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May 29, 2014

What Can a Classics Professor Teach Us About Climate Change?

tags: climate change

Editor's Note This article is the first in an ongoing series that will be published on the new Science blog hosted by HNN.  The blog, maintained by the staff of HNN, will feature links to articles and news stories that shed light on science helpful to the work of historians. Click here for a list of helpful sources.  

The Fall of Troy painted by Kerstiaen De Keuninck

Eric Cline teaches classics and anthropology at George Washington University.  That obviously makes him someone we'd all want to turn to for help understanding climate change, right? That's actually not as implausible as it might sound. 

In a recent op ed in the New York Times Cline shows that there's a lot we can learn from ancient history about climate change.  Specifically, he observes, we don't have to imagine what the impact of climate change is.  We can tell by studying the past.  What history shows, he points out, is that thousands of years ago "[d]rought and famine led to internal rebellions in some societies and the sacking of others, as people fleeing hardship at home became conquerors abroad."  

One of the most vivid examples comes from around 1200 B.C. A centuries-long drought in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions, contributed to β€” if not caused β€” widespread famine, unrest and ultimately the destruction of many once prosperous cities, according to four recent studies.

The scientists determined the length and severity of the drought by examining ancient pollen as well as oxygen and carbon isotope data drawn from alluvial and mineral deposits. All of their conclusions are corroborated by correspondence, inscribed and fired on clay tablets, dating from that time.

Ancient letters from the Hittite kingdom, in what is now modern-day Turkey, beseech neighboring powers for shipments of grain to stave off famine caused by the drought. (The drought is thought to have affected much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon and Syria for up to 300 years.) One letter, sent from a Hittite king, pleads for help: β€œIt is a matter of life or death!”

Following years of changes in the environment, which included devastating earthquakes, human progress all but ceased, ushering in what became known as the First Dark Ages.

Cline, who shows little patience with climate-change deniers like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), concludes that the difference between what is happening today and what happened in 1200 BC is that their "civilizations collapsed at the hands of Mother Nature."  If ours does, it will be as a result of our own actions. 

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