Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale by Deborah R. Coen
By Deborah R. Coen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. Pp. 425. Hardcover $40.
Deborah Coen's book is a study of the emergence and rise of dynamic climatology in the Austrian (after 1867, the Austro-Hungarian) Empire. Her analysis follows the theme of "scaling" used by an array of Austrian and other Imperial scientists within the Empire. Where previous scholars have [End Page 1103] concentrated on the work of Scandinavian, British, German, and American meteorologists and climatologists, Coen studies the development of dynamic climatology amongst Austrian, Czech, and other "Imperial-Royal scientists" (her designation, chap. 3), and argues that their political and cultural environment helped lead them into becoming dynamic climatologists in the first place and shaped their scientific work and attitudes.
"Dynamic climatology" refers to the use of thermodynamics and hydrodynamics to study the atmosphere, that is, to explain climatic conditions. Coen argues that it was precisely because of the diverse political setting and the necessity of justifying and helping to unify the Empire's multicultural nature that Imperial-Royal scientists were led to think in terms of "scale." Thus, they worked with and thought about both the local and the global, the small and the large, and they mediated between diverse systems of measurement. Coen maintains, moreover, that "scaling" involved not merely the intellectual but also the emotional and political selves of the budding climatologists as members of the Empire. These Imperial-Royal scientists not only produced fresh meteorological data from throughout the Empire, but also recognized that dynamic climatological thinking was needed to understand their data and to help explain local weather. Indeed, they helped to recognize and define the meaning of "climate," especially in its global sense. To understand growing environmental knowledge, Coen argues, one must also understand its political and cultural (and here imperial) setting.
In Part 1 of her three-part study, Coen examines the "Unity in Diversity" promulgated by Imperial-Royal scientists. She unearths the traditions of natural history collecting and of scaling work in the Empire, and shows how early modern collectors laid the material, institutional, and cultural basis for climatological knowledge in the nineteenth century. She analyzes "the Austrian Idea," that is, how the geosciences helped Austria explain itself as a spatial unit and so justify its rule over the Empire's non-Germanic parts (chap. 2). Here too she discusses the emergence of "Imperial-Royal scientists" and their work in leading the Empire's "dual task" of observing and relating the local in the Empire to the global (chaps. 3–4). In Part 2, Coen analyzes "the Scales of Empire." Here she first discusses the technical challenges that meteorologists confronted in visualizing "unity in diversity," especially by creating maps and atlases that allowed them to move from a static to a dynamic and multiscalar view of the Empire. She also presents "the invention of climatography," or the public representation and practical meaning of the Empire's "natural regions" (chap. 6). This in turn leads to discussions of several literary works (for example, Adalbert Stifter) to help appreciate the notion of scaling. Several scientists applied newly won knowledge of winds and atmospheric pressures to understanding global geography and climate. Coen shows, for example, how Max Margules sought to model atmospheric circulation, and how various [End Page 1104] dynamic climatologists helped to elucidate understanding of cyclones and smaller eddies that belonged to the atmospheric system. By 1910 or so, Coen concludes, "dynamic climatology" had come into existence as a term and a field; it was now understood to mean "the study of disturbances to the earth's climate system" (p. 235). Finally, in Part 3, Coen turns to "the work of scaling," here addressing how Imperial-Royal scientists came to understand deforestation as due to climate, the role of plants in the shaping of climate, and what she calls "the landscape of desire," that is, the emotional experiences of the new climatologists (chap. 11).
Coen's book provides fresh, stimulating, and comprehensive coverage of the rise of dynamic climatology in the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it nicely complements the work of other scholars on the development of climatology elsewhere. Though her book is very much oriented towards today's environmental concerns, it is also thoroughly historical in its means and analytical presentation.
David Cahan is the author, most recently, of Helmholtz: A Life in Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).