Ten Books to Contextualize Global Warming


View of the Arctic Ocean, 1875-76 by Thomas Mitchell. Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-052505

By Stacy Nation-Knapper, Andrew Watson, and Sean Kheraj

Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

We start with the greatest environmental challenge facing Canadians, global warming. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its most recent report on the science of global warming, underlining the significance of this planetary anthropogenic environmental transformation. On this episode, we spoke with Ross Cohen about his book on the 1969 voyage of the S.S. Manhattan through the Northwest Passage. We also held a round-table panel discussion with three environmental historians whose work explores different aspects of climate history.

Here are ten books and articles that contextualize global warming:

Cohen, Stewart J. and Melissa W. Waddell. Climate Change in the 21st Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Cohen and Waddell begin with discussion of a groundbreaking conference held in 1988 in Toronto on the subject of climate change and conclude by lauding the potential of the 2004 Okanagan Water Resources Study, placing Canada in the centre of the political and research responses to global climate change. The authors elucidate the ways in which climate change could exacerbate other social problems, such as food production. They argue that history can contribute to interdisciplinary cooperation on this topic, as physical, biological, and social aspects of climate change are interconnected. Cohen and Waddell outline the history of people noticing climate change and tracking it, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in 1820s until the twenty-first century.

Coward, Harold and Andrew J. Weaver, eds. Hard Choices: Climate Change in Canada. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.

Authors in this collection of eleven essays examine various topics including adaptation, technology, policy and law, and climate science in an attempt to summarize climate change concerns in Canada and responses to them. This text provides a valuable, if slightly dated, overview of the subject in a Canadian context. Climate science and policy surrounding it change rapidly, and unanticipated political changes, such as the Canadian withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty, place some chapters in an unexpected position as counterfactual history. The text is structured as a balance of what’s happening with climate change in Canada and prescriptive suggestions for responding to the phenomenon.

Cruikshank, Julie. Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

The temporal framework Julie Cruikshank employs for Do Glaciers Listen? begins with the Little Ice Age and ends with twenty-first century research, parks, and heritage activities in the Saint Elias Mountains between Alaska and British Columbia. Cruikshank examines the ways in which glaciers in this region have an immense physical presence while also contributing to the social imaginations of the people, indigenous and non-indigenous, who inhabit and visit the region. In this analysis, the author argues that climate change may be a global phenomenon, but its “consequences are profoundly local”.

Daschuk, Jim., and G. Marchildon. Climate and Aboriginal Adaptation in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, AD 800-1700. Institutional Adaptations to Climate Change Project, 2005.

According to Daschuk and Marchildon, the fur trade economy in the South Saskatchewan River basin brought new challenges to indigenous people that left them increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the eighteenth century. The authors argue that climactic variability compromised the security of newly equestrian-dependent groups by threatening availability of food sources and facilitating epidemics. Further social precariousness occurred toward the end of the eighteenth century, as harsh weather patterns led to unpredictable crops, herd depletion of horses and bison, and increased raiding and warfare between indigenous groups. Daschuk and Marchildon suggest that indigenous peoples in the South Saskatchewan River basin “ceased employing and refining…coping strategies which had previously buffered (them) from destructive climatic stimuli” after they began adapting to fur trade economies.

Fagan, Brian M. The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.

Fagan examines five centuries of warming climate between 800 – 1300 AD, noting that climate change did not occur in a regular and predictable course, citing as example the Little Ice Age following the Medieval Warm Period. Climate didn’t cause changes to societies, he argues, but humans made technological adaptations to the small changes over time, resulting in increased interconnectedness between societies. Fagan notes that the earth has “entered a time of sustained warming” due to human activity and that the debate is no longer whether warming is happening, but what is to be done about it. The author’s research suggests that drought was the silent killer of the warmer centuries of the human past, and our current concern with rising sea levels distracts us from the future threat of drought. In The Great Warming, it all comes back to food: people need to eat and it’s difficult to do so when there isn’t enough water to grow crops. Diversification of diet and of crops is one way previous generations adapted to drought. Fagan argues we should take note.

Hare, Frederick Kenneth, and Morley K. Thomas. Climate Canada. Toronto: Wiley, 1974.

Though this text is nearly forty years old, it provides a useful introduction to climatology and the regional climates of Canada. Intended as an introductory climatology textbook, it begins by explaining in clear but fairly detailed prose the basics of climate science, but also describes Canadian climates and human interactions with them. This is a valuable book for those unclear on what is meant by “climate” in the discussions and debate surrounding climate change. Hare and Thomas also venture into a discussion of the theories about climate change that were prevalent in the mid-seventies, providing an enlightening peek at the ways in which thinking about climate change has changed over time. After addressing the introductory concepts of climatology, Climate Canada moves into chapters focused on human, datedly referred to as “Man”, action with chapters on agriculture, economic activities, clothing and shelter, leisure, and urban climates.

McKibben, Bill. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” Rolling Stone Magazine, July 19, 2012. 

An outlier on this list, primarily due to its apocalyptic tone, this article provides a startling look at current climate change statistics. McKibben argues that humans are losing the battle against climate change because we are in denial. We are emitting more and more greenhouse gases every year and at this rate, we will reach the “glass ceiling” of temperature increase (currently 2 degrees Celsius) in no time. The author maintains that, in spite of the global scientific community’s repeated warnings, political inaction to curb emissions, and thus climate change, continues. In McKibben’s analysis, it appears that the low cost of energy and preference for disposable lifestyles continue to trump science in our everyday lives. Bill McKibben suggests, as do other authors on this list, that diversification is important – oil companies could truly become energy companies by diversifying their product and not simply asking customers to adapt to environmental damage.

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. Degrees of Change: Climate Warming and the Stakes for Canada. Ottawa: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, 2010.

This report by a now-defunct Canadian governmental roundtable outlines the “economic risks and opportunities to Canada of climate change.” The authors are forthright in stating that climate change is occurring and lists events that Canadians in all regions of the country should expect as a result, from further melting of glaciers and sea ice, rising sea levels, and earlier springs to shifts in distribution of animals and plants, and increasingly volatile weather. This document also discusses the effects of climate change on Canadian livelihoods and the economy as resources and economies, such as tourism and agriculture, change with the climate.

Smith, Jesse and Julia Uppenbrink, eds. “Earth’s Variable Climatic Past.” Science 292 (27 April 2001): 657-693. 

In this special issue of the journal Science, fifteen authors tackle the topic of climate change in Earth’s history. The editors’ introduction provides a valuable overview of the issue’s five “reviews” and two “news stories” while reminding readers that Earth’s climate has always changed, but that the profound effects of human activity on the climate are different from the climactic changes of the past. In the contributions to this special issue, authors examine the causes and effects of some past climate change, including topics such as the reconstruction of paleoclimates, changing thoughts on the role of oceans in long-term climate change, and societal responses to droughts.

St. George, Scott and Dave Sauchyn. “Paleoenvironmental Perspectives on Drought in Western Canada.” Canadian Water Resources Journal 31.4 (2006).

St. George and Scott introduce a special issue of Canadian Water Resources Journal by reviewing the contributors’ works and the ways in which they demonstrate uses of paleoenvironmental data to contextualize recent environmental observations, evaluate some of the many impacts of human changes to hydrological systems, and test existing hypotheses about climate change in western Canada. The link provided is to the St. George and Scott introduction, which provides a helpful summary of the issue’s papers, but the papers themselves are worth reading in depth. The authors of this issue demonstrate a longue durée interpretation of western Canada’s changing hydrology in an attempt to encourage better water resource stewardship.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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