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Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change

Abstract

A large scholarship currently holds that before the onset of anthropogenic global warming, natural climatic changes long provoked subsistence crises and, occasionally, civilizational collapses among human societies. This scholarship, which we term the ‘history of climate and society’ (HCS), is pursued by researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including archaeologists, economists, geneticists, geographers, historians, linguists and palaeoclimatologists. We argue that, despite the wide interest in HCS, the field suffers from numerous biases, and often does not account for the local effects and spatiotemporal heterogeneity of past climate changes or the challenges of interpreting historical sources. Here we propose an interdisciplinary framework for uncovering climate–society interactions that emphasizes the mechanics by which climate change has influenced human history, and the uncertainties inherent in discerning that influence across different spatiotemporal scales. Although we acknowledge that climate change has sometimes had destructive effects on past societies, the application of our framework to numerous case studies uncovers five pathways by which populations survived—and often thrived—in the face of climatic pressures.

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Fig. 1: Variability and change in palaeoclimate reconstructions.
Fig. 2: Meta-analysis of HCS studies.
Fig. 3: A process for undertaking research into past climate–society dynamics.
Fig. 4: Palmer drought severity indices for the Low Countries and southeastern California.
Fig. 5: Tree ring reconstructions of temperature in France, and moisture in both France and China.
Fig. 6: Palaeoclimate moisture proxies for Iron Age southern Africa.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Georgetown Environment Initiative for providing support for the workshop that launched this project; the Georgetown Humanities Initiative for fostering dialogue between co-authors at Georgetown University; and R. Hoffmann, J. Luterbacher, J. R. McNeill and S. White for comments and criticism. Audiences at the University of Arizona, Georgetown University, the University of Manitoba and the University of Texas at Austin provided comments that improved this article. K.A. acknowledges support from NSF grants CNH- 0908971 and CNH-1210360; K.K. acknowledges support from the Andrea von Braun Foundation; M.B. acknowledges support from the Volkswagen Foundation’s Freigeist Fellowship ‘The Dantean Anomaly’; and E.X. acknowledges support from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) projects ClimXtreme/CROP and RegIKlim/NUKLEUS.

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D.D. designed the study, organized and attended the planning workshop, revised the case studies, wrote complete paper drafts, and created all tables and diagrams. K.A., M.B., J.B., K.d.L., K.K., T.N., E.X. and Q.P. attended the workshop and revised the study design. K.A. wrote sections on palaeoclimate and created all figures using climate reconstructions. E.M., N.N. K.A. and P.G. interpreted models and statistics. M.B., J.B., F.C., J.C., D.D., K.d.L., G.H., H.H., A.I., K.K., T.N., Q.P., E.X. and N.Z. contributed and revised case studies. K.A., D.D., K.d.L., G.H., H.H., A.I., K.K., T.N. and E.X. revised paper drafts.

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Correspondence to Dagomar Degroot.

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This file contains Supplementary Figure 1, showing the geographical locations covered by our case studies, Supplementary Figures 2-4, which provide additional information about our case studies and our methods for developing and revising them, and Supplementary References.

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Degroot, D., Anchukaitis, K., Bauch, M. et al. Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change. Nature 591, 539–550 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03190-2

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