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Reviewed by:
  • Climate Change in Human History eds. by Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon
  • Dagomar Degroot
Climate Change in Human History. By Benjamin Lieberman and Elizabeth Gordon ( New York, Bloomsbury, 2018) 236 pp. $26.95

As the pace of global warming accelerates, scholars in different disciplines work together to identify climate changes in the preindustrial past. Historians and anthropologists have argued that these changes repeatedly influenced the fortunes of sprawling empires and hunter-gatherer communities alike. As this "climate history" grows in popularity and legitimacy, teachers and professors have sought to incorporate it within high school and introductory college courses. Yet many quickly found that the field's most important publications are either too technical, too dense, too narrowly focused, too expensive, or too dated for junior students. What they lacked was a slim survey that synthesized in plain language the most cutting-edge scholarship of humanity's experience with climate change throughout history.

Enter Climate Change in Human History, a collaboration between Lieberman, a wide-ranging twentieth-century historian, and Gordon, a geoscientist. In just 193 pages, Lieberman and Gordon take students from the end of the great Ice Ages to the manufactured controversies that surround present-day climate change. They draw exclusively on secondary sources, although the voices of historical actors struggling with climate change in literate societies occasionally add some color.

After a brief introduction that lightly touches on a selection of key concepts in climate history, the book proceeds chronologically. Its first chapter explains how climate changes on the grandest scales shaped the evolution and migration of Homo sapiens. The second chapter traces the consequences of the frigid Younger Dryas 12,000 years ago and then describes how warming set the stage for the emergence of agriculture. The chapter explains how regional and, at times, global climatic fluctuations influenced the emergence of complex societies and the heyday of the Roman and Han Empires. The fourth chapter traces the European benefits of the warm Medieval Climate Anomaly, and the complex global repercussions of precipitation changes, from antiquity to the fourteenth century. The fifth chapter focuses on decline and disaster in the cooler Little Ice Age, ending with the calamitous explosion of Mount Tambora in 1815. The sixth chapter explains how industrialization and the energy revolution freed a growing share of humanity from the constraints of climate. The seventh chapter surveys the worldwide consequences of anthropogenic global warming, and the eighth briefly describes climate models, projections, controversies, and international agreements.

At its best, Climate Change in Human History provides clear, succinct, and remarkably nuanced summaries of case studies that draw from diverse, multidisciplinary scholarship. For example, its treatment of the disappearance of Norse settlements in Greenland—a classic story of collapse amid the onset of the Little Ice Age—outlines the subsistence and economic strategies of the Greenlandic Norse, describes the regional consequences of climatic cooling, surveys Norse adaptation strategies, and contrasts different explanations for the Norse disappearance—all in three pages! [End Page 483]

The best use of Climate Change in Human History will be to introduce, rather than replace, other landmark publications in climate history. The book occasionally falls into the trap of simply listing one big event after another, and its ambitious (maybe over-ambitious) scope leads it to skip lightly over some of the most important topics in climate history. It ignores the controversial consequences of the Mount Toba eruption 74,000 years ago and scarcely mentions the extinction of Neanderthals in the face of climate change and human competition. It largely omits the outcome of research into the resilience of prehistoric communities in the face of abrupt climate changes, such as the chilly "8.2k" event. It devotes one short paragraph to the volcanic eruptions of the 530s C.E., and the subsequent cooling of the so-called "Late Antique Little Ice Age." It ignores the Spörer Minimum—arguably the first great cold phase of the Little Ice Age—and it barely mentions the ability of Tokugawa Japan and the Dutch Republic, among other societies, largely to withstand the seventeenth-century nadir of the Little Ice Age. The growing scholarship about the influence of global warming on the recent instability across the...


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pp. 483-484
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