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What the Climate Can Change

By Jörg Friedrichs

Society can change climate, and climate can change society. Below, Jörg Friedrichs suggests that it is helpful to look at distant historical periods and episodes for insight on how the social and political consequences of environmental pressures may unfold. 

Society can change climate, and climate can change society. Climate change can have social and political effects in many different ways, but the most basic ones are related to human needs. Our subsistence depends on food, drink, and shelter. Food depends on agriculture, while drink depends on fresh water. Agriculture also depends on fresh water, as well as fertile land. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have dramatic consequences for the availability of fresh water and fertile land; and, thereby, for access to food and drink. The third basic human need, shelter, requires a stable land base. Alas, climate change is expected to affect that land base via rising sea levels and other losses of human habitat. Consider that, in combination with energy scarcity, climate change can throw industrial civilization into agony, and you get a real sense of the magnitude of the challenge.

To understand what might happen under such circumstances, it is most useful to look at the effects of climate change episodes before the advent of industrial civilization. As a baseline, I present a model that was originally developed to account for the social and political dislocations caused by climatic cooling in the early modern period. I argue that, paradoxically, the social and political effects of climatic cooling are similar in kind to the effects of climatic warming because, regardless of the nature of the forcing, the decisive issue at stake is whether or not human society is able to cope with that forcing.

Back to the Future
Sometimes the recent past is a poor guide to the future, just as what you see in the rear-view mirror of your car is a poor indicator of the road lying ahead. To overcome the comfortable but deceptive cognitive habit of assuming that tomorrow will always be like yesterday, it is helpful to look at more distant historical periods and episodes for insight on how the social and political consequences of environmental pressures may unfold.

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