This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Little Ice Age Was Worse Than We Thought

Back in 2000, Brian Fagan, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote a book titled "The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850." Among his findings were that the cold period in Europe unleashed all kinds of problems and that the receding of the Little Ice Age helped to usher in European population growth and the Industrial Revolution. In what certainly seems like a case of "what passes for originality is often just lack of research" a group of researchers this week published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences making exactly those same points--climate change created havoc for Europe. The website Arstechnica provided a nice summary of the main points:
Economic chaos, famine, disease, and war may all be attributed to climate change, according to a recent study. Through advances in paleoclimatology, researchers used temperature data and climate-driven economic variables to simulate the climate that prevailed during golden and dark ages in Europe and the Northern Hemisphere from 1500-1800 AD. In doing so, they discovered a set of casual linkages between climate change and human crisis. They noted that social disturbance, societal collapse and population collapse often coincided with significant climate change in America, the Middle East, China, and many other countries in preindustrial times, suggesting that climate change was the ultimate cause of human crisis in many preindustrial societies.In the 18th century, the mild climate improved matters considerably, leading to the speedy recovery of both Europe’s economy and population.
The alternation between periods of harmony and crisis, golden ages and dark ages, closely followed variations in the food supply per capita. Consequently, grain price could be used as an indicator of crisis in preindustrial Europe. Although grain price is dictated by agricultural production and population size, analysis by the researchers shows that temperature change was the real cause behind the grain price, since agricultural production was climate-dependent at the time.
The history of golden and dark ages in Europe is often attributed to sociopolitical factors, which fails to explain the co-occurrence of long-term crises in different countries, at different stages of development, and across different climate zones. Instead, the authors make a compelling case that climate change is the culprit, thanks to a climate-driven economic downturn due to a decreasing food supply. Where there is a shrinking food supply, chaos and misery follow.

To be fair, the authors provide a very extensive statistical analysis of data in their paper and the analysis is very useful. Still, it seems a shame not to have given a nod to Professor Fagan.

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