From a Q & A with Brian Fagan, author of the new The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations:
Why is ancient climate change important today?Read the entire Q & A.
I’m struck by how lamentably ignorant most people, even scientists and other scholars, are about ancient climate change. A lot of chatterers talk about a new climatic future, but they forget that humanity has been \living with unpredictable climatic shifts for tens of thousands of years. The ways in which ancient societies coped with sudden events like El Niños or lengthy droughts are both diverse and fascinating, and have much to teach us about how people handle climatic change, maintain sustainability, and modify their behavior. We have much to learn from our forebears, even if we do live in a different climatic era.
Are you arguing that climate change was a major player in human history? Surely this has been argued before?
Yes, it has, nearly a century ago, by a school of geographers who insisted that climate change “caused” major developments like agriculture. This kinds of linear climatic argument, that climate change like drought led inevitably to something historical, became known as climatic determinism—dirty words to generations of archaeologists. Now things are very different, for we now have access to extremely fine-grained climatic data like tree-rings, which now extend back 10,000 years in parts of Europe. For the fist time, we can accurately assess the impact of climate on ancient human societies, and understand that it was one of many players that affected history, and at times an important one.