Another UN Conference of the Parties (COP) held to “unite the world to tackle climate change” recently came to a close. While critical discussions of the scientific and policy rationales promoted at these meetings typically address the validity of climate models, the costs and benefits of various proposals and the pitfalls of the precautionary principle, some historical perspective can shed additional light on current climate anxiety.

Because of natural factors such as changes in the axial tilt of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the amount of incoming solar radiation, geological activity (e.g., large-scale volcanic eruptions, plate tectonics), changes in oceanic circulation and atmospheric chemistry, and numerous feedback effects (e.g., physical, chemical, and thermal), the Earth’s climate and seasonal weather have always been and will remain in a state of flux, with or without human activities.

As Aristotle observed over two millennia ago: “Sometimes there is much drought or rain, and it prevails over a great and continuous stretch of country. At other times it is local; the surrounding country often getting seasonable or even excessive rains while there is drought in a certain part; or, contrariwise, all the surrounding country gets little or even no rain while a certain part gets rain in abundance.”

In his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson later assessed that a “change in our climate”  was “taking place very sensibly” as both “heats and colds are become much more moderate within the memory of the middle-aged” and that “[s]nows are less frequent and less deep.” One problem with a warming trend in the Spring was that it often resulted in late frost episodes that proved “very fatal to fruits.”

In an age without the means to access the agricultural surplus of regions that had benefitted from good growing conditions, bad weather resulted not only in much higher local food prices, but also often in more lethal consequences. Writing at a time when the railroad and the steamship had largely taken care of this problem, British historian George Dodd observed in 1856 that in the “days of limited intercourse, scarcity of crops was terrible in its results; the people had nothing to fall back upon; they were dependent upon growers living within a short distance; and if those growers had little to sell, the alternative of starvation became painfully vivid.”

Not surprisingly in this context, the biogeographer Philip Stott observed that from the “Babylon of Gilgamesh to the post-Eden of Noah, every age has viewed climate change cataclysmically, as retribution for human greed and sinfulness.” Torrential rains and their resulting floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, unseasonable warmth and cold, along with noticeable climate trends such as the Little Ice Age (circa 14th-19th C), were thus attributed to a wide range of anthropogenic causes.

For instance, Theophrastus, the Greek “father of botany,” wrote over two millennia ago that swamp drainage and agriculture had changed local climates. In the Middle Ages, both prolonged wet periods and droughts, along with more frequent and longer freezing of rivers, were often interpreted as a heavenly riposte to tolerance of witchcraft. In the wake of the Great Storm of 1703 – to this date the most severe natural disaster ever recorded in southern England -, a national fast was observed in January 1704 to ask for God’s forgiveness and blessing on the nation. Even Daniel Defoe in his account The Storm felt compelled to write that

we never enquire after God in those Works of Nature which depending on the Course of Things are plain and demonstrative; but where we find Nature defective in her Discovery, where we see Effects but cannot read their causes; there ’tis most just, . . . to end the rational Enquiry, and resolve it into Speculation: Nature plainly refers us beyond her Self, to the Mighty Hand of Infinite Power, the Author of Nature, and the Original of all Causes . . . When the sins of a Nation are very great and prevailing, it is God’s unusual Method to pronounce destruction on the Nation.

In his massive synthesis on the history of deforestation, the late historical geographer Michael Williams documents how numerous writers thought deforestation was a major cause of desiccation (or reduced precipitations) and of global warming. One of them was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who speculated that recent warming could be traced back to human deforestation which allowed the rays of the sun to reach the surface of the Earth. Acting on a belief that planting trees would increase rainfall, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted settlers on the American plains 160 acres free of charge on the provision that they plant trees. Prolonged droughts in the following decades, however, eventually disproved this belief. Writing in 1890, the Austrian physical geographer Eduard Brückner observed that many European officials blamed deforestation for lesser rainfall, more frequent droughts and lower water levels. At about the same time, some French colonial botanists accused careless African peasants of having accelerated local climatic deterioration by overgrazing forests. In recent decades, tropical deforestation, especially in the Amazon, has often been viewed as a threat to the stability of the world’s climate.

Recent technological advances were also often blamed for climate change. The exceptionally wet European summer of 1816 was traced back by many at the time on lightning conductors even though these devices had previously been accused of causing droughts. In 1881 American experts warned that telegraph lines might knock the Earth off its axis, cause earthquakes, melt the poles and cause a “glacial flood” that would wipe out the human race. A contemporary news report on this hypothesis ended by suggesting that “Whether this theory prove [sic] correct or not, there cannot be a doubt that something has of late gone wrong with atmospherical arrangements, and perhaps the telegraph wires are not wholly blameless in the matter.” Extensive gun-fire during the First World War and the development of short-wave radio communication over the Atlantic were deemed the cause of unusually wet summers in the 1910s and 1920s. Other technologies later accused of causing climatic disruptions include nuclear explosions (1950s) and supersonic transport and space traffic (1960s and 1970s).

Nowadays, climate change is blamed on ever greater emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases whose ultimate cause is an increasingly numerous “global middle class” with a fondness for meat, automobiles and higher standards of living. In their zeal to “build back better,” however, activists are often blind to the significant economic and environmental costs of their hatred of carbon fuels. Yet, the historical record shows rather convincingly that greater wealth and abundant, reliable and affordable energy made it possible for people to live better in locations with climate as diverse as those of Montreal, Glasgow, Katowice, Bali, New Delhi and Cancun where UN delegates have previously congregated in luxury.

Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.