Climate Change and the Social Sciences

The experiments with Siberian pines are going nowhere. Dendroclimatologists have sliced and diced and entered the numbers. The results are not conclusive. The research is not going well. We need a more reliable source of information on the climate of the first millennium.

I’m not talking about ice cores, or rock formations. We need a human source. We need to hear from men and women. And why shouldn’t we? The period of greatest interest for the climate-change scientists is 750-1450 of the Common Era; it’s sometimes called the Medieval Warming Period (MWP). That’s not so long ago. (I won’t go into reasons for the interest in the MWP. Or as I should say, the so-called MWP. You probably know it. It’s long been supposed that there was a rise in temperature years ago followed by a brief “ice age.” Global warming prophets would be pleased to find the supposition false. A rise in temperature in the first millennium cannot easily be attributed to industrialization.)

But think about it. We don’t need to crunch trees. The human race has masses of records from the relevant years: no graphs and statistics, of course. No temperatures. What we have are words and pictures; poems, sculptures, histories, diaries, letters, annals, laws.

We know what people wore in the first millennium and where they lived; we know their seasonal occupations; we know when lands came under the plough; we know whether farmlands were abandoned, and when and why. We know what people planted and when. We know when they harvested. We know what they were hunting, what the edible plants were, when garden plants bloomed. We know road conditions, storms, tides. I’ll come up with a longer list at some point.

We could draw up a weather chart for 750-1450. Of course. Decade by decade? We could probably do it year by year if necessary. We’ll need historians of all kinds; political scientists, students of language and literature. Let’s do it. We’ll describe the change – or lack of change – in all the currently populated areas of the northern hemisphere. We needn’t confine ourselves to the MWP. We’ll examine the centuries before and after to put things in perspective. There will be issues about interpretation. But one thing’s certain; the “raw data” will never be dumped. It’s all in the public sphere, in published form or on the Internet, or in carefully guarded archives, museums, universities, and special collections.

It will be a huge job, of course. It will cost millions. And now perhaps you see the point of this note. Why shouldn’t the social sciences and arts side of the campus get some of the millions in grant money presently going to the tree crunchers?

Think of the book titles! What Shakespeare Can Tell Us about Climate Change. When the Greeks Bundled Up; Costume and Global Warming. Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Let’s think first about the grant applications. And international cooperation. And conferencing. And new organizations and academic specialties. We are going to have fun.

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