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Background: The climate and history debate

Although the impact of climate and environmental stress on human social organization has been debated for many decades, natural scientists have joined the discussion only recently. This is a direct result of a dramatic advance in the availability of relevant data, new analytical and interpretive methods, and new questions. This has enabled historians and archaeologists to ask new questions or to deploy statistical and quantitative data provided by science in new and innovative ways. More importantly, the data currently available is of a quantitatively and qualitatively higher order than anything available before, facilitating a closer relationship between the natural and social sciences. Yet substantial issues of interpretation and method have until very recently remained unaddressed. Crucially, accusations of climatic or environmental determinism as well as oversimplification of the causal connections between societal transformation and environment make it necessary to rethink how social and natural sciences can collaborate without ignoring the principles of research and analysis upon which both are founded.

The issue in these debates lies in the fact that interpretations remain largely hypothetical, grounded in temporal correlations between the different types of evidence (textual, archaeological, palynological and palaeoclimatic) that in fact do little or nothing to demonstrate causal relationships between the observed phenomena. At the same time, the conclusions reached often have dramatic implications for research agendas in both the social sciences and in climate and environmental science. A central question regards the resilience of a given socio-cultural system. The degree to which its political structures, its economic relationships and its cultural habits respond to environmental stimuli becomes of crucial importance. More importantly, the mechanisms through which the impact of such environmental pressures or stresses are mediated should become the focus of attention. Different cultural systems produce different responses and often indicate varying degrees of socio-economic and political flexibility or resilience. Why this should be the case is one of this project’s aims.

While we continue with our original research plan, our project Lessons from the past, policy for the future? is a new 3-year research program focused on past societal responses to environmental challenges with a view to deepening the context of Goal 13 ‘Climate Action’ of the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We propose to examine how a wide range of different historical social-cultural systems have responded to climatic variations and environmental pressures, and the degree to which it can be shown that this led to transformation, decline, resilience, or continuing sustainability of lifeways and economies. We aim to see to what extent past climate or environmental responses have been contingent on factors recognized within the SDGs (such as Goal 10 ‘Reduced Inequality’) as well as factors that have escaped the SDG framework. In particular, we are concerned with the centrality of culture (belief systems in particular) in understanding and responding to climatic stresses.  

The question of how an understanding of climate events and environmental challenges in the past can contribute to a fresh perspective on the present seems especially relevant.  Effective risk management and assessment require knowledge of past events to generate comparative risk scenarios. Yet understanding the impacts of environmental stress on historical societies is an underdeveloped and fragmented field of study, with substantial disagreement among specialists. As a result, we cannot say with precision what constitutes an existential risk to a given historical society, i.e. a risk that could trigger the collapse of a political or cultural system. Past human societies as a whole have been extraordinarily resilient in the face of severe challenges, but the configuration of social and political structures was always impacted in a number of ways, with substantial implications for development pathways. 

Historical case studies can offer valuable guidance on present-day issues in designing risk management strategies and sustainable policies. Detailed research into what, if any, role environmental challenges have played in the transformation of previous societies, including in conflict, migration, critical systems failure and politics is an essential requirement, along with grounded inquiry into socio-economic feedback loops.