NEW YORK – We’ve heard a lot over the last few years about what Brexit might mean for the future of Britain and the United Kingdom. Rather than prognosticate (enough people have already made enough bad predictions) let’s instead look at what history teaches us about such a divorce might mean in a time of climate crisis.
The place: Scotland. The time: 1695. Already, much of the Northern Hemisphere was shivering its way through the so-called Little Ice Age, which lasted from about 1450 to 1850. The decade from 1695-1705 was the coldest of all, though, according to a recent study in the Journal of Vulcanology and Geothermal Research. In fact, it’s still Scotland’s coldest decade in the last nearly 800 years.
The century 1612-1711 is the coldest hundred-year period on record (1911-2010 is the warmest). Looking at rings from centuries-old trees in the Cairngorms in northern Scotland, the researchers determined that this particular cold spell was caused by a few significant volcanic eruptions in the tropics and Iceland from 1693-1695, and possibly a shift in the North Atlantic/Arctic Oscillation, the atmospheric pressure pattern that affects the climate of the northern hemisphere.
The study’s authors lay out some of the consequences: Population loss in Scotland of around 10-15 percent (25 percent in some places) because of crop failure and ill-advised export laws, and over-enthusiasm about Darien, a proposed colony in Panama, which was a spectacular failure. It lasted less than two years and resulted in the deaths of about 2,000 colonists and the loss of about a third of Scotland’s wealth.
The effect of all of this — population loss, economic and agricultural collapse — was that Scotland united with England in 1707 after centuries of resistance, the authors write. And while no decades were as bad, climate-wise, as the 1690s, once unified with England, Scotland never saw the same kind of desperation again.
“By joining England, Scotland became more resilient,” said Rosanne D’Arrigo, the lead author and a tree-ring scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. “The bigger message for today is arguably that as the climate changes, nations will be stronger if they stick together and not try to go it alone.”
There’s an obvious parallel to Brexit: going it alone in difficult climatic times can result in disaster, particularly for smaller countries with fewer resources, which is relevant for both the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, and for how its members relate to each other.
But it has relevance beyond the U.K. and Europe, since the climate is changing not only on a regional or hemispheric scale, but a planetary one. Though effects may be worse in some places and for some people than others — namely for poor black, brown and indigenous women in the global south — there are no parts of the world that the climate crisis will leave untouched. There isn’t really a way to go it alone — emissions anywhere have consequences everywhere.
The work these scientists have done suggests that we consider ourselves and our economies separate from nature at our own peril. And we err when we don’t understand the history of climate change, pollution and resource exhaustion.
The need to take from nature and the belief that more can always be taken are part of what drove settlers to the “New World,” and once in North America, pushed them to expand across the continent. The American sense that natural resources have no limits — there has always been more — has allowed us to think of nature and its limits as an abstract idea rather than a physical reality, as much as our economic and geographic growth has physically depended on our resources.
We have our own cautionary tales too: the near-extinction of the buffalo and wild Atlantic salmon in U.S. waters, and the actual extinction of the passenger pigeon and the eastern elk. We can’t (or shouldn’t) understand the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 without considering the environmental costs and transformations that came with coal mining.
Taking this long view helps us understand that while climate change may be an especially intense and relatively recent problem, we’ve been dealing with versions of it for centuries. We take the stability of our natural world for granted, but it is always changing, both on its own and in response to how we scramble time — burning ancient fuels to melt ancient ice to alter our future.
We’re already seeing the imprint of the climate crisis on events that may otherwise seem unrelated to it: Mass migration to Europe following the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War can be attributed in part to climate change. The arrival of immigrants in Europe has often been met with hostility, and has triggered political changes — influencing the rise of right-wing populism on the continent as well as in the British Isles.
We may be able to change the climate, but we should remember that the climate changes us, too.
Tatiana Schlossberg, a former New York Times science reporter, writes about climate change and the environment.