History and Climate Change: The Pessimistic Perspective

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

History teaches us that humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change is poor, as we have struggled to co-operate instead of seizing scarce resources, often descending into political and societal turmoil. The replication of these failures in modern-day responses to climate change, even with more advanced technology and increased ability to co-operate, shows that we are as unlikely and ill-equipped as ever to adapt.

One historical example of failure to adapt to climate change is that of the Maya Classical collapse. This occurred from 760AD to 910AD, leading to a 90% decrease in population by 950AD, driven by ecological factors and drought. They suffered the worst droughts in 7000 years, exacerbating existing failings of food production and leading to mass famine. The severity of these droughts was partly their fault, as they deforested uplands in search of arable land, upsetting the local water cycle and leading to greater variance in precipitation year-to-year; with this greater variance comes more severe droughts (Diamond, 2005; Gill, 2000).

The Maya were also already facing problems of climate change before the droughts as arable land became scarcer, and existing farmland declined in productivity due to overcultivation and nutrient leaching. In search of agricultural land, they deforested the uplands. The soil was less nutrient rich, meaning nutrient leaching and overcultivation made the soil infertile more rapidly, and the loss of trees to hold the soil in place led to topsoil erosion. Not only did this reduce agricultural productivity in the uplands, but the eroded topsoil went to the valley floor, covering its fertile soil and reducing the productivity of existing agricultural land. They also faced water supply problems due to the depth of the water table and the porous soil and geology of the area (Diamond, 2005).

In the face of the existential threat this environmental degradation and climate change posed, the Maya failed co-operate to overcome their problems. Warfare was already endemic to Maya society, but in the years immediately preceding the droughts that were the proximate cause for their collapse, warfare in fact peaked as kingdoms tried to secure scarce resources for themselves. This lack of co-operation meant that, far from adapting to the climate change they faced, food production was reduced as it was too dangerous to farm between warring cities. This is a stark example of humanity’s failure to adapt to climate change, with terrible consequences.

The lack of co-operation is not a one-to-one comparison with the modern world, which offers hope that we can co-operate, adapt and change in time. Whereas the modern world is capable but unwilling to co-operate to adapt to climate change, the Maya faced severe barriers to their adaptation and collaboration. There was never a homogenous power; instead, they were divided into kingdoms or fiefdoms of no more than 500,000, and usually less than 50,000 (Diamond, 2005), and thus they could not have a centralised response to their climate change crises. The modern, globalised world is far more able to co-operate and centralise on these global issues.

It may be that we have a greater ability to collaborate to adapt to climate change, yet it is still evident that humanity’s actual collaboration is limited, and we may be headed the way of the Maya, with conflict and war induced by climate change. In India’s Northern Plains, some of the world’s most fertile farmlands, villagers often fight over water scarcity; a clash between villagers and Indian soldiers over water in the Galwan Valley left 20 dead in May 2020; and these conflicts are even international, with India and China having regular border skirmishes over rights to water from Tibetan tributaries to the Indus, Ganges and Sutlej (Milne, 2021).

Even in the USA, these warnings are not heeded. The Colorado River supports 40 million Americans but faces increasingly severe shortages; its flow is 20% lower than in the 1990s. Despite these problems, there is an incredible amount of water wastage: 10% of the Colorado’s flow evaporates off the surface of reservoirs each year; there is a perverse incentive for farmers to dump water to retain their allocation; and over 35% of the Colorado’s annual flow is used to grow nonessential crops, such as alfalfa sold as cattle feed in the Middle East. However, the states are competing over their rights to overconsume and waste the river’s water, instead of addressing the problem centrally and holistically as history shows us is necessary. Nevada recently built a $1.4bn tunnel underneath Lake Powell, the reservoir which enables water supply to the southern states in the catchment, to ensure that, should the river and reservoir ever run dry, they would have the right to the last drops and the right to die last (Lustgarten, 2021).

History also shows humanity responds to climate change with political turmoil, again exemplified by the Maya. In the 9th century, before the total collapse of Maya civilisation, kings disappear from the historical records of many states, suggesting overthrow and revolution (Diamond, 2005). The king of a city would often promise a good harvest to retain their power, and if it failed to come it was the fault of the king: as harvests failed with greater frequency, kings’ positions became untenable. The resultant revolutions did not install governments more focused on or able to deal with these problems, however: if anything, population decline accelerated with this political turmoil as government was less stable and solutions even less centralised than before. Not only does climate change lead to political turmoil, but the resultant turmoil reduces humanity’s ability to adapt to its very cause.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 reflects how these same environmental pressures and climate change can lead to horrific social and political consequences even in the modern day. While much can be ascribed to ethnic hatred and political manipulation, there is an unquestionable environmental aspect to the tragedy. Rwanda did not yet have mechanised agriculture, with a majority of the population still farmers, and yet had a higher population density (750 per square mile) than Britain (610 per square mile), and the population was only growing, at 3% per year. This combined to lead to immense population pressure on food. They shared the problems of deforestation, soil erosion and overcultivation with the Maya too. In more densely-populated Kanama region in the northwest (2040 per square mile), the number of people eating under 1600 calories a day—below famine level—went from 9% in 1982 to 40% in 1990. One village in this region illustrates that it cannot have been purely racial hatred motivating the genocide: only one Tutsi woman lived there, yet 5.4% of the village’s population was killed (compared to 11% of the general population), and the majority of these were the large landowners (Andre & Platteau, 1998; Diamond, 2005). That environmental pressures were so significant shows the failure of humanity to adapt and the catastrophic consequences.

Additionally, no long-term improvement in environmental conditions has resulted. The population continues to grow at 2.5% a year and the population has more than doubled since the genocide, and the same sentiments that led to it are still prevalent. Andre and Platteau, two Belgian economists who collated the figures on Kanama prior to the genocide, said, ‘It is not uncommon, even today [after the genocide], to hear Rwandans argue that a war is necessary to…bring [population] numbers in line with available resources.’ This shows that political turmoil caused by environmental pressures does nothing to help humanity adapt in the long-term, as so soon after such a horrific and extreme example, some feel the necessity for further action.

A popular line of thought among those who believe humanity is able to adapt to climate change is technological optimism. The argument is that new technologies will come and either reverse, or prevent further, climate change, or allow us to adapt to or even capitalise on the opportunities offered, because technological advancement has solved our most severe problems so far and will continue to do so in the future. 

The first rebuttal to this is that technology has not been invented in a timely manner for the problems presented by climate change. To refer back to the example of the Maya, while the Aztecs were able to survive droughts they experienced, an example of short-term climate change, because of robust food production with the use of chinampas, small squares of permanently irrigated land in lakes, the Maya never made such an innovation and thus fell victim to famine (Diamond, 2005). While technological innovation can be successful at helping us adapt to climate change, there is no guarantee such technologies will be discovered in time.

Second, historically, especially in the more contemporary age, much of the new technology that has been invented and adopted to solve our problems is in fact responsible for the most severe problems that we face today. CFCs, the refrigerator coolants that did such extensive damage to the ozone layer, were themselves a key technological advancement from previous toxic coolants that could cause death if they leaked. Furthermore, it took 20 years from the discovery that CFCs were damaging the ozone for the Montreal Protocol, an agreement to phase out CFC use, to be signed, and a further 15 years for China to agree too. As of 2014, 155,000 tonnes of man-made CFCs are still emitted per year (Ritchie & Roser, 2018).

Overall, history shows humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change is poor. The Maya civilisation, by their collapse, provide an example of humanity failing to adapt to climate change, but the way in which they collapsed, due to a lack of co-operation and centralised decision making, is reminiscent of the current global situation. The political turmoil which follows shows humanity’s inability to initially adapt to climate change and ironically prevents it adapting effectively later. Furthermore, the reasons that we have to be optimistic about humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change are ill-founded: technological optimism assumes innovations will not cause further problems like in the past, supposing such problem-solving innovations are made in time. We haven’t adapted well to climate change historically and, most concerningly, we have not learned for the future.

Andre, P. & Platteau, J. P., 1998. Land relations under unbearable stress: Rwanda caught in the Malthusian trap. Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation.

Diamond, J., 2005. Collapse. In: New York: Viking, pp. 157-177. Information on Maya.

Diamond, J., 2005. Collapse. In: Collapse. New York: Viking, pp. 319-325. Information on Rwanda.

Gill, R., 2000. The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life and Death. Albequerque: University of New Mexcio Press.

Lustgarten, A., 2021. 40 Million People Rely on the Colorado River. It’s Drying Up Fast. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/sunday-review/colorado-river-drying-up.html
[Accessed 9 September 2021].

Milne, S., 2021. BBC. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210816-how-water-shortages-are-brewing-wars
[Accessed 30 January 2022].

Ritchie, H. & Roser, M., 2018. Ozone Layer. [Online]
Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/ozone-layer
[Accessed 30 January 2022].