Climate changes resulted in war and famine in preindustrial Europe. A century-long drop in temperature even led to shorter people in the 16th century.
Chinese researchers recently looked at every known major conflict and crisis in Europe and correlated them to 14 economic, social, agricultural, ecological and demographic variables.
“Our findings indicate that climate change was the ultimate cause, and climate-driven economic downturn was the direct cause, of large-scale human crises in preindustrial Europe and the Northern Hemisphere,” wrote the researchers, led by David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Between 1500 and 1800, every change in average temperatures correlated to a change in agricultural output and food supply. The climate changes did not result in immediate changes in population growth, so even in a cold year with poor harvests, the population kept going up. More mouths to feed with less grain meant a rise in food prices and starvation.
Hungry people then either revolted, migrated or starved. On a larger scale this meant war, plague or malnutrition. But the disastrous effects of climate changes weren’t instantaneous.
“Peaks of social disturbance such as rebellions, revolutions, and political reforms followed every decline of temperature, with a 1- to 15-year time lag,” reported the researchers.
For example, cold temperatures between 1264 and 1359 led to the Great Famine of the late Middle Ages.
During the long cold spell between 1559 and 1652, average heights in Europe declined by 0.8 inches.
That disastrous period in European history is referred to by historians as the General Crisis of the 16th Century. It was a time of starvation and deadly conflict, including the brutal Thirty Years War.
Climate changes influenced the good times as well. The Renaissance may have been a result of more hospitable temperatures.
“The alternation of historical golden and dark ages in Europe and the NH (Northern Hemisphere), which often was attributable to sociopolitical factors, was indeed rooted in climate change,” the researchers wrote.
As the civilizations of Europe developed new technologies and began conquering and colonizing the Western Hemisphere, the health effects of climate changes became less pronounced.
According to Zhang and his colleagues, “The mild cooling in Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries brought about an upsurge in prices, social disturbance, war, and migration but not demographic crisis, because of social buffers such as cross-continental migration, trade, and industrialization.”
The researchers concluded that the economic downturns caused by climate change were the direct causes of the human crises. When a country’s economy and agricultural output didn’t suffer, their populations didn’t either.
“This result explains why some countries did not undergo serious human crisis in the Little Ice Age: Wet tropical countries with high land-carrying capacity or countries with trading economies did not suffer a considerable shrinkage in food supply, nor did some countries, such as New World countries with vast arable land and sparse populations, experience substantial supply shortage,” the researchers reported.
Although technologies and economies may have advanced since the 16th century, humanity’s connection to fluctuations in the Earth’s climate are not limited to the past.
“Our findings have important implications for industrial and postindustrial societies,” concluded the researchers. “Any natural or social factor that causes large resource (supply) depletion, such as climate and environmental change, overpopulation, overconsumption, or nonequitable distribution of resources, may lead to a general crisis.”
The Siege of Nuremburg during the Thirty Years War, by Pieter Snayers, 1645. (Wikimedia Commons)
Battle of White Mountain during the Thirty Years War, by Pieter Snayers, 1620. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Purification of the Temple, by El Greco, 1570, an example of Renaissance art. (Wikimedia Commons)
Industrial Scene by Petre Iorgulescu. (Wikimedia Commons)