GENEVA — A series of hurricanes of unprecedented intensity in the North Atlantic. Record-high temperatures all over the planet. Monstrous fires in California and Portugal. Entire regions hit by severe drought. Mountains collapsing… Has 2017 given us a foretaste of the disasters to come because of climate change?
To answer this question and get a sense of what the future may hold, some researchers — namely climate and environmental historians — are looking backwards, delving into the past and off the beaten path.
"Undoubtedly, the number and the intensity of the events we've witnessed this year is a sign that global warming is here," says Grégory Quenet, professor of environmental history at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, near Paris. "But I would add that, if these disasters are leaving such a mark on us, it's because their frequency doesn't leave enough time for us to forget them."
For the French historian, natural disasters are black boxes we need to open. "In this regard, the contribution of environmental history, which appeared in the 1970s, is to state that history isn't just made by men but also by all non-human actors. The way history is written and taught is still too human-centered nowadays. Nature is still considered as an inert mass unreservedly at our disposal," Quenet says.
Reassessing the place humans occupy in the environment is one thing, but what else can the study of environmental history teach us? Can it help save our species? "One of our most important tasks involves highlighting disasters that took place in the past and could happen again in the near or distant future," says fellow environmental historian Christian Pfister, professor emeritus and associate member of the University of Bern's Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research. "As far as I'm concerned, extreme droughts, such as the one that took place in the 16th century, represent one of the biggest dangers at the moment."
The disaster paradigm
Droughts, floods, years without summer... the planet is familiar with these kinds of climatic variations, which can have terrifying consequences for humankind. In his important work Histoire humaine et comparée du climat (History of Humankind and Comparative Climate History), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie showed that the climate issue was crucial in subsistence societies. Specifically, he pointed to a number of head-spinning calamities that have nevertheless been completely forgotten. Who in France, for example, remembers the famine of 1693?
The raw material used by these historians is diverse and includes things like alpine glaciers and tree rings. Harvest records, when they exist, are also indispensable windows into the past, especially those that predate the introduction of weather records. In this way, researchers have been able to establish trends and show that the climate on earth oscillates between hot and cold: the Roman Climatic Optimum, from 200 B.C. until 200 A.D., followed by a cool climate coinciding with the barbarian invasions, another mild spell around the year 1000 (the Medieval Climate Optimum), followed by the Little Ice Age, which affected modern Europe until 1850.
These days, we're in a temperate period, intensified by the "Promethean excess of emissions of all kinds," as Le Roy Ladurie put it. That means we're not just victims of the climate. We're also responsible for changing it. So what should be do?
"We are now witnessing the great return of the disaster paradigm, which had people of the 18th century mesmerized and which modernity had toned down. It is the time of the announced apocalypse and gloomy prophecies. But I believe society will crack before the planet does," Grégory Quenet says. "I mean that the real catastrophe will be the social tensions related to global warming, together with the rise of inequalities."
Christian Pfister is more unequivocal. "Future generations will say that we are guilty," he explains. "We've been talking about measures against CO2 emissions for 30 years now, and only now are we just beginning to lift a finger. It's part of human nature to be lazy, to act only after the disaster."
Lisbon on fire in 1755 — Jon Garvey
"Are we guilty?" Quenet asks. "We are all part of a system. Modernity has placed nature at a distance. It's now time to reintegrate this vast ecosystem in perpetual motion. It also means intensifying our lives, building relationships with our surroundings. Nature parks won't solve anything!"
Lessons from the past
Historians are no soothsayers, but the study of past disasters can teach us a lot. Here are five examples among those mentioned by Pfister and Quenet.
1540 Europe turned into a Gobi desert
"We remember great cold periods but never great droughts," Pfister says. "There was almost no rain in the whole of Europe. The fluvial traffic, which was crucial at the time, was at a standstill. Because there was no water, mills were unusable. Cattle had to travel long distances to drink, and a large number of animals died of thirst. Dysentery killed hundreds of thousands." Looking forward, the professor sees the probability of such an event happening again as "higher every year."
1816 The volcano that starved Switzerland
In the summer of 1816, there wasn't a single ray of sunshine in Geneva. Since they couldn't enjoy the beauty of the lake, Lord Byron and the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and Mary) comforted themselves by writing spooky stories that would eventually give birth to the immortal Frankenstein. But for a majority of Swiss and Western Europeans, it was an actual nightmare. The ashes from the volcano Mount Tambora, which had erupted the previous year, destroyed the wheat and provoked a famine.
1916-1917 The other war of General Winter
One century after Mount Tambora, the disaster of World War I descended upon Europe. Though Switzerland didn't participate, its inhabitants (as well as those from neighboring countries) endured an extremely cold and rainy summer, followed by freezing winter and spring. Despite the incredible progress made in the previous 100 years, the cold and the rain could have killed many had the United States not sent vital grain shipments in 1918.
"In the cities, since there was no coal imported from Germany, people were shivering inside their apartments," Pfister explains. "The price of one egg reached 7 to 9 current Swiss francs (7-9 dollars) and the price of milk never stopped rising. Lake Biel and Lake Morat were frozen until March or April. All of that in a place surrounded by countries at war with one another. Imagine the social and political tensions."
1952 The Great Smog
In December 1952, Londoners found themselves in the midst of a thick toxic smog, due to the use of coal, that lasted five days. A first estimation concluded that 4,000 people died as a result, but the figure was actually three times higher considering the respiratory infections that affected mostly children and elderly people. Four years later, the British authorities passed the Clean Air Act.""Until then, and particularly in industrial England, pollution was perceived as something positive, as a sign of economic activity and comfort," Quenet says.
2011 The forgotten lessons of Fukushima
Four months after the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima, The Japan Times revealed that the nuclear power plant could have avoided the flooding and the melting of its reactors if those who designed the site had taken the local topography into consideration. At the end of the 1960s, for economic reasons, the Japanese power company TEPCO decided to shave down a 35-meter-high hill that would have protected the plant from a tsunami.
"I also think that the then leaders were overconfident in their technical system and thus neglected the site's historical seismicity," Quenet explains. "In 1896, the coast 120 kilometers north of Fukushima was hit by a 38-meter-high tsunami that killed 22,000 people and destroyed 9,000 homes." For the historian, much of the country's infrastructure — and not just nuclear power plants — needs closer examination in the future.