Climate Change and History
Climate change has an impact on humans and natural environments today and particularly in the future. The history of man-made climate change is relatively short and closely linked to the Industrial Revolution, the rise of consumerism and the history of energy politics. Understanding the past helps us to make more sense of the present and to figure out what kind of decisions should be made for a better future. Therefore, history as a school subject plays an important role in understanding climate change in-depth and building a climate-friendly world.
We are Living in the Antropocene Epoch
Thousands of years ago hunter-gatherers lived as a part of nature and at the mercy of it. The ability to control fire, farming and later the Industrial Revolution have gradually made it possible for humans to become more and more independent, live longer and enjoy better health.
Food production has become incredibly efficient. Energy production provides electricity for work, leisure and the heating of homes. Wheels and heat engines enable us move around without needing much muscle power, regardless of our physical limitations. Inventions that have boosted our wellbeing and eased our daily life have, quite imperceptibly and without our intention, accelerated climate change. We live in a time when an ordinary Western lifestyle, even without excessive consumption, produces excessive amounts of greenhouse gases.
Humanity’s impact on nature is now so profound that the changes are evident also in geological terms. Human impact is easy to put in context if the age of the Earth – 4,6 billion years – is represented as one day. The first human, Homo Habilis, which lived roughly two million years ago, would have been born at 11:59:22pm, and our own species, Homo Sapiens, a mere four seconds before midnight. In this context, the era of human domination– a couple hundred years of the post-Industrial era– would be represented by the last one thousandth of the days’ last second.
The geologic timescale divides the history of the Earth into eras, according to globally set standards. These units vary in length from millions of years to thousands of millions of years. These eras are divided into units of various lengths: eons, eras, periods and epochs, which can again be divided into shorter units. The geologic timescale is based on the geological strata record used for analysing fossil evidence from ancient seas. Different time spans can be marked, for instance, by a major decrease in the number of certain species due to mass extinction.
In August 2016, an expert group made the case at the international geological congress, that the post-Industrial impact on the Earth is so profound that a new geological epoch needs to be declared. Atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen had earlier suggested in the year 2000 the term Anthropocene.
According to the general definition, Anthropocene is a post-Holocene era, which began in the 1950’s and was likely to be defined by radioactive elements found in glacier ice as a result of nuclear bomb tests. In addition, plastic pollution, concrete and bones of domesticated chickens partly define the beginning of the era. Anthropocene is closely linked to the ongoing sixth mass extinction, ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea level rise and deforestation.
Climate Change affects Nature and People
The climate has always changed, both locally and globally. Past climate changes were triggered by natural causes, including asteroid collisions and volcanic eruptions. Ongoing climate change is caused by human activity creating an overload of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It causes global warming and extreme rainfall, flooding and droughts. Survival of species is dependent of climatic factors, and therefore climate change also has a major impact on human activity.
Climate Politics are in their Early Stages
Climate politics has been practiced for only a few decades, however it has become relatively significant in a short period of time. Today, climate related decision-making includes players from all levels of society: scientists, governmental and municipal operators, businessmen, non-governmental organizations, media representatives and so forth.
The History of Climate Change is the History of the Industrial Revolution, the Rise of Consumerism and Energy Politics
World energy consumption has multiplied ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, cheaper goods and services are being produced rapidly in ever-increasing amounts. Washing machines, food processors and vacuum cleaners have eased housework that was done in the past by hand and broom. Nowadays most people do not have to chop or carry wood, since ovens and radiators use electricity as their energy source. Moving from one place to another is easy by train, bus or plane instead of walking or by horse as it was in former times.
Consumer goods are affordable for more and more people, and instead of daily necessities like food, drink and housing, more money is spent on free time and vacations. Also in the picture is aggressive marketing which creates the need to consume more.
Although burning fossil fuels has improved our wellbeing and living standards, it has also created global problems, such as climate change.
Tackling Climate Change requires Social Change
According to current knowledge, stopping climate change is not possible. Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, warming the planet even if there would be no new emissions. However, climate change can be slowed down to a rate sufficient enough to avoid dangerous global warming. This requires radical and immediate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Mitigation should involve attempts to slow the process of climate change at all levels of society. Avoiding the worst consequences requires reforms in energy production, industries, transportation, housing and agriculture. Fine tuning of one’s lifestyle is not enough when such a major social change is needed. We need to switch to renewable zero-carbon sources of energy, improve energy efficiency and be open to new ways of doing things.
The world is constantly changing and major changes take place all the time. Sometimes they originate through force of circumstances, at other times through working towards a common goal. The Welfare state that exists in the Nordic Countries is a good example of a large-scale social change stemming from a clear political goal.
A global shift towards an environmentally sustainable world will not happen overnight, but many important steps have already been taken, such as: the first environmental treaty was adopted in 1992, the Paris Agreement was negotiated in 2015, the use of renewable energy has been increasing so rapidly that it is not an exaggeration to state that an energy revolution is already under way. In addition, taking environmental aspects into account has become a normal approach in many sectors of society. The development of new vehicles and a shift from horse-drawn carts to cars changed our lifestyle. Imagine the future with clean, quiet and efficient transport in a sustainable world powered by renewable energy sources.