Teaching Climate History in a Warming World

"Mongolia climate change and adaptation" Source: Asian Development Bank

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This semester, I taught my first course devoted exclusively to the environmental history of climate change. The course was, as one of my senior auditors pointed out, unusually ambitious. Luckily, I had a group of brilliant, hard-working students who embraced its challenges. Their coursework included a fifteen-page essay that connected a change in past global or regional climates to an episode in human history. They had to find a topic and then use a primary source to make an argument about that topic. They needed to support their argument using a blend of scientific and humanistic scholarship. The results were impressive, and you can read some of the abstracts here.

As my course reached its conclusion, I started thinking about how it could be improved for my next group of passionate Georgetown undergraduates. Courses dedicated largely or exclusively to climate history are only now becoming possible, so teaching guides are difficult to come by. With that in mind, I reached out to some of the environmental historians I respect most. I asked them some questions about teaching climate history to students, and I have copied their responses below. I have included my own reflections.

1. What is the biggest difference between teaching climate history and teaching other kinds of history? 
Professor Richard Hoffmann, York University:

HI have always taught climate history in the context of broader environmental history or even general survey courses. The introduction to history students of a new ‘historical agent’ and unfamiliar methodologies distinguishes climate history and several other aspects of environmental history (disease, agroecosystems). Perhaps oddly, undergraduates seem to me to take to the notion of climate having impact (but also assume a lot of determinism) much more readily than they grasp the need to understand palaeoscience.

Professor Alan MacEachern, Western University:

AThere are more graphs, I would say only somewhat facetiously. Keeling curve, pie charts, carbon cycle, etc. — some History students struggled early on with the tables, graphs, & illustrations that a course in climate history requires. And we jumped right in, with a first class entitled “The Earth’s Climate Made Easy (I hope).” But students got a lot out of learning to read them – reading them for the narratives & for the limitations of those narratives. For example, to see how much the graphic representation of the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age had changed from the 1990 IPCC to the 2007 IPCC is to see what’s gained and lost in a simplified narrative.

Professor John McNeill, Georgetown University:

MIn my case the biggest differences were that I team-taught with an earth scientist. He handled all lecturing on the physics of the climate system, and some of the changes in paleoclimate. I handled some of the latter, and all the impacts of climate shifts and shocks on human affairs.  That made it a lot easier for me, because I did not have to answer questions about atmospheric Rossby waves. However, it also made for some discontinuity in the class, as we shifted back and forth from climatology to climate history.

I also felt the course was spottier, more episodic than my usual undergraduate classes.  We began the chronological sequence 7 million years ago, with occasional backward glances to deeper time, and touched down at about two dozen moments between then and now. We employed a strong bias in favor of moments of climate change or extreme climate shocks and ignored almost everything in between.  And I felt the course was more constrained by paucity of data from some parts of the world.  Historians collectively have done a great job in the past 50 years of attending to the history of formerly neglected parts of the world.  Climate history data are still rather thin for some regions, and it will take time, and possibly new forms of proxy evidence, to remedy that.

Professor Dagomar Degroot, Georgetown University:

DDFor me, the immense temporal and geographic scales that climate history invites us to explore. My course began by showing why and how global climates fluctuated across tens and even hundreds of millions of years. It then connected climate changes to human evolution on 100,000-year scales. On the one hand, climate history provides a rare opportunity to introduce history students to the really deep past, and to explain why that past matters. On the other, that opportunity comes with risks. For example, we can easily fall into the deterministic trap of reducing human history to climate. Our courses can also lack coherence when we get into the most recent past. Because we suddenly have far more primary source accounts of human thoughts and actions, our temporal scale of analysis can abruptly narrow. We start to cover different topics: ideas of climate change, for example, that are simply impossible to reconstruct in any detail before the medieval period. Climate history, therefore, comes with unusual challenges, both for students (see below) and instructors.

2. What about climate history most challenges your students? 


Accepting the need to cope critically with non-traditional source materials and evidence.  Quantitative evidence, use of models, and theory are unfamiliar, even alien, to the mindset of many history students. In this, I’ll point out, climate history differs little from my early career experience trying to teach economic history and quantitative social history. Students will read right past graphs and tables, having learned in high school this method of avoidance. If you really wish to overcome this for at least the better students, you need to spend small group classroom time working laboriously through some such graphic presentations to force students to see how to draw conclusions. They then need to be walked through as small and clear a piece of palaeoscientific scholarship as we can find, so they see what the strengths and the limits of that data might be.

My best students in environmental history have either come from scientific backgrounds or realized early on the need to gain the expertise to be solid critical consumers of science to use it to help them understand the past.


Perhaps the matter of scale – both spatial & temporal scale. How worthwhile is a micro study if it’s an outlier in terms of what’s happening on most of the planet or across a longer period of time? Conversely, how worthwhile is a macro study if sociocultural specificity is lost? Of course, those are questions for all students of history: even if we assume the usefulness of the past, what / whose specific pasts should we be sure to know, and what lessons can we take from those pasts?

…I’d add a second challenge: The disconnect between how long we’ve known about climate change and how little we’ve done with that knowledge. A student mentioned being blown away by Kenneth Hare’s pronouncement at the 1988 Toronto climate conference, that climate change is “the central environmental problem of our times” – emphasis in original. And it’s been a generation since then.

A climate reconstruction of the past two millennia, used in Degroot's climate history course. Source: IPCC 2014.
A climate reconstruction of the past two millennia, used in Degroot’s climate history course. Source: IPCC 2014.


In our class I would guess the toughest challenge was handling two disparate sorts of data. While my colleague and I lectured on (and graded) only what we knew best, the students had no such luxury. So they had to master some technical and quantitative aspects of the climate system and atmospheric physics, but they also had to master the complexities of social change in wildly diverse cultural and political settings on which they had little background beyond what I was able to provide.


When my students signed up for my course, many did not know what to expect. Most thought they were taking a more traditional, narrowly focused history course, with a little bit of science thrown in. However, the first month of my course was all about Earth science and the distant, prehistorical past. We read some difficult articles and books that introduced my students to interdisciplinary methodologies and concepts. We interpreted graphs, graphs, and more graphs, with the occasional map thrown in. Some of my students acknowledged that they were much more at ease when we arrived at the more recent past, and human voices started appearing in course readings and lectures.​When I next teach my course, I must now decide whether to narrow its focus. It would, of course, be easier for me to teach a course on the last millennium of climate history. Doing that would let me devote much more time on some fascinating issues and concepts, including: how we reconstruct climate changes, what people might have thought about them, and how global warming was first discovered. However, students in other courses are rarely introduced to the perspective of the really deep past. Without the first month of my course, they might never come to understand how profoundly environmental changes have shaped humanity, and for how long humanity has transformed global environments. Climate history, therefore, forces us to make some hard pedagogical choices.

​3. After your students leave your course, what concept pertaining to climate history do you most want them to remember?


Understanding climate as patterns and trends in the atmosphere which are manifest both in specific kinds of events (catastrophes and ‘sunny days’) and slow onset movements (changes in winter severity, precipitation totals, etc) visible only in retrospect and at different spatial scales.  Learn why we would now rather refer, for example, to the “Medieval Climatic Anomaly’ instead of the “Medieval Warm Period” – and thus be open to different consequences for different human societies at the same time.


Again, it’s a concept that pertains not just to climate history, but to all history: determinism. Mike Hulme has a nice line about climate history too often making the past seem “climate-shaped.” Coming in, some of the students believed that, since this was a climate history course, we would find everything in history to be attributable to climate. Instead, we repeatedly discussed what would be the appropriate description of climate’s role in history, and how that role changed from case by case, place by place, time by time.


I’d like to think they can remember more than one concept from our class!  I’d like them to remember that climate has been changing, faster or slower, for time out of mind. I’d like them to remember that climate changes and shocks ripple through natural and human systems, affecting a wide range of things, beginning with agriculture but extending to less obvious areas, such as disease regimes, I’d like them to remember that human societies have responded and adjusted to climate change, although at times only at great cost. I’d like them to remember that most responses in times past involved migration.

Record-shattering global temperatures last month. Source: NASA GISS


I asked my students what they would take away from my climate history course. Here are some of their responses:

  1. Climate change affected the global history of humanity, even in the deep past!
  2. Climate change did not directly determine human history, and it will not directly determine our future. Climate change is one influence among the many that shape human action.
  3. Relationships between climate changes and human histories were complex and sometimes counterintuitive. Sometimes they unfolded gradually, and other times they followed from extreme events.
  4. Scholars should work with colleagues in other disciplines when reconstructing past environmental changes and their human consequences.
  5. Primary sources must be read carefully, with an eye to who, why, and for whom they were written.
  6. Anthropogenic climate change is already transforming our world. Without drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our planet will look very different by the end of the century. The consequences will be especially devastating for already marginalized communities.

All of these lessons are important, but the last one is closest to my heart. As an environmental historian, I love teaching about the past in ways that change how students understand the present and the future.  ​

4. In your opinion, how will the teaching of climate history change over the coming decade?


I’d like to hope you will be able to find more students in history classes better prepared to handle scientific and quantitative information and arguments . . . and not only because more students from science drop into your courses. It is also plain to me that you will have ever-increasing capabilities for interactive visual displays in the classroom setting, which you will need to employ as more than just eye candy and without letting such overwhelm critical thinking about how past people responded to and changed their experiences of climate events and trends.


As with environmental history, there’ll be growing acceptance within the history field that this is history: that historians have a role to play in understanding past climates and humans’ relationships to climate, and that this is history that students – Arts, Science, and Environmental Science students – should know.

And there’ll be more & better potential textbooks. Perhaps not surprisingly, I struggled to find a book that mixed a global history of climate with a history of meteorology with a history of our understanding of climate change. Instead, I cobbled from Behringer’s Cultural History of Climate, Weart’s Discovery of Global Warming, Zeller’s Inventing Canada, & a wide range of essays.


That’s a tough one. I imagine there are 50 ways to teach climate history now and as more people get into it that number will climb. So there will be many simultaneous but not necessarily parallel directions of change. That said, I hope we can look forward to more data from the neglected parts of the world; finer resolution for some of the data we think we have; more careful correlation of textual and natural archives on the part of practitioners in the field; and greater rigor in the assertions about climate’s impact on societies. If we get some of these things, the teaching of climate history will become more compelling for students. Something also depends on what climate change and extreme climate events the next ten years bring.  In this respect, the past we teach will depend on the future we await.


There will be ten more years of climate history. Many of my students were fascinated by the histories of the Syrian and Sudanese civil wars, which may have been provoked, in part, by climate change. Other students wanted to explore the probable relationship between anthropogenic warming and hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Most of my students were concerned by the ongoing transformation of the Arctic. All of these changes – and many others – have unfolded in the last decade. I fear that, in the next decade, we will have many more examples of climate history to capture the attention of our students.

These interviews were originally published at HistoricalClimatology.com. They are permanently featured on the redesigned website of the Climate History Network

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Dagomar Degroot is an associate professor of environmental history at Georgetown University in Washington, D. C. He is the founder and co-director of HistoricalClimatology.com and the Tipping Points Project, the co-director and co-founder of the Climate History Network, and the co-host of the podcast Climate History.

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