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Can Historians Be Helpful in Addressing the Climate Crisis?

So there I was, sometime around January 2005 finishing up one of the very frequent public talks I often give on international issues when an audience member walked up to me. It had been a good discussion of critical challenges from Iraq and China to Globalization and Global Warming and I was feeling pretty positive when the guy ever so politely said “I much appreciated your talk but your explanation that some of the rising ocean levels we have seen of late comes from heated waters taking up more room is wrong.” You see, he told me, “I am a chemist and water does not expand when heated.” What was a I suppose to say? What did I know? I was trained in history and political science. It later turned out the guy was wrong. Water does expand when heated, not much but when one deals with volumes the size of oceans it matters quite a bit and does contribute to rising waters around the world.

But it was in that encounter that I realized that if I wanted to continue my role discussing the most important international issues, climate change was going to require some retooling. Thus, I jumped at the chance, announced just after the documentary An Inconvenient Truth debuted to personally train with Al Gore to offer updated versions of the slide show.

So off I went, in January of 2007, to take part in one of the extended seminars former vice president Gore and various scientists associated with the Intergovermental Panal on Climate Change were offering in Nashville. Upon my arrival I found myself among one of the most impressive groups of people I had ever met. Scientists and clergy, academics and engineers, about all they had in common was a commitment to help spread the message of how seriously we are threatened by climate change and the professional accomplishments and speaking skills necessary to do so effectively.

Not surprisingly, the question of why Al Gore was working so intensively with small groups rather than running for president came up constantly and the answer after spending considerable time with him seemed obvious. Mr Gore believes that we will only effectively take on climate change by creating a global mass roots campaign to force politicians, corporations and the general public to take the climate crisis seriously. While Gore himself clearly believes that the most effective use of his time is to help create that global movement rather than simply running for political office.

And thus I began, not without of course considerably more study than even the admittedly impressive Mr. Gore could jam into my head in a few days. I then joined the ranks of those who Gore’s Climate Project have sent out into the communities of America and more recently around the world.

Naturally not all presenters merely give updated versions of the slide show in An Inconvenient Truth. As an historian I have tried to incorporate my own understanding of modern environmental history, most notably the insights available in such works as John Robert McNeil’s wonderful Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century to complement Mr. Gore’s material.

To date I have myself given more than sixty presentations at colleges, high schools, libraries and government agencies while the larger group of over 2,300 people personally trained by Al Gore has given a combined total of some 15,000 talks to well over a million people.

In my own case, once I had become comfortable with the science of contemporary climate change, I began to reflect not just on humanity’s future as climate change becomes more and more obvious but on how it has played out in the past. And even more importantly in what specific ways we professional historians can contribute to this newest and historically profound challenge that faces humanity.

The core question of course is what our current climate challenge has to do with the profession of historian. Human-made climate change is after all a problem more of the present and future rather than the historical material we so often focus on. But from the perspective of at least this historian such an attitude could not be more incorrect. Historians have an enormous role to play in this great challenge.

I am of course, one of those historians who thinks that a good knowledge of the past does an excellent job in helping one understand the present and even to make reasonably educated guesses about the future. But that is not the core issue. Our relationship with the natural environment has been one of the most important factors in human history. True, for a time professional historians rejected the sort of environmental determinism which once so intrigued scholars. But to suggest climate is not profoundly important is to misrepresent much of the historical record.

It was then that having become comfortable with our contemporary climate challenge that I set out with my graduate students in tow to explore humanity’s climatic past. And to add to my own teaching a more profound environmental element than I have previously employed. There were of course a few professional historians to rely on, particularly J.R. McNeil, but more often than not it was the work of scholars beyond our own discipline, the work of anthropologists and biologists like Jared Diamond and especially Brian Fagan who have guided my studies. And taking on this new topic has been gratifying indeed.

Most importantly my journey has allowed me to help future high school teachers (Sage has an MAT program) to introduce this environmentally important historical perspective, insights that will not only educate our students but help them and their students meet what is emerging as the biggest historical challenge of the modern world, in short to help global civilization wean itself away from its centuries long dependence on fossil fuels in order to stave off challenges to human civilization perhaps more profound than any we have experienced in a millennium.

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