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Climate change is a historical and political product

28/09/2022

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The Conversation

Loris de Nardi

researcher Marie Curie at the Institute for Culture and Society (ICS), University of Navarra

Climate change has become the challenge issue one of our societies. This summer's news clearly demonstrates this: droughts, fires and heat waves are no longer exceptional, but the norm. Not to mention other phenomena that do not give cause for concern, such as melting sea ice or rising sea levels, which will cause many coasts to be submerged in the coming years.

Climate change is the main consequence of global warming: a natural phenomenon in itself, but one that has been accelerated and exacerbated over the last two centuries by certain human practices. These include the massive injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, mainly due to the widespread use of fossil fuels as a result of the technological innovations introduced in England by the first Industrial Revolution and subsequently adopted by almost all nations during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Historic milestones with serious consequences

Both global warming and its most evident consequence, climate change, far from being a natural phenomenon that determines the progressive alteration of some of the main biophysical dynamics of the planet, must be considered as the result of historical processes.

Let's take a simple but significant example. During the 18th century, the invention of the steam engine triggered the first Industrial Revolution in England, which brought about substantial social and productive changes. The establishment of the bourgeois order and the implementation of a liberal capitalist society allowed these changes to spread throughout the European continent during the first decades of the following century, which led the main countries to promote industrialization processes that were more or less successful, depending on the case.

All this was not at zero cost. The need for large quantities of wood and coal to power the steam engines justified and drove deforestation. This, in turn, led to a harsher climate and increased hydro-meteorological risk in various mountainous regions of the continent.

For example, due to the absence of the forest canopy, in many valleys of the Italian-French Alpine arc, winters began to become harsher, summers hotter and rainfall less frequent but more intense. The mountains, stripped of their wooded crowns, could no longer retain rainfall and began to be eroded by water and wind.

The result was a significant increase in periods of famine and drought, torrential rains and disastrous alluvial events. In other words, what we are experiencing now at the global level, was already being experienced at the local or regional level.

Warning voices

One wonders whether our ancestors knew what they were doing when they razed entire forests, many of them thousands of years old. Were they aware of the consequences that their actions would have on both the climate and the environment?

According to the official narrative promoted by the natural and physical sciences during the last decades and that today conditions national and international governmental agendas, the answer is no. In fact, as some environmental historians have opportunely denounced, the official history of the Anthropocene erroneously states that mankind did not know what it was doing. In fact, as some environmental historians have opportunely denounced, the official history of the Anthropocene erroneously affirms that humanity did not know what it was doing. At least not until the middle of the last century, when biologists, chemists and geologists began to discover that our lifestyle was altering planetary processes and that this would introduce changes in climate and make exceptional natural phenomena more frequent and intense.

At the 1995 Nobel Prize ceremony presentation , awarded to Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, Mexican chemical engineer Mario Molina and U.S. chemist Sherwood Rowland for their research on atmospheric Chemistry and prediction of ozone layer thinning as a result of the emission of certain industrial gases (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), Ingmar Grenthe of the Swedish Academy of Sciences said: "We have come to understand that we influence and are influenced by our biosphere, our vital area . One of the goals of science is to describe and explain how that happens.

However, under the historian's magnifying glass, this official account does not hold up. If we return to our example, the deforestation of vast areas of the Alpine arc in the 19th century, we find many contemporary observers who did not hesitate to denounce what was happening. Among them was, for example, the Italian Pietro Caimi, who as early as 1857 referred to the savage deforestation that, in a few decades, starting in the early years of the 19th century, had stripped the Valtelina mountains in north-central Italy. Caimi wrote:

"I would like to be a false prophet, but I predict a sad future for the Valtelina if the forest devastations on its mountains are not stopped and if its forests are not brought back to life. In less than a century its plains will become swamps, its hills will become barren, its rivers and torrents will devastate its crops and its villages. The degraded mountains will hit the population with avalanches".

Pietro Caimi, Cenni sulla importanza dei boschi.

A product of our decisions

As can be seen, understanding climate change as a historical process offers the advantage of leaving behind the presentism that characterizes it today and, at the same time, offering the population a much more complete and convincing explanation of the phenomenon. Even more so if we consider that it would allow us to make it clear, once and for all, that this overwhelming disaster that scientists have been denouncing for decades is not something of today, surprising, but something that we built with our own hands, sometimes in a reasoned and conscious manner.

We are no longer living on the threshold of a new world produced by climate change, or rather of new worlds, because it is clear that not all societies are prepared or have the necessary resources to properly face this possibly disastrous juncture. We are already in them and, in spite of that, many governments and individuals refuse to recognize it.

Analyzing and explaining with the categories and methodologies of political and institutional history the decisions that brought us to the brink of the abyss could help to counteract denialism, raise public awareness and hold those in power accountable. Climate change, before being natural, is a historical and therefore political product.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

The Conversation