- Climate, Science, and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand ed. by James Beattie, Emily O’gorman, and Matthew Henry, and: Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey by John L. Brooke, and: Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina by Stuart B. Schwartz
The winds of the historical profession are changing. At stake is our understanding of causality: the reasons that people, and their societies, come to change in the past. For many decades, most historians have assumed that the agents of these changes were always human. Yet today, environmental historians have convinced many of their more traditional colleagues that the forces behind historical change usually include nonhuman actors. Most historians have also accepted that the world’s climate is changing and that our lives, and our civiliƵations, will have to change with it. Surely, we can no longer ignore the influence of smaller but still significant climate changes on our past. We can now discern those changes with remarkable accuracy, using transdisciplinary climate reconstructions that can be precisely and reliably used to revolutionize our understanding of the past. In today’s historiographical climate, it is increasingly difficult to write early modern history without mentioning the chilly climate of the Little Ice Age or medieval history without referencing the warmer Medieval Climate Anomaly.
So, how should historians write about climate change? In the last five years, some of the profession’s most respected scholars and exciting new voices have wrestled with this question. Some of the most compelling answers are provided in Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey, by John Brooke; Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina, by Stuart Schwartz; and Climate, Science and Colonization: Histories from Australia and New Zealand, edited by James Beattie, Emily O’Gorman, and Matthew Henry.
All three books are on the cutting edge of climate history. For the most part, they deftly combine different disciplinary perspectives and methodologies to explore themes that push beyond the deterministic narratives of decline that used to fill most climate histories. Collectively, [End Page 161] they suggest that climate history is inherently big history. Even local or regional climate histories fit into global metanarratives that stretch across hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. These books also reveal that climate history provides a promising yet occasionally problematic space for the interplay between environmental history and the history of science. Together, they paint a multifaceted picture of the past, in which human history becomes the product of complex and frequently reciprocal relationships between environmental and cultural changes. All maintain that this picture will help policymakers, and the general public, understand and respond to the climatic challenges of the present.
Despite their similarities, these three books also reflect the already impressive, and increasing, diversity of climate historiography. They explore very different topics, at different scales, with different methods. Such diversity is one of the major strengths of climate history, and it represents a key contribution of the historical profession to broader understandings of climate change. Historians need not follow a particular method or model, and that makes us more likely than most scholars to strike off in fruitful new directions.
John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History is a compelling example of such intellectual trailblazing, even though it features no original primary source research. Rather, Brooke surveys a remarkable breadth of scientific literature to reach provocative new conclusions that connect climatic variability to the entire history of humanity. He argues that recent discoveries in such diverse disciplines as archaeology...