History and Climate Change: The Optimistic Perspective

This is a shortlisted essay written by August Courtauld for the NCH History Prize, in response to the question ‘What does History teach us about humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change?

The study of history has occurred in multiple forms since the birth of humanity, and it has proven to be extremely valuable for a plethora of key reasons. Not only does it provide the modern day with an insight into how life used to be, but it also explains to us how we have found ourselves in certain circumstances, helping us to gain a sense of perspective, and lastly, it is key in educating us on the nature of humanity, and in this instance, the ability of humanity to adapt to a life changing phenomenon: climate change. Climate change, although only being established as a global issue extremely recently by physicist John Tyndall in the 1860s,[1] has occurred for thousands of years through environmental damage such as deforestation. The earliest signs began as early as 3000 years ago within the copper mines of Faynan, Jordan.[2] Here, carbon dating of samples from the deepest part of these mines revealed how copper smelting began here just after 950 BC, a process resulting in the release of environmentally damaging gases such as Sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere which can contribute to acid rain, threatening to harm sensitive ecosystems.[3] Yet, it is how humans react to such events that gives us an insight into humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change. We gain such an insight through humanity’s ability to adapt to great changes such as the industrial revolution; through the effects of strong incentive; and through the possibility for humanity to be overwhelmed by nature. This allows us to form an overall impression of humanity as being able to adapt well to climate change, due to the presence of factors such as the possibility of personal gain and the capability for adaptation.

Major global events throughout the course of humanity’s existence have allowed modern day humans to be educated about humanity’s ability to adapt. We see humanity’s potential adaptability through the industrial revolution. This was a major turning point in the nature of everyday life as, in the 18th Century, machinery increased productivity and technology improved, leading to the growth of industrial factories, urban workplaces, and, as a result, urbanisation. We saw adaptations through the movement of people from rural areas to urban cities in response to higher wages and a significant improvement in standard of living in Britain, Europe, and other parts of the western world particularly.[4] This therefore highlights humanities ability to adapt to their changing surroundings as the population changed their working lifestyle and gave up previous traditional jobs such as those in the agricultural sector in order to not fall behind the times and to join the revolution so as to gain the best chance of economic success. This highlights humanity’s ability to adapt in order to survive, a factor crucial in the adaptation for climate change as we seek to improve our chances of surviving the global change, and as a result, it suggests that humanity has a good ability to adapt when there is an incentive to thrive. Yet, despite this promising example, it also the importance of being capable to adapt. This emphasises how there are required factors, such an economic stability, in order to facilitate and create a capacity for such adaptation. This is shown by the fact that it was the West, a financially stronger area of the globe, that adapted first, showing how, although humanity may have an adequate ability to adapt, this ability is made stronger by a more prosperous economic situation, allowing a greater range for innovation and therefore, it was easier to adapt to an industrial revolution in the West and, as a result, it suggests that it would be easier to facilitate adaptations to climate change in areas with a stronger financial situation.

In addition to the evidence of humanity’s ability to adapt to global events, history shows a strong incentive can be seen to be pivotal in improving humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change due to a desire to capitalise on the potential rewards. We see this through the process of regenerative agriculture that is taking place due to the Green Revolution, the Third Agricultural Revolution that began in 1940.[5] This has included multiple new policies and processes, chief among them the use of cover crops to avoid exposing bare earth, as studies showed that the use of cover crops with compost increased soil organic carbon levels by 12.6% over a 19-year period, compared to just 3.5% with the conventionally managed system and cover crops.[6] Other novel techniques include no tilling. Furthermore, there is a cut back in the use of chemical fertilizers to reverse the harmful processes of intensive agriculture that comprised of ploughing, monocropping and systematic use of chemicals to grow food and fibres. Such processes were leaving soils exposed to the weather, leading to topsoil erosion and causing a loss in nutrient dense soil, and the release of carbon into the atmosphere, increasing climate change, particularly in the last 100 years. This history highlights humanity’s ability to create innovation and change to reduce the effects of climate change and to adapt to generate a greater economic future. This point is made even more significant through the fact it shows humanity’s ability to endure short-term pain, in the form of reduced yields due to less intense agriculture, to maximise long term returns. As a result, we gain a stronger sense that humanity has an effective ability to adapt to climate change as, by moving to regenerative agriculture, this has ensured that, in the long-term future, our soils will be robust and healthy enough to facilitate the global food demand, helping to not only benefit society through food distribution, but also economically through the selling of produce. Without regenerative agriculture, the soil would be unable to facilitate further growth, harming many economic sectors and creating a global food crisis, leading to shrinking workforces, depleting economies, and the decline of humanity’s dominance.

On the other hand, we also see history teach us about humanity’s inability to adapt to climate change as a result of the overpowering characteristics of nature. Freak events that occur more often as a result of climate change can cause death and damage to infrastructure, an effect that the population has struggled to suppress, highlighting our inability to effectively adapt. Historical events such as continuous flooding damage in Britain showcases the populations inability to adapt to these events in order to help reduce the damage caused. The Thames Floods of 1947 and 2014 were both significant floods in the area due to their destruction, yet, despite the fact that they occurred 114 years apart, the surrounding areas witnessed limited differences in the amount of damage caused, emphasising humanity’s inability to adapt and minimise damage. For example, despite £110m Jubilee River scheme, an artificial hydraulic channel designed to deal with the overflowing water levels of the River Thames to prevent flooding around Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton, the cost for the damages of the 2014 floods were thought to be in excess of £500 million, compared to £300 million in 1947 (inflation-adjusted).

The increase in the amount of at-risk property in 2014 compared to 1947, and the difficulty of measuring the actual flow of each flood makes it somewhat unreliable to compare the two.[7] But ultimately, despite the expensive preventative plans, the damage created was extremely similar, if not worse, in later years. This highlights how history can equally show humanity’s inability to adapt to climate change.

In conclusion, despite the few occasions such as the Thames Floods in which history highlights humanity’s inability to adapt to climate change, on the whole, history conveys how, with sufficient capability and incentive, humanity can adapt to climate change. Humans have even shown themselves willing to sacrifice the immediate future for the longer-term, in the form of lower agricultural yields for regenerated soils. In saving the environment now, humanity sees the social and economic benefits it will create.

[1] Holly Shaftel, ‘Climate Change: How Do We Know?’, (2022), p.g.1, https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ (Accessed 29th January 2022)

[2] Catherine Brahic, ‘The Five Oldest Acts Of Environmental Destruction’, New Scientist, (2008), p.g.1, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn15102-the-five-oldest-acts-of-environmental-destruction/ (Accessed 29th January 2022)

[3] ‘Sulphur Dioxide Basics’, Sulphur Dioxide Home, (2021), p.g.2, https://www.epa.gov/so2-pollution/sulfur-dioxide-basics (Accessed 30th January 2022)

[4] ‘Industrial Revolution’, (2022), p.g.1, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution (Accessed 30th January 2022)

[5] ‘Green Revolution’, (2022), p.g.1, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution (Accessed 30th January 2022)

[6] UC Davies, ‘Sustainable Living and Learning Communities’, (2020), p.g.1, https://sllc.ucdavis.edu/project-compost (Accessed 30th January 2022)

[7] G.G Cullingham, ‘The Floods Of 1947’, (1981), p.g.1, http://www.thamesweb.co.uk/windsor/windsorhistory/floods47.html (Accessed 30th January 2022)