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A survey on climate change over the last 10 000 years is provided in this research paper. It highlights natural (orbital elements, solar irradiance, volcanic explosions) and anthropogenic (greenhouse) forcing. The research paper introduces the reader to Historical Climatology, which reconstructs weather and climate from documentary evidence on daily to seasonal resolutions. Climate change over the last millennium in China, Europe, and the Mediterranean, South America, Japan and Africa is summarized. Dealing with the societal impacts of climate requires the consideration of social and cultural factors, which underlie people’s ongoing vulnerability. This research paper emphasizes the need for case studies combining quantitative and narrative approaches rather than demonstrating the deterministic synchrony of climate and historical events.
- Global Climatic Changes and Forcing Factors
- The Approach of Historical Climatology
- Main Trends of Climatic Variability in the Last Millennium
- Europe and the Mediterranean
- South America
- Weather, Climate and History
Past climate has become an important issue in the climatic change debate. Though hundreds of scholars have assembled robust evidence that the world’s climate has significantly changed in the past due to the anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases, their findings are still put in doubt by a handful of scientists from outside the field of climatology (Oreskes and Conway, 2010). The first section of this research paper presents the main types of evidence used to reconstruct past climate and summarizes scientifically accepted results of global climate change since the end of the last Ice Age. The second section deals with the approach of Historical Climatology. The third section reviews the main trends of regional climate variability over the past millennium. Links between past climatic impacts, human perception, and social action are addressed in the last section.
Global Climatic Changes and Forcing Factors
This paragraph mainly draws on the review written by Wanner et al. (2008). For the past one million years the Earth’s climate has been characterized by an alternation of glacial and interglacial episodes, marked by the waxing and waning of continental ice sheets. Over the last 9000 years the distribution of total solar irradiance was progressively reduced in the Northern Hemisphere and enhanced in the Southern Hemisphere, due to changes in the orbital parameters (Figure 1). After the Climatic Optimum 6000 years before the present, these tendencies led to a southward shift of the climatic zones resulting (among other effects) in the desertification of the once green Sahara.
Figure 1. Insolation changes based on the orbital forcing during the last 10 000 years at 65 and 15 North and South during the corresponding summer season. Wanner, Heinz, Neukom, Raphael, 2010. Changes of the climate system in Europe. Nova Acta Leopoldina 112, 45–58.
Globally unevenly distributed, decadal to century long, warm and cold fluctuations caused by natural forcing (solar irradiance activity and tropical volcanic eruptions) and variability due to feedbacks within the climate system, were superimposed on this long-term north hemispheric cooling trend. During the Roman Period (250 BC to AD 400) temperatures in Europe were somewhat higher than at present due to orbital and solar forcing, which is an important, but often overlooked argument in the climatic change debate. The subsequent Migration Period (AD 400 to 800) was cooler. A sharp cold relapse in the AD 530s due to volcanic forcing, led to several ‘years without a summer’ in Europe and to drought in other parts of the world (Gunn, 2000). Climate in Europe was mild during the early millennium due to solar and orbital forcing, albeit not so warm as during the late twentieth century. Much of humanity, particularly in the Americas, Northern China, as well as in the Saharan Sahel, the Nile Valley, and Eastern Africa suffered from long periods of severe aridity (Fagan, 2008). A subsequent period of cooling, the Little Ice Age (about AD 1300 to 1900) connected to orbital forcing, reduced solar irradiance and frequent tropical volcanic eruptions and led to repeated far-reaching glacier advances around the globe. The Little Ice Age is composed of manifold monthly and seasonal temperature and precipitation patterns, also including warm phases and droughts. The global temperature rise of the last 150 years is attributed to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, which accelerated since the 1950s in step with the increased use of fossil fuels (Pfister, 2010). “Humans are now a global force that rivals the geophysical forces of nature in many aspects” (Costanza et al., 2005: 12). Since 1990, global mean temperatures have very likely been higher than at any previous time during the last 1000 years.
The Approach of Historical Climatology
Three kinds of evidence are used for reconstructing past climate. First, proxy evidence stored in archives of nature (e.g., tree-rings and ice-cores) and second, documentary proxy evidence preserved in the archives of societies (e.g., chronicles, diaries, account books). Third, instrumental measurements of climatic elements carried out by individuals from the late seventeenth century. Such observations were institutionalized within national and global networks from the nineteenth century (Brázdil et al., 2010). Climate reconstructions in the instrumental period are reviewed in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Trenberth and Jones, 2007).
Climatic change is a statistical artifact that cannot be readily related to human perception and societal action. Climate sciences are directed at an improved understanding of the climate system. Starting from models of the physical world they extend the climate record as far back in time as possible on the basis of statistical procedures. Such macro-approaches are not suited for demonstrating people–climate interactions. Societies are sensitive and responsive to (extreme) weather anomalies taking place within daily to multi-seasonal time windows, which calls for micro-approaches. This awareness gained ground in the 1990s because an increase in weather extremes and disasters led to an additional focus on climate variability and extremes. This trend promoted a rise in historical disaster studies (Schenk and Engels, 2007) and an increasing consideration of short-term events within Historical Climatology.
The field of Historical Climatology is situated at the interface of climatology and (environmental) history, using methods and skills from both disciplines. Its objectives are threefold: First, past weather and climate of the period prior to the creation of national meteorological services are reconstructed. Second, the vulnerability of past societies to climate variations and extremes is investigated. Thirdly, debates on, and social representations, of weather and climate are explored (Pfister, 2007). Over the last 40 years Historical Climatologists (most of them being geographers, historians, and physicists) directed most of their time and effort to the collection of documentary data and the reconstruction of past climatic conditions. Given the short documentary record available to them, cooperation with archaeologists is very important for Climate Historians in North America (Carey, 2012). Until very recently climatic change was rarely addressed in syntheses of (European) environmental history, early exceptions being John F. Richards (2001) and John McNeill (2003).
The discussion on the social significance of climatic variations was long discredited by environmental determinism carried to an extreme by the geographer Ellsworth Huntington in the early twentieth century and by his followers to the present day (Fleming, 1998). The debate was relaunched from the late 1950s by the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a leading scholar of the French Annales School. His pioneering work was widely read and received, particularly in the English translation (Le Roy Ladurie, 1972). The English meteorologist Hubert Lamb, who took an active interest in history, became Le Roy Ladurie’s most prominent opponent. He was convinced that weather and climate had affected human affairs in the past and that humankind would do well to examine some of the lessons provided by nature (Lamb, 1995).
Documentary sources contain two different kinds of evidence, namely: (1) narrative accounts on (unusual) weather spells and weather-induced disasters; and (2) biophysical evidence such as advances or delays of vegetation in the boreal summer half year and the presence or absence of frost, ice, and snow in the boreal winter half year. Another important distinction is related to the agents who kept the records, distinguishing between individuals and institutions. Individuals usually put an emphasis on describing extreme events such as floods, droughts, frosts, and hailstorms, their socioeconomic impact, and their perception. They referred to biophysical evidence as a means to provide evidence that could be compared over time. Sources created by individuals are singular and relatively short, ending, at the latest, with the death of the observer. Institutions are bodies maintaining administrative functions within existing territorial structures. Their officeholders kept year by year records on weather dependent resources and activities (Pfister et al., 2009), such as the time of grape and grain harvests or the opening or closing of harbors in the Baltic (e.g., Leijonhufvud et al., 2010). Institutional functions involved more or less standardized procedures and these often worked in the same way for centuries, often generating multi-secular, long, continuous, and quasihomogeneous series of proxy data. Ship’s logbooks covering large parts of the world’s oceans, including the high latitudes, are probably the most important institutional source. All officers on board of a (war) ship had to keep a logbook, which involved laying down regular observations on wind direction, wind force, weather, and – eventually – sea and ice conditions. Logbooks usually adopt a standardized vocabulary and system of recording. Hundreds of thousands of logbooks are contained in the archives of naval powers, of which just a sample has so far been investigated in the framework of the EU Project CLIWOC (Wheeler et al., 2006).
Historical Climatologists developed a specific approach of climate reconstruction tailored to investigations on climate impacts as well as extreme value and disaster analysis. It allows integrating data on daily, monthly, and seasonal time scales into systematic monthly and seasonal reconstruction of temperatures and precipitation. Data fields containing direct narrative and calibrated indirect data are assigned synthetic ordinal (ranked) variables called temperature and precipitation indices taking a finite number of 3 to 7 values. This approach, elaborated by the Swiss historian and geographer Christian Pfister (1984) and based on preliminary work by Lamb (1977), became standard in Historical Climatology. Dobrovolný et al. (2010) used the palaeoclimatological calibration and verification approach to assess monthly and seasonal temperatures for Central Europe (Germany, Czechia, and Switzerland) from the so called Pfister Indices for the period from AD 1500 to present. The Middle Ages are included in millennium records of temperature variations for the Netherlands (Shabalova and van Engelen, 2003) as well as for Germany and Central Europe (Glaser and Riemann, 2009).
Main Trends of Climatic Variability in the Last Millennium
Today, there are six major foci of Historical-Climatologic research, namely China, Europe and the Mediterranean, South America, Japan, Africa, and the World’s Oceans. For North- America, no review is available yet. In the Arab world an annalistic tradition is known to exist, but research on past weather and climate has hardly begun (Weintritt, 2009). In India, South-East Asia, and Oceania the potential for Historical Climatology still needs to be explored.
Ge et al. (2008) have composed a review article on climate history of China introducing the climatic information recorded in Chinese historical documents in easily understandable form and including a glossary. Systematic documentary records were kept beginning in the Qin dynasty (221 BC). The emperors strived to secure reports on current weather events and disasters from the provinces, with a view to taking timely measures to forestall the outbreak of famine-driven riots. Records mainly cover the eastern part of the country. Under the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368 to 1644) the central government called local scholars to compile the body of knowledge on past and current geography and to report on natural disasters, population, and agricultural resources. Under the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644 to 1911) administrative centers had to submit memos on their daily administrative activities to the Emperor. From AD 1736, officials were required to compile data on the duration of rainfall, including its implications for crop growth. The reports had to be prepared by the responsible officials in person and their reliability was checked. Local chroniclers recorded extraordinary phenomena in the natural world, assuming that disasters reflected on people’s behavior and the government’s performance. A discourse describing China as a country especially prone to natural disaster became dominant during the second half of the nineteenth century (Janku, 2009).
In South China the thirteenth century was the warmest of the last millennium. Three cold periods – AD 1470 to 1520; AD 1620 to 1740; and AD 1840 to 1890 – have been identified in the Little Ice Age. In North China two cold periods – AD 1500 to 1690 and AD 1800 to 1860 – stand out over the last six centuries. Climate variability increased markedly throughout the nineteenth century to a maximum in the early twentieth century (Wang et al., 1991).
Europe and the Mediterranean
Research in Europe was reviewed by Brázdil et al. (2010). Though some documentary evidence exists in most European countries, only a few of them have been engaged in systematic, historical-climatologic investigations: these being the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the UK. Progress in climate reconstruction in these countries was spurred through EU projects. Syntheses in the form of monthly and seasonal charts, spatial charts of seasonal sea-level pressure, temperature, and precipitation dating back to AD 1500, were produced by the team led by Jürg Luterbacher (Luterbacher et al., 2002, 2004; Pauling et al., 2006).
In a diachronic perspective, the known evidence is summarized according to four cumulative time frames:
- AD 1000 to 1200: individual reports of socio-economically significant anomalies and (weather induced) disasters.
- AD 1200 to 1500: more or less continuous clusters of individual reports on summer and winter, partly on spring, including references to ‘average’ conditions. A wealth of administrative/institutional records exists in England for the period c. AD 1270 to 1400, which contains both direct weather references as well as institutional proxy information (Pribyl et al., 2012).
- AD 1500 to 1800: almost complete monthly weather descriptions exist for Switzerland (Pfister, 1999), Germany (Glaser, 2008), and Czechia (Brázdil et al., 2010). The keeping of weather diaries was promoted by the rise of planetary astronomy and its application in astrometeorology. Thirty-two sixteenth century weather diaries are so far known for Central Europe. The data obtained from these sources provided the backbone for setting up monthly precipitation statistics (Pfister et al., 1999). Institutional sources giving long series of dates of grape harvests (Daux et al., 2011) and grain harvests (Mozny et al., 2010; Wetter and Pfister, 2011) are abundant. Records of rogations (i.e., standardized religious ceremonies to put an end to meteorological stress situations) were widely used for climate reconstructions in Spain (Barriendos, 2009).
- AD 1650 to 1860: the establishment of short-lived networks of early instrumental observations, the first being ‘Rete Medicea’ (AD 1653 to 1677) based in Florence and comprising 10 stations (Camuffo, 2002). A later network, the ‘Societas Meteorologica Palatina,’ founded 1780 by Karl Theodor, Prince Elector of the Palatinate, included 39 individual scientists resident across Europe, in Siberia, Greenland, and North America. The Second Coalition War put an end to this organization in 1795 (Lingelbach, 1980). Regional instrumental networks were set up in the early nineteenth century, which were integrated into national and global networks after 1850.
Subsequent climatic trends are summarized: after a cold phase in the twelfth century, winters were prevailingly warm from AD 1180 to 1300. From AD 1300 to 1900, the winter half year was colder than today, due to more frequent advection of cold, dry air-masses from the Northeast. Springs were extremely cold in the 1690s and the 1740s. Summers in the thirteenth century were prevailingly warm and dry. In the fourteenth century, clusters of cold and wet summers occurred repeatedly (e.g., in the 1310s and 1340s). April to July temperatures in England dropped by 0.6 C from AD 1256 to 1431, affecting the economy by a higher frequency of extremely cold ‘growing seasons’ (Pribyl et al., 2012). From AD 1380 to 1430 and again from AD 1530 to 1565 the summer half-year was as warm as it is today.
Cold spells and long rains in midsummer became more frequent in the late sixteenth century (Pfister, 2007). The period AD 1640 to 1650 witnessed harsh weather and severe famines in many countries, also outside Europe (Parker, 2008). Warm decades stand out in the 1720s, the 1730s, and in the 1780s in Western and Central Europe, whereas the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly the 1810s, were markedly cooler (Bradley and Jones, 1996; Pfister, 1999; Glaser, 2008).
Winters in Russia became more severe from the end of the sixteenth century, in particular from AD 1620 to 1680 and during the first half of the nineteenth century. The first half of the sixteenth century was warm in all seasons. Subsequently, cold spells occurred more often from AD 1590 to 1620 and from AD 1690 to 1740, with a peak in the 1730s. Droughts were frequent from AD 1201 to 1230, AD 1351 to 1380, and AD 1411 to 1440; and again from AD 1640 to 1659, from AD 1680 to 1699, and from AD 1801 to 1860. Summers from AD 1890 to 1920 were the coldest in the last 500 years and extremely dry and wet seasons were frequent (Bradley and Jones, 1996).
Climatic trends in the Mediterranean since AD 1500 were reviewed by Luterbacher et al. (2006). Winter temperatures were, with respect to AD 1961 to 1990 averages, almost consistently colder until the 1950s. In Catalonia (Northeastern Spain) dry spells in the winter half-year were frequent in the mid sixteenth century, but almost absent from AD 1580 to 1620 (Barriendos, 2009). The Mediterranean witnessed increased precipitation in the form of torrential rain and, at times, increased snowfall at higher altitudes (Tabak, 2008).
The Argentinean historian and geographer Maria Rosario Prieto reviewed the studies in this continent up to AD 1810. Most work was done in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, although evidence also exists in other countries. The Spanish colonization of America from the sixteenth century relied on a rampant bureaucracy. The resulting documentation includes weekly reports on notable incidents including weather, harvest expenditures, and food supplies. Sources from priests, military officers, or civilians, such as letter collections, travel journals, annals, or diaries provide more continuous information. From AD 1784 the Spanish Crown asked each municipality to submit a half-yearly report about weather (impacts), agriculture, and trade. Logbooks of ships sailing the surrounding oceans provided daily information on winds and weather conditions. The transition to the Republican period after AD 1810 led to gaps in the record. Newspapers became a useful source of information in the postcolonial period. The first meteorological stations were established in the late nineteenth century.
In most regions, cold conditions prevailed from the late sixteenth to the early seventeenth century (e.g., in Central Europe). The Mendoza river stream flow in Argentina was smaller from AD 1600 to 1670, due to lower summer temperatures and reduced melting of snow in the Andes. A long, cold interval from AD 1520 to 1660 stands out in the Northern Patagonian Andes (Rosario Prieto and García- Herrera, 2008).
Historical Climatology in Japan was reviewed by the geographer Takehiko Mikami. Climatic trends in the ‘pre-instrumental’ period are based upon three kinds of proxy-data. (1) The annual dates when Lake Suwa in central Japan froze have been recorded since the fifteenth century, and these dates are highly correlated to December and January temperatures. When Lake Suwa freezes, the shrinkage and expansion of the ice due to diurnal temperature variations produces a specific feature (Omiwatari) resembling a bridge over the lake. The annual appearance of Omiwatari gave rise to a celebration the date of which was recorded and retained. (2) Cherry blossom is known in Japanese culture as a symbol for the ephemeral nature of life. Picnicking under a blossoming cherry tree (hanami) became first a custom of the Imperial elite in Kyoto and spread then gradually to other strata of society (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherry_blossom). Year-to-year variations in full flowering dates of cherry trees in Kyoto were recorded since AD 1001 and were used as a proxy for estimating March temperatures. (3) Families in many parts of the country kept weather diaries from the early eighteenth century. Based on this evidence, July temperatures in Tokyo from 1721 to the present, have been estimated.
Reconstructed mean December–January temperatures were 1 to 1.5 C lower in the early 1600s than in the years AD 1961 to 1990. Winters then warmed up between AD 1750 and 1850. March temperatures were higher during the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and relatively lower during the Little Ice Age. Estimated July temperatures from AD 1721 to 1790 were 1 to 1.5 C lower than in the years AD 1961 to 1990. Midsummers were rather warm in the nineteenth century. A cold relapse down to the low level of AD 1740 occurred around 1900 (Mikami, 2008).
The evidence for the last two centuries was reviewed by the climatologist Sharon E. Nicholson. Few instrumental records exist prior to the twentieth century, and most of these dealt with rainfall. However, documentary proxy information permits a quasi-continuous record on precipitation patterns since the early eighteenth century. Nineteenth century rainfall variability in Lesotho (Southern Africa) was investigated by Nash and Grab (2010).
During the Medieval Warm Period and again from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, Northern and Southern Africa benefited from rather humid conditions. From the late eighteenth century arid conditions prevailed again, particularly during the 1820s and 1830s. Since then, several periods of abundant rainfall (AD 1860 to 1894; in the 1920s and 1930s; in the 1950s) alternated with periods of severe drought (in the 1910s and the 1960s) to the present. Nicholson argued that the recent droughts in Africa are more driven by changing rainfall than by land-use change and desertification (Nicholson, 2001).
Weather, Climate and History
Human history is usually cast in terms of the rise and fall of great civilizations, wars, and specific human achievements, leaving out the ecological and climate context, which shaped and mediated these events (Costanza et al., 2005). However, “the inclusion of the climate factor in the study of history should not be regarded as a search for an alternative, and deterministic, explanation of the past, but as an expansion of the context in which the workings of past societies are to be understood.” (De Vries, 1985: 274). Indeed, the effects of climatic fluctuations or ‘climate’ on the course of ‘history’ are difficult to demonstrate, because both climate and history are blanket terms, situated on such a high level of abstraction that relationships between them cannot be investigated in a scientifically meaningful way. On a very general level, it could be said that beneficial climatic effects tend to enlarge the scope of human action, whereas climatic shocks tend to restrict it. The sequences of climatic situations that mattered, depended upon the vulnerability of the impacted groups and societies to climatic hazards (Pfister, 2007). Social (or internal) vulnerability encompasses the entirety of structural factors that determine the outcome of an event of a given nature, as well as the severity of factors such as poverty, dependence on outside support, and the ability to cope with specific hazards (Füssel, 2007). Striking differences of vulnerability may arise within very small areas, as the example of Switzerland in the European subsistence crisis of 1816/17 demonstrates. Whereas the easternmost proto-industrialized parts of the country, cut off by embargoes from their main breadbasket in neighboring Germany, suffered from famine, the western region being almost self-sufficient, only underwent a mild form of food deprivation (Krämer, 2012).
In many cases, however, investigations of climate and history limit themselves to hinting at the synchronicity of climatic and economic events. A recent example is a tree ring-based study linking the temperature depression of the early seventeenth century in Europe with the Thirty Years War (Büntgen et al., 2011). With regard to China, Zhang et al. (2007) correlated analyses of natural proxy data from national archives with hypothesized data on harvests and demography, to demonstrate interrelations between climatic change, the frequency of conflicts, and dynastic rise and fall. A study on the relationship between frequency of wars and climate in Europe was attempted by Tol and Wagner (2010). Historian Ka-wai Fan (2010) argues that scientists too often fail to acknowledge the complexity of history and the overwhelming role played by human beings. Indeed, the authors of all three above mentioned papers overlooked the truism recalled by Martin Parry (1981) that “an investigation of the synchronicity of climatic and economic events infers a space– time coincidence rather than causality.” (p. 321). Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch (2000) note in this context that “a large proportion of today’s climate impact research is genuine climate determinism” (p. 187).
A human history of climate should highlight those extreme climate anomalies that are known to have affected everyday life and disrupted daily routines. In particular this relates to those conditions on which humans depend for their basic needs and well-being, i.e., the availability of water, food, and energy. Every vulnerability analysis needs an appropriate focus, considering of course, the interrelationships of the many dimensions of vulnerability (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Impacts of extreme climate events on societies. Pfister, Christian, 2007. Climatic extremes, recurrent crises and witch hunts: strategies of European societies in coping with exogenous shocks in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Medieval History Journal 10, 1–41.
Food availability is a major focus of (historical) climate impact studies. A history linking climate and society should draw on extreme events and highlight changes in the frequency of weather spells that were recognized by contemporaries to be responsible for widespread weather-related crop failures. In any case, the contexts of historical events need to be highlighted to provide meaningful explanations.
There is agreement that societies do not just react to climatic stimuli. Brian Fagan (2008) was amazed “how remarkably flexible human societies were in much of the world one thousand years ago” (p. 236). Climatic impacts become critical, “when a society reached a critical mass, a density of urban population and non-farmers that was unsustainable in drought cycles or an agrarian economy that had exhausted the land and all opportunities for diversification” (p. 237). As Jared Diamond (2005) put it: “One of the main lessons to be learned from the collapse of past societies [.] is that a steep decline may begin only a decade or two after a society reached its peak numbers, wealth and power” (p. 509). The reaction of the ruling elites to climate and environmental change may be decisive for the survival of states and empires in such situations. Besides the well-known paradigm of Easter Island (e.g., Diamond, 2005), the example of the Western Roman Empire, (a large, multicultural state entity of the size of the European Union) is worth recalling in this context: The cooling trend from the late second century AD affected the size of harvests and thus the revenues of the Empire. The imperial bureaucracies and the army were so much expanded, that the taxable peasants became unable to bear the tax burden in the context of falling harvests; and they fled the land leaving large arable tracts uncultivated. In the end, the Emperor could not pay his armies any more, whereupon these seized power and deposed him (Tainter and Crumley, 2005).
In a seminal article Robert W. Kates (1985) distinguished several levels of climatic impacts (see Figure 3). Their sequence and the size of the intermediate arrows indicate, how closely these effects are related to climatic impact.
Figure 3. A basic model of climatic impacts on society. Kates, Robert W., 1985. The interaction of climate and society. In: Kates, Robert W., Ausubel, Jesse H., Berberian, Mimi (Eds.), Climate Impact Assessment: Studies of the Interaction of Climate and Society, vol. 27. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 3–36; Pfister, Christian, 2007. Climatic extremes, recurrent crises and witch hunts: strategies of European societies in coping with exogenous shocks in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The Medieval History Journal 10, 1–41.
The quantity and storability of crops situated on the first level are most immediately related to the weather. However, most members of premodern societies had developed sophisticated strategies (e.g., horizontal and vertical crop diversification) to cope with the risk of harvest failure. Fluctuations in food prices are among the most obvious second-order consequences. Climatic effects on this level are, however, masked by intervening factors, such as trade, the stocking of public grain, hoarding, and speculation. Third-order effects, such as demographic effects, are intertwined with epidemiological and public health contexts in ways that are highly controversial. Malnutrition is known to be contingent on distributional systems, in turn dependent on power relations, factors of class and gender, and the supportive capacity of social networks. Whether famines resulted in social upheaval largely depended on the quality of governance. The farther we move away from first-order effects, the broader are the options open to individual or collective actors. Likewise, the web of factors masking the climatic effect gets to be more complex. Of course, the one-directional, top-down arrays are heuristically motivated oversimplifications. As is well known, the role of feedback is crucial in complex socioecological systems, and a it is major reason why simple cause and effect paradigms often have little explanatory power (Costanza et al., 2005: 14).
A major difference in dealing with climate impact studies relates to the fact that natural sciences mainly depend on quantitative or quantified data, while human sciences mainly draw on narrative or qualitative evidence. Case studies in terms of absorbing narratives are closest to people’s perceptions and experiences, but they are hardly suited for generalizations. In some cases it may be possible to model relationships between weather, harvests, and prices (e.g., Pfister and Brázdil, 2006). In general, cold periods in March and April and rainy midsummers affected the quantity and quality of all sources of agricultural produce in temperate Europe (Pfister, 2007). Cultural analyses of climate change illuminate the response of ‘real people’ to climate change. At present, it is scientifically accepted “that climate is both the physical characteristics of the climate system and a cultural construction that emerges from perceptions, meanings, spirituality, discourse, and distinct knowledge bases that vary in time and space” (Carey, 2012; Daniels and Endfield, 2009).
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