Climate Change and Human History
Anthropogenic activity has dramatically altered Earth’s atmosphere, with consequences on global climate. The increased introduction of greenhouse gases, sulfate aerosols and dust through human activities has resulted in a variety of regional responses, including warming and cooling, changes in precipitation and drought patterns, extreme weather events, and rising sea level. Climate change as a force driving human history, however, is not unique to the 21st century. The primary objectives of this class are (1) to present case studies that demonstrate the strong role of climate in driving human evolution, adaptation and the success and/or failure of societies and (2) to assess the relationship between climate forcing and man with a view toward understanding the potential consequences of modern anthropogenic impacts. Given the attention weather events receive in the media today and the conflicting and sometimes non-scientific perspective presented in the popular literature concerning the causes of recent climate change, this topic is of critical significance to modern society.
Assessment of past climate change and its influence on humans is the best way to gain perspective on the modern system. An historical perspective is critical to distinguishing the relative contribution of natural versus anthropogenically-forced climate change in today’s world. In this class, a strong focus will be placed on case studies of climatic events that have impacted human societies and/or the course of human evolution over the past several million years. Specific examples include: (1) episodes of drought and their impact on global societies, such as the Akkadians, Mayans, Anasazi, Angkor (Cambodia) and US Dust Bowl, and (2) the coincidence of the recent climatic optimum (~900 AD) followed by global cooling (the Little Ice Age - ~1450-1850 AD) and the success and subsequent failure of Viking settlements in Iceland and Greenland. As these examples illustrate, throughout earth’s history natural changes in components of the climate system have significantly impacted the rise and fall of human civilizations. These case study assessments will foster an understanding not only of the role of climate change on society, but also of the scientific techniques and approaches to data interpretation necessary to make the leap from coincident to causal relationships in science. Finally, the comparison of ancient and modern scenarios that demonstrate the interplay between global climate change and human evolution and/or changes in human societies will raise awareness and understanding of the potential consequences of modern anthropogenic impacts. A goal of this course is to provide a longer-term context for future scenarios for global climate change that are induced by human activity and the impact these changes may have on modern society.
The syllabus may not be applicable to the current semester. Be sure to verify content with the professor(s) listed in the document.