Darn climate sceptics! get out of my field!

The recent fracas over e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit has a surprising medieval relevance, and I just wanted to add a few pennyworth of annoyance. The keywords here would be “medieval warm period“. Now if you Google that, it takes a long time before you get down to results that are actually about the Middle Ages. But it mattered for the Middle Ages and it’s immensely aggravating to me to have this phenomenon politicised, minimised, kicked around or diminished because of current political debates.

Why does it matter to me, you ask? Well, as a historian, because as close as I have to an answer about what caused the now-legendary ‘feudal transformation’, or at least the bundle of slow or not-so-slow changes that we have at times piled under that name, starts with it. Between about 700 and 1200, it seems fairly safe to say, the climate in Western Europe got warmer by, say, one or two degrees. Maybe more, but that’s all I need to be able to say that rainfall would have decreased, crop yields would have increased, there would have been fewer famines (and that bit we can check from other records and it has been done and checks out, as far as what records we have can demonstrate something from silence), and more surplus. More surplus means more wealth being accumulated, mostly at the top but not all of it, means more resources available for cultural reproduction and patronage, means the economy will support more people which means demographic growth which in turn means increased land use, more production, therefore even more surplus and so on again round the circle like a generator for the high Middle Ages. Technology doesn’t leap at the right point, breaking social structures can really only be an effect of economic growth or so we would imagine at least, and generally I have not yet hit on anything else that explains this. So, the fact that people working on it are largely doing so as part of a different enquiry that is not, per se about the Middle Ages, is vexing, because even if they’re right that it occurred—which I believe they are because, as I say, I don’t see another explanation for everything else that follows from it—they will not be taken seriously enough, because of the kind of opposition that cause reputable researchers to try and massage data so that the opposition can’t use it against them.

Teaching diagram of the Feudal Transformation, by me

There is, in fact, plausible anecdotal evidence for these changes in that period apart from the Norse in Greenland. One thing that struck me very forcefully was a recent piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian, a photo essay depicting those whose livelihoods have been affected by climatic change (or at least, deforestation, salination or acidification of water, increased water uptake, etc.) One of the less ambiguous ones, in scientific terms at least but not morally, was the current chairman of the Torres vinery, Miguel Torres, in what to me is far frontier Catalonia. They are buying land in the Pyrenees where grapes have not been grown for a long time because the lowlands vineyards are drying up. The wine is pretty good, apparently. And hey: you know when those hills were last used for viticulture? You got it. The charters and records of the eleventh and twelfth centuries reveal vines being sold and given that were at altitudes where in the 1950s, as Ramon d’Abadal reported, it was thought that vines could not be grown. He didn’t know what this showed, except that Catalan peasants in the Pyrenees were under serious economic pressure. But now, I think we do know and it’s happening again. So this is my medieval angle.

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

Vines in the Priorat area of Catalonia

The other reason that this annoys me however is not historical at all, but just one about rationality. It really gets to me that the argument against action on climate change makes so much of this. The argument being that, if the medieval warm period is ‘true’ and there really were Vikings farming now ice-bound lands on Greenland (irrespective of what the rest of the world may have been getting weather-wise…) then the military-industrial complex ™ hasn’t necessarily caused the current climate rise and so our lifestyle needn’t change hurrah! This is so stupid it makes me want to twist necks, but it is a mainstream idea, as shown by another, rather different UK newspaper, the Daily Express, which a few days after I first drafted this conveniently led with a full-page headline, “100 reasons why global warming is natural“, and is now taking a similar line on the current snow in the UK. This, I tell you, gives me unto despair for my people (whoever the goshdarn heck they might be). It is stupid for several big reasons.

  1. Firstly, it assumes that plural causes of climate change do not operate simultaneously, which obviously need not be true. If the greenhouse effect is demonstrable, then to claim that that is not what is going on with our near-global temperature rise is at the very least questionable, even if other things are also going on. (Of course, the Express claim that the greenhouse effect is unproven. The worrying thing is that this is not a fringe paper, yet, it has more market share than the Times or the Guardian.)
  2. Secondly, it’s not just climate change that urges a lifestyle change (even though I agree with prominent voices that this is a lot bigger than individual lifestyle habits and that action must be government-led); when we hit peak oil, if that hasn’t already happened, it is going to hurt.
  3. Thirdly, and much more importantly, it doesn’t flaming well matter what’s causing the temperature rise, it’s still happening. Even if it is not that we have just burnt too much stuff and instead that Mother Sun is getting a little more angry in her middle years, the oceans will still rise, the Nile Delta will still continue to flood and before long there will be nowhere left to grow good coffee, and that’s probably the point at which these people will notice. Unless you actually deny that the temperature of the globe is going up, which can be made to look surprisingly rational but is at the very least a minority view, you still have to admit that things will be bad unless we do something so really, where the Vikings (or the Spanish Marchers) farmed does not matter to you right now.

In short, the medieval warm period makes no political difference to thinking people concerned with climate change. It may tell them something about how the Earth behaves climatically over long periods, which would be great (although if you take a long enough view we’re all going to bake or sink anyway), but it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t need to cut emissions, carbon or otherwise, combat overfarming, deforestation and salination, come up with alternative energy sources good and fast and start in on the synthetic food. It really affects none of these necessities. But it did affect my subject population, or so it seems, really quite a lot. So dammit, you kids, get out of my yard.

(Noted in the last stages of drafting this, an op-ed by one of the UEA professors whose mail was leaked, though he has nothing at all to say about whether they were massaging figures or not, just about the problems science has getting itself heard in policy. Hat tip to Fourcultures. Please note also that this essay is cross-posted at Cliopatria, where I linked a post of Richard Scott Nokes’s that seemed relevant and useful, but the good Professor has subsequently read that post in a way I hadn’t realised was possible and was not at all my intent, though he was still good enough to link to it, and so I’ve removed that link in this version.)

For the actual debate about the actual medieval phenomenon you could try: Malcolm K. Hughes & Henry F. Diaz (edd.), The Medieval Warm Period (Dordrecht 1994), repr. from Climatic Change Vol. 26 (1994), nos 2-3, though of course the science has accumulated a lot since then. For the wine stuff, see Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Catalunya Carolíngia III. Els Comtats de Pallars i Ribagorça, Memòries de la secció històrico-arqueològica 14 & 15 (Barcelona 1955), I p. 50, and now C. Arbués & J. Oliver, “Vinyes que ja no hi són. Per una arqueològia agrària del domini feudal del treball pagès: les vinyes de Sorre, Montardit (el Pallars Sobirà) i Musser (la Cerdanya)” in I. Ollich i Castanyer (ed.), Actes del Congrés Internacional Gerbert d’Orlhac i el seu Temps: Catalunya i Europa a la Fi del 1r Mil·lenni, Vic-Ripoll, 10-13 de Novembre de 1999 (Vic 1999), pp. 321-337. For famines try now P. Benito i Monclús, “Fams atroces a la Catalunya de l’any mil”, ibid., pp. 189-206, and more widely, troublesome though it is in some other respects, Jared Diamond, Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive (London 2005)

18 responses to “Darn climate sceptics! get out of my field!

  1. Nice summary, Jonathan. I’ve had a few friends asking me about this lately (as a student of the late Middle Ages, I think I’m expected to know everything there is to know about the era from 500 – 1500 – which, of course, I don’t!) so I’ll point them in this direction. The thing that really drives me mad about climate change denial is that regardless of whether the current changes are ‘natural’, man-made or some combination of the two, we are still going to cause untold misery to millions of people if we don’t figure out a way to mitigate the effects.

    • Well, that’s it exactly. It’s like a paper I saw at Leeds a long time ago (linked somewhere in there) which gloomily pointed out that actually, if you take a long enough perspective the globe’s been unusually cool this last few thousand years and we should really expect it to cycle back up again eventually. But of course we don’t really want a dinosaur-suitable climate!

    • regardless of whether the current changes are ‘natural’, man-made or some combination of the two, we are still going to cause untold misery to millions of people if we don’t figure out a way to mitigate the effects.

      But if warming isn’t man-made and we needlessly restrict industrialisation in the mistaken belief that it is, then we’re condemning millions of people to poverty.

      I have enough trust in science, the scientific method and the scientific community (though not individual scientists) that I think GW is man-made and we need to do something drastic now. But it does “flaming well matter” what causes the warming, because it determines the “something” we do and that something will have consequences.

      • Well, so runs the argument doesn’t it? But if we are agreed that temperature rise has to be limited or even reduced, then obviously cutting production of greenhouse gases must be part of that solution even if the warming is principally coming from other sources, right? We can’t change the output of the sun or affect the Earth’s long-term temperature cycles (at least, we haven’t yet developed such abilities, though I suppose there are ways it could be done). In this scenario the greenhouse gas layer becomes the closest we have to a global thermostat, it’s almost all we can affect whatever its current rôle. So I’m not sure it does ‘flaming well matter’ as much as you suggest, to be honest. The greenhouse gas reduction is the only proposal in play which has anything to do with the processes of origin; all the others are climate forcing of a more extraneous kind that have nothing to do with causes.

    • “Thirdly, and much more importantly, it doesn’t flaming well matter what’s causing the temperature rise, it’s still happening.”

      I just so can’t agree with this thinking!… We have just had a huge wake-up call that there is only so much wealth in the world. Squandering vast quantities of that wealth on meaningless mitigation projects is a disaster. It keeps the developing world poor, poor nations have unchecked population growth, driving a future of food shortage & disaster for the environment.
      All for WHAT?… to mitigate an over-stated, unproven agenda involving money, power & blind faith.

      Let’s really change the world… use that finite money resource to help poor nations develop properly, stem population growth & ultimately create economic conditions that are not reliant wholly on growth.

      Climate change has always been with us. The case for human involvement is unproven. All one can say is it is overstated & agenda driven. The challenge is adaptation where it does occur & a global strategy to contain the population such that we retain the ability to adapt.

      A wealthy world has choices, an overpopulated one has none… We’re missing the elephant in the room.

      • I don’t really want to have this argument on this blog, because it’s nothing to do, as I was arguing, with the Middle Ages. Also, I think you must have missed where I said:

        it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t need to cut emissions, carbon or otherwise, combat overfarming, deforestation and salination, come up with alternative energy sources good and fast and start in on the synthetic food. It really affects none of these necessities.

        because these measures seem to be implicit in what you say about sustainable development. So I suppose that the source of your disagreement with me is fundamentally over population size. I would say that both sides of this argument rest on untestable assumptions about resource limits. An increased population is also an increased labour pool, but can it be supported with the available resources? And we don’t know, because of massive maldistribution. If the world’s population were distributed in proportion to its resources, we would be seeing a very different picture in that sphere I think. So perhaps more social engineering to allow and utilise immigration from resource-poor areas to resource-rich ones is required, rather than pouring money into underdeveloped areas. Both could be argued, but which can more easily be done must be factor in the argument. Meanwhile, in the West, at least, we are already hitting the point where social spending, especially with an ageing population, is stretched beyond what politicians feel the population will pay. Reducing births further won’t solve that problem: the life quality will still have to come down. This elephant is only one of several such beasts, I fear.

        At least we appear to agree that the medieval warm period was irrelevant to all this!

  2. Jonathan,

    Very nice and interesting post! I certainly share your frustrations with the decline of rationality in many of our current debates on a number of issues. I wonder, though, if we perhaps should not be calling for more engagement by scientists and climatologists in our period rather than suggesting that they (skeptics or not) get out. I, for one, am wholly unqualified to discuss the science behind the medieval warming trend, and as such, I am unable to comment effectively on why it should not influence our modern discussions of global warming. This is not to say that I do not have some thoughts on it, but the scientific distinctions based on data are perhaps better argued by experts on such matters. Without more engagement then, it leaves the general public to turn only to the climate skeptics, who are using it for their own political agendas. Your argument for why it ultimately does not really matter, however, certainly should still apply.

    • I do agree that we need the scientists to get a lot better at putting the point across, because those who oppose them do not fight fair (as indeed self-interest rarely does). At the moment it is easy to maintain that there is not scientific consensus on the issue, though many maintain that there is; and some of the proponents of immediate and urgent action are demonstrably ill-founded, although very many are not. But if the Middle Ages is such a problem they need to confront that problem and incorporate it, not pretend it doesn’t exist. So maybe you’re right that science should be better involved, but as you allow, it doesn’t really matter compared to the now.

      The science for the MWP is actually a lot less complicated to understand than the science for the current situation, because the evidence is so much thinner. Historic climate evidence has to come from lake cores, ice cores and very long-term dendrochronological series—I may have missed some other sources but these are the basic ones—and they can to an extent be filled out with anecdote and indirect evidence like the Vikings in Greenland or my vineyard example. For the current situation we have vastly more: ice coverage and thickness measured by satellite, almost global temparature measurements of varying standards and durations, non-stop weather reporting worldwide… Much of it appears to tell different stories per region and getting a hang of all of it is almost impossible for a layman; we wind up having to take scientists’ presentations on trust, and they conflict, or at least a few vocal opponents on each side make sure there is a conflict and the real weight of consensus is obscured. And it’s political, of course. But the MWP is just difficult to get a hang on because there’s only a little evidence. What there is, though, seems to be enough to show that it was there, largely Western European in focus, and seems to explain a few things. I wouldn’t like to say we won’t think differently in a few decades, but it seems unlikely. Whereas, as I was saying elsewhere recently, it’s very hard to say what we’ll think of the current state of knowledge about the climate now in that time. Ironic, really…

  3. Great Blog!

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes discussion on the CO2 issue, the medieval warm period and climategate.


    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.



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