- Climate Lessons from History
Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013) is one of the most important history books of the last year. It has been widely heralded as an extraordinary scholarly achievement. Parker makes the case for a link between climate change and the worldwide catastrophe that occurred 350 years ago. We asked Parker to begin our forum with an account on the book’s long gestation. Then three prominent scholars, Kenneth Pomeranz, J.R. McNeill, and Jack Goldstone, comment on Global Crisis, followed by Parker’s rejoinder.
In the annual Jewish celebration of Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, families give thanks to God for the many things he did for the Jews: delivering them from Egypt, stopping their enemies, feeding them in the wilderness, giving them the Torah, and delivering them into the Promised Land. After noting each of these, they say Dayenu—it would have been enough. That is, had the Lord given only any one of these gifts, it would have been sufficient, and deserving of our gratitude.
When contemplating Geoffrey Parker’s latest book, I am moved to consider a similar thought. At the outset of his career, Parker produced outstanding studies of how Spain financed its armies in the Netherlands and of the administration of Philip II, making key contributions to our conceptualization of the “Fiscal State” in early modern Europe.1 He then produced definitive studies of the general crisis of the 17th century, which served as an inspiration to a generation of world historians (including myself).2 Parker followed these with enormously innovative accounts of warfare and military technique, spawning an important debate on the “Military Revolution” in the rise of the West.3 Any one of these, in the life of most scholars, would have been enough!
Yet Parker has now produced his most comprehensive work to date, a truly global history of the 17th century that embraces Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, China, Japan, India, southeast Asia, and even Australia and the Americas with great skill and immense scholarship. At 900 pages, including fifteen pages alone listing published original source [End Page 35] materials, it hardly seems a book for the internet age, in which a 10-minute YouTube video seems the ideal form of communication. So Yale University Press is to be congratulated for making this handsome volume available at a very reasonable price in Kindle, and at an unbelievably low price in hardcover of only $40. Perhaps it will show that deep and careful scholarship is still worth publishing. I hope so, for Parker’s book is certainly worth reading.
Parker’s book presents three main themes. First, he marshals the geological, biological, and recorded data on regional and global temperatures to show that the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th century was not a mere figure of speech or anachronistic exaggeration; it was in fact an age of dramatically lower temperatures and the advance of ice and glaciers across the world: at one point even the Bosporus froze solid, creating a land bridge from Europe to the Middle East that had not existed for millennia. Parker attributes the climate change to both a decline in solar radiation (indicated by a sustained period of low or absent sunspot activity known as the “Maunder minimum” from 1645 to 1710) and to clusters of major volcanic eruptions (in 1600-1609, 1641-1647, 1676-1679, and 1709-1710) whose sulfur and ash further reduced the solar radiation reaching the lower atmosphere. This combination triggered several series of exceptionally cold years in succession, in 1600-1609, 1620-1627, 1641-1647, 1666-1680, and 1695-1699, as measured by severe low summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere.
Parker further demonstrates that the people who lived through this period had to contend not only with cooler temperatures, but with more frequent and more severe crop-destroying floods, droughts, storms, and frosts, with longer winters and deeper freezes, and apparently even more frequent plagues of locusts, as the overall cooling disrupted normal ocean currents and atmospheric weather patterns. Crop failures became so frequent that large areas were...