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Geoffrey Parker, ‘Global Crisis: War, climate change and catastrophe in the 17th century’

2 November 2013
Climate change

Geoffrey Parker, 'Global Crisis: War, climate change and catastrophe in the 17th century' (Yale University Press:2013) is by a UK historian that has worked in the US for a long time, at various universities. Therefore, he comes from two angles, with lots of information from both sides of the Atlantic. The 17th century was of course the height of the Little Ice Age, and average temperatures were one degree celsius, on average, lower than those of the 20th century. That doesn't sound a lot but that is because it embraces the fact that it was not universally cold. Some decades were much colder than others. Sometimes it was just the winters that were cold and the summers were warm. Other times the summers were cool and the winters not particularly cold – and so on. Samuel Pepys even recorded a heat wave in one year – so the average figure hides the reality that in some years it was really very cold indeed, and in other years it was not particularly so. Some years were dreadful because they were so wet. In Ireland, in one year, it rained almost every day in a single year, relentlessly and consistently. What is worse – intensive and continuous rainfall, or a very cold winter?

We know all this from other sources and other people but what Parker has done for the first time is combine climate with historical data – looking at the weather in the time of the English Civil War for example, or during the early Virginia colony in N America. In a short epilogue he comes over all preachy on modern global warming, dredging up all the old chestnuts and looking out for political villains (in the US) and so on. I assumed this reflected his academic status and the bubble in which he lives as well as a possible sop to the publisher. They like to be topical as far as the books they publish, and may assume global warming is that – even though it is falling off the radar of most people that have explored the science behind the meme. Global warming is not a theme of the main text.

He explores the role of sun spots in the 17th century and assumes there was reduced solar activity because of their absence. We have few sun spots at the moment but we are a million miles from the climate of the 17th century – so that might be jumping on to a bandwagon that isn't going to go very far. We aren't in a minimum, of course, where sun spots disappear for years, but the evidence that the 17th century climate was solely as a result of reduced solar activity is far from settled. Therefore I was surprised when he said that comets and meteors, and fireball fluxes (meteor storms) were more common in the 17th century than since then and yet dismisses their role in the cooling weather by smirking at contemporaries that viewed such heavenly manifestations as portenders of doom and catastrophe, and the fall of kings and dynasties etc. He brags that he is the first historian to combine climate with political and historical events and then takes the mickey out of the one thing that is central not just to the climate, but to the religiously orientated rebellions and upheavals endemic to the 17th century. He even claims the early 18th century was equally subject to cold weather and bad summers and yet there was no political or religious backlash – suggesting that it was because most of the hysterical people had died and the survivors looked at more practical explanations. It might also have a connection with a lack of signs and wonders in the sky.

He does however recognise there was a greater frequency in volcanoes – all around the world, and that dust clouds in the atmosphere are described on occasion. Hence, he recognises that volcanoes have a connection with low growth tree rings (but generally avoids the latter subject) but fails to notice that fireball fluxes may also have a connection with low growth tree ring events – thereby omitting what might be an important clue to what was behind all the rebellions and uprisings he also records. It spoilt the book for me as that is the aspect I was most interested in. However, Parker is primarily a historian and the climate is just an add-on and this is a look at the 17th century from an angle that takes in the whole world. It is not narrow – although he has access to more information from Europe and N America for obvious reasons, but he also has a lot of information from China and India, less so from Africa and South America, but reasonably so from SE Asia, Japan, and Russia. A handy book to have as a historical reference. A useful read if you don't know much about the 17th century. For example, there were three bright comets in 1718 that coincide with the beginnings of upheaval across Europe and in China, ultimately leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty and 70 years of war and rebellion in China. Climate scientists were saying not so long ago the Little Ice Age only happened in Europe and N America (which is where all the research had been done) and Mann famously eliminated the LIA in his hockey stick handle. Parker, without admitting it, actually has proof at hand that the weather in China was just as dreadful as it was in Europe, making a monkey out of the hockey stick and its sycophants, but you wouldn't have a clue of that in his epilogue on global warming. Amazing. Parker also blamed the witch hysteria on climate rather than signs in the sky and so on. Ruined crops, due to frost and wet weather, may have caused some farmers to look around for scapegoats, but is it really likely to have been solely the climate that promulgated such a superstitious reaction? Parker even mentions witch hysteria in other parts of the world so it was not just confined to Europe. Actually, there was quite a bit written about witch persecution and the Little Ice Age a few years ago, links kept popping up at blogs like Watts Up With That, and on Benny Peiser's CCNeT thread. Witch persecutions are not confined to the 17th century and therefore it would seem Parker has read some of this stuff (which was published in respectable journals).

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