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Yesterday's News

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Behringer

HENN Akademie, March 19, 2009

The planet is suffering from fever and needs a doctor. The climate is sick and has been thrown into turmoil: such are the metaphors prevailing over discussions about climate change. With the help of cultural history, relationships can be reconstructed for the last thousand years that question this way of looking at things. The intention is not to dispute the process of global warming or any anthropogenic influence, nor the necessity to adjust to this phenomenon. Making use of our historical memory, it seems far more possible to counteract uncritical data orthodoxy and to perform a correction function. Climate change as such is neither good nor bad. Or put more precisely: what is good for the one may be bad for the other.

Many papers on climate change are based on the view that the climate is presumed to be in balance and this has been upset. However the metaphor is meaningless, because the climate has always been in a state of flux. Graphs showing average temperatures for the past 1000 years, which are shaped like a hockey stick, have made this concept relatively popular. They show a relatively straight “handle” in the area of a pre-modern “balance” and a marked upward curve where the Industrial Age begins. Such representations should be appraised critically if the intention is to put historical climate variations in relative terms. They are based on a scientifically dubious combination of pure estimates based on selected, indirect climate indicators (e.g. tree rings) and current peak values, which are based on instrument measurements, with extrapolations for the 21st century. Similar representations showing a parallel course of CO2 concentration appear to reinforce such analyses.

The period of marked cooling in the past 1000 years is described by researchers as the small ice age. It started around 1300 and reached its climax in the 16th and 17th century. Climate deterioration as such is not embedded in our historical conscience, but has first to be reconstructed. The same applies to the complex interactions between natural disasters, social effects, internal and external political consequences, the effects on mentality and our view of the world, as well as the state of religiousness of the period. Even the search for the culprits occurred in the form typical of the times: regarding the small ice age, the increasing persecution of witches can be linked to this attempt.

“Yesterday’s snow” has consequences now, because the locations of towns and villages are adapted to the global cooling of the small ice age. The efforts of people at the time to adapt also included building houses out of stone instead of the customary timber and clay hitherto. At that time, the triumphant progress of window glass, the preference for curtains, wooden panels, carpets and improved heating using heat-storing tiled stoves, was starting.

The global cooling of the small ice age was finally overcome by the scientific revolution and industrialisation. Today, our knowledge and technical ability to adjust to climate change are greater than ever before. In view of the imminent energy crises it would appear to be more beneficial that it is becoming warmer rather than colder. Some climate researchers are surprised that politicians and the public are not more alarmed but things would be quite different if we were faced with cooling.

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Behringer is a professor at the University of the Saarland in Saarbrücken and teaches History of the Early Modern Age. In books such as, “The Cultural History of Climate. From the Ice Age to Global Warming”, he deals with the cultural history of the Early Modern Age; the history of the city, as well as that of communications and the media  also form additional topics.

Wolfgang Behringer
Prof. Dr.