Montclair Climate Action

Does climate change cause societal collapse?

By David Korfhage, MCA President

Beginning around the year 1500, the world entered a prolonged period of cooling known as the Little Ice Age. Average global temperatures dropped around half a degree Celsius (about one degree Fahrenheit), though mostly in the northern hemisphere, and rainfall decreased in certain parts of the world. Canals and rivers froze across Europe every winter, growing seasons shortened, colonial settlers starved in North America, and peasants revolted in what is now Turkey. The great Ming Empire of China collapsed in civil war and chaos.

Climate and history is 0n a lot of people’s minds now, and specifically the kind of chaos that the Little Ice Age is said to have produced centuries ago. Some people talk of “societal collapse” — see, for example, the group Extinction Rebellion, which on its website quotes David Attenborough saying, “The collapse of our civilization is on the horizon.”

I thought of this recently as I read the book The Earth Transformed by Peter Frankopan. An environmental history of the planet, the book looks at the way in which humans have impacted the environment, and the way in which the environment has impacted human societies.

So does his book suggest that climate change can lead to civilizational collapse? Interestingly, the answer is “no.” It’s not that climate has no effect on human societies; it is even possible that climate change — falling temperatures, drought, floods, and so on — can indeed play a role in the collapse of human societies. But the full answer is more complicated.

Because what’s clear is that climate change can’t determine outcomes. Take the example of the Little Ice Age, which I teach in my world history class. Yes, the Ming Empire collapsed during this time — but the Ottoman empire survived those Turkish peasant revolts to emerge stronger, and for the Mughal Empire in India the peak of the Little Ice Age was also the peak of the empire’s power and extent. Same with Britain — the 17th and 18th centuries marked the rise of the British empire, not its collapse.

Frankopan makes the same point in discussing the so-called 4.2-kiloyear event, a period of sharp cooling and decreased rainfall in about 2200 BCE. Yes, certain empires did collapse in this time period — for example, the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia — but it’s not clear that climate change did the job by itself. For example, as Frankopan points out, cities in Mesopotamia had survived a similar dry period just a few centuries earlier just fine. Drought wasn’t the fundamental problem; a weakened society was.

The Akkadians fight the Gutians — is this where climate change will lead us?
Source: Wikipedia

Why does this all matter? Because it is important to avoid excessive climate pessimism. Should we be concerned? Absolutely. Could bad things happen as a result of climate change? Definitely. But our goal in that case should be to build a resilient society — a society that can survive climate disruption (like those Mesopotamian cities) rather than be destroyed by it (like the Akkadian empire).

Here, too, Frankopan has some interesting observations. Failing states, he suggests, had a rigid elite clinging to power, wealth, and status, which limited their ability to adapt:

One cause of weakness was failure of adaptation…That failure to respond was a crucial element in the centralised political systems that were built on the demands of entrenched elites which not only lacked the necessary skills to respond to changed circumstances, but actively resisted doing so — for fear of losing power, wealth and status.

So effective response to climate change is possible — if you have the right political system. That means that part of our response to climate change should not be just about electrification and renewable energy, but also about pushing for political reforms that will give our society the flexibility to respond to the needs of the moment by reducing the power of “entrenched elites.”

Frankopan ends his discussion of the 4.2-kiloyear event on a note that is both positive and daunting:

Certainly, weather conditions and extreme events could create problems, not only in the ancient world but in history more broadly. Most of the time, however, these were navigated or solved successfully — by adjustments, by coping strategies that included migration, resettlement and the development of new ways of living. In the case of events of 2200 BC, then, we should be looking at the wider question of why societies struggled, rather than being tempted by the convenience of a simple and even a seemingly logical aswer that starts and finishes with climate.

I find this positive because it makes clear that climate is not destiny, and that many people, in many places, were able to navigate the challenges of climate change successfully. Daunting, because what he describes — “migration, resettlement and the development of new ways of living” — will not be easy to accomplish.

But we should instead view this as an opportunity. Often resilience is thought of in terms of physical infrastructure. Do we have trees to shade up from heat waves? Do we have systems to mitigate flooding? Frankopan encourages us to think more broadly: what will make our society more resilient? We might just find that it also makes it happier, more just, and more peaceful.