crisis” first occurred to Parker nearly 40 years ago, when he heard a radio interview with solar physicist John A. Eddy, who had discovered that the reign of Louis XIV, from 1643 to 1715, coincided with a unique solar phenomenon: a lack of sunspots. (Scientists believe the lack of sunspots contributed to the Little Ice Age.) Eddy mentioned that this was particularly interesting because during this period “there were some wars, and some revolutions,” Parker recalls. “And I thought, yeah, some! That’s an understatement.”
In 1998, Parker began meticulously building a case that the strife and unusual climate conditions were connected, using both climate data—largely tree ring records—and historical archives, and eventually drawing from as many as 2,500 sources, according to one reviewer’s estimate. Parker, whose specialty is Western Europe, had to depend on translators—Chinese, Japanese, Russian—to compile his broad-ranging account. “If you’re trying to show nature as a protagonist,” he says, “it has to be global.”
While the book is set squarely in the 17th century, it’s intended as a cautionary tale. And it also offers a lesson about what seems to have worked: Parker finds that survival often hinged on the willingness of central government to take action, coercively or not. “Here’s the evidence,” Parker says, “that climate really does matter, and we need to prepare.”
Parker, who is the Andreas Dorpalen professor of European History at Ohio State University, spoke to Ideas from his home in Ohio.
IDEAS: You had a sense that there was a connection between climate change and this global crisis. Were you surprised by the extent of what you found?
PARKER: Yes. I was always afraid of drawing bull’s-eyes around bullet holes. That’s to say, you find something in the climatic record and it’s roughly equivalent to the human archive and you say, “Oh, wow, A must have caused B,” but then on closer inspection they don’t line up. But in this case...the two sources aligned perfectly....Once you find that, you want to find more.
IDEAS: The book details how rulers in a few areas enacted policies that limited the damage. But some of those measures were brutal and unfair and perhaps only possible in an authoritarian state.
PARKER: I’m going to disagree slightly with the second part, which is that only they could make those decisions. These rulers, particularly the Mughal emperors in India and the Tokugawa shogun in Japan, do indeed take executive action which is brutal, stifles opposition, which requires people to give up their freedoms. But they do, in return, provide protection and food. That option was also open to rulers elsewhere. The Chinese emperors, most of the European monarchs also had those powers; they chose not to use them or they used them to wage war....In return for survival, it was necessary to sacrifice liberty.
IDEAS: Can you share an example of how the cooling climate interacted with political and social realities to cause devastation?
PARKER: My favorite example occurs in Ireland on the 23d of October, 1641. There’s an uprising of Irish Catholics, particularly in Ulster, in Northern Ireland. The Catholics rise up against their Protestant neighbors. The Catholics on the whole are tenants, and the Protestants are landowners. And they rise up and they drive them out of their homes....
But the strange thing is, 1641 is the coldest year on record, and snow and ice falls almost immediately. Ireland never has snow in October. And if you read the aftermath of the rebellion, the Protestant survivors...overwhelmingly say they’ve survived in spite of the cruel cold. Twice as many of them say those who died died of the cold rather than because a Catholic killed them. So you could say that the Little Ice Age doubled if not more than doubled the casualties.
Why does that matter? Because it’s the scale of the killing that inspires the Protestants for revenge. Eight years later, Oliver Cromwell will arrive in Ireland, he will depopulate the areas with Catholics, send them beyond the Shannon River. There is a huge changeover of land ownership in Ireland that is the root of the problem in Ireland today.
IDEAS: People might read the book and say, “That was then, these things could never happen now.” What do you say to that?
PARKER: Let’s start with last [May], shall we, and the millennial floods in central Europe, for which there was very little preparation, so hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and a number of people were killed. We could go back to Sandy, to Katrina. Natural catastrophes happen, and some countries prepare for them and some don’t.
We need to protect ourselves, and pay now to avoid paying much more later. If we don’t prepare, we will be like the 17th century. The only difference is that we have the resources to do something and they did not.
IDEAS: It seems making the necessary changes can take a long time. You write about how barriers on the Thames were first proposed after devastating floods in the 1700s, but they weren’t actually funded until 1972.
PARKER: Gradually, those opposed—shipping interests, local governments who said they can’t afford it—were overruled by the central government. It’s the Tokugawa solution. You have to accept a greater view of central government action....All over the countries of the world there is a fear of central government. It’s not unjustified. But when it comes to preparing for climate change, only big government has the resources to act in advance. That’s the dilemma we face.
IDEAS: How can history help us in terms of trying to ease resistance to central government actions?
Hillary Rosner is a science journalist based in Colorado.