When the World Was Cold: Five Questions for Dagomar Degroot

In the Little Ice Age, the climate chilled as much as it’s warming today. The author of ‘The Frigid Golden Age’ tells how one nation learned to adapt.

Compared with the climate change we’re experiencing now, the Little Ice Age — which chilled the globe from the 13th to the 19th century — was modest. “The world has already warmed more, relative to mid-20th-century temperature averages, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age,” says Dagomar Degroot, a historian at Georgetown University. “And there is much more warming to come.”

Visual: Courtesy of Dagomar Degroot

The Dutch managed to thrive during a time of cooling that caused great suffering elsewhere.

Yet in his new book, “The Frigid Golden Age,” Degroot argues that the Little Ice Age has a lot to teach present-day societies about coping with climate change.

In particular, the Dutch Republic managed to thrive during a time of cooling that caused great suffering elsewhere. Degroot, himself born in the Netherlands, explores what made the Dutch so resilient.

For this installment of the Undark Five, I interviewed him by email about the book and about the history of climate change in general. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


UNDARK — We see climate change as something modern, but you point out that it’s happened many times.

DAGOMAR DEGROOT — When most people refer to “climate change,” they really mean anthropogenic — or human-caused — global warming. That is indeed something new: a consequence of the modern production and consumption of fossil fuels on a totally unprecedented scale. “Climate change,” however, can also refer to any long-term change in regional or global weather patterns. By that definition, climate change is as old as the Earth itself.

Our species, Homo sapiens, is around 300,000 years old. [In that time], different natural forces have cooled or warmed the Earth, and thereby changed its patterns of oceanic and atmospheric circulation. The alternating ice ages and warm interglacial periods of the Pleistocene likely drove hominids to migrate, evolve, and speciate. In the wake of the last great ice age, warming trends repeatedly interrupted by abrupt cooling episodes may have encouraged hunter-gatherers in the Levant to experiment with agriculture.

In the Holocene, the geological epoch that succeeded the Pleistocene, state societies that emerged from cereal cultivation thrived in periods of modest warming and abundant precipitation. The Roman Empire, for example, reached its height during a warm climate, the so-called Roman Climatic Optimum. By contrast, many societies suffered when even modest climatic cooling shortened growing seasons, or when changing patterns of atmospheric circulation provoked either torrential rains or catastrophic droughts.

Still, cutting-edge research shows that climatic trends or events did not “shape” societies, but rather expanded or contracted the range of possible — or convenient — human activities.

UD — What was the Little Ice Age and what effects did it have on societies around the globe?

DD —The Little Ice Age was a period of modest cooling — roughly one degree Celsius in the coldest decades — that affected most of the globe between the 13th and 19th centuries. The cooling came in a series of waves — “very little ice ages,” as I’ve called them — that each lasted for less than a century. All but one followed from a confluence of major volcanic eruptions and low solar activity. Two of the coldest waves of the Little Ice Age, the Grindelwald Fluctuation and Maunder Minimum, framed the 17th century, which was accordingly the chilliest of the period across much of the world.

Cooling helped cause shifts in atmospheric circulation, altering winds, ocean currents, precipitation, and sea ice extent from region to region. Brief warm periods also interrupted every cold wave, so that the Little Ice Age was perhaps above all a period of unpredictable, unstable weather.

Many climate historians have found that periods of climatic cooling set off a “fatal synergy” — as Geoffrey Parker put it — between harvest failures, outbreaks of epidemic disease, and conflict in the agricultural empires that dominated the premodern world. Most climate histories therefore focus on societal disasters. Yet climate historians have increasingly found examples of societies that seem to have been resilient, even adaptive, in the face of climatic shocks. Perhaps the best example is that of the Dutch Republic, which enjoyed a so-called Golden Age during the 17th century.

UD — Why did the Dutch manage to prosper during this Little Ice Age?

DD — The coastal regions of the Dutch Republic were somewhat of an anomaly in the 17th-century world. They relied heavily on waterborne trade and industry — rather than the meager surpluses produced by contemporary agriculture — and participated in a capitalist economy that lent itself to high levels of urbanization. European harvest failures allowed Dutch merchants to exploit their control of the Baltic grain trades to export food into desperate markets.

Weather associated with climatic cooling did occasionally imperil Dutch lives and livelihoods, but Dutch entrepreneurs often found ways to adapt. They developed technologies that helped them fight urban fires, often kindled in storms or amid cold winters, and profit from icebreaking.

The Dutch were always at war in the 17th century, often in watery environments that responded dramatically to climate change. Usually, these responses either benefited Dutch campaigns or could be exploited by Dutch commanders. Torrential rains repeatedly increased the effectiveness of deliberate flooding of the countryside, which literally washed away Spanish sieges in the 80 Years’ War that gave rise to the Dutch Republic.

Still, the Dutch did not manage to prosper in the 17th century solely because they coped so well with climate change. Their resilience is just one part of the Dutch Golden Age, one that historians had, for the most part, not yet explored.


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UD —What lessons can we learn from the Dutch in adapting to present-day climate change?

DD — The world has already warmed more, relative to mid-20th-century temperature averages, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age. And there is much more warming to come. To avoid the disruptions climate historians have detected in the 17th century — or worse — we must act now to reduce carbon emissions and adapt vulnerable communities to new environmental realities. This is, I think, the first lesson of the Little Ice Age.

The second is that climate change has had, and probably will have, very unequal consequences for different groups of people. We often assume that developed societies will fare better in a warmer future than the developing world. Yet the Dutch thrived in the 17th century not simply because their republic was rich, but because much of its wealth derived from activities that benefited from climate change.

Today, we can learn from the republic by strengthening social safety nets, investing in technologies that exploit or reduce climate change, and thinking proactively about how we will adapt to the planet of our future. It just so happens that much of the federal government in the United States is abandoning these policies, but there are more optimistic stories at the state and municipal levels, and there is exciting news coming out of China and India.

Dutch entrepreneurs developed technologies to fight fires (often kindled by storms) and profit from icebreaking.

UD — As a teacher, why do you think teaching climate history is important?

DD — I have personally found the greatest satisfaction in helping my students become part of the solution. This year, I asked students to use accessible, online climate change reconstruction and projection tools to write jargon-free articles that describe the impacts of past, present, and future climate changes on local communities. We hope that they will resolve a troubling paradox in climate surveys: the tendency for people to believe that climate change will harm people in the United States, but not in their community.

Overall, the most important thing that teachers can do right now is to teach courses about climate change. Surveys have found that most people — even in America — believe that Earth’s climate is changing, but few talk about that belief with friends and family. There is a veil of silence that seems to surround the issue, and teachers have a responsibility to tear it apart. At Georgetown, we teach about climate change in just about every discipline, from theology to physics. We have found that every teacher and professor in every field can incorporate climate change into their courses.

Tom Cassauwers is a Belgian journalist who writes about technology and politics. His English-language articles have appeared in Ozy Magazine, Nieman Journalism Lab, and Atlas Obscura.

Top visual: Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraten, “The Battle of Terheide, 1653-1666” (PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)
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13 comments / Join the Discussion

    @ Ronnie Childs, we idd have sold slaves, as did the Egyptians and many other cultures, even today women are sold as (sex) slaves from certain parts of the world and work in e.g. Europe. Those are horrible facts. Another horrible fact is the selling of your own people, and that is what African tribes did. They were the sellers, they hunted fellow men and sold them. The Dutch were transporters, fulfilling a need at that time. What also shocked me was an article of Ella Fitzgerald, stating when she traveled to Europe she was flabbergasted about the freedom she felt and had in this part of the world. “I was shocked” and “happy” when she e.g. didn’t have to go into a certain train wagon for the colored, or eat at a certain counter etc etc. Something with pot and kettle…right!?

    Reply

    The earth warms, and the earth cools. It’s a natural cycle, probably multiple overlapping cycles, that we still don’t understand. In the grand scheme of things, warming (it’s no where near and not even projected to be warmer than in multiple times in the past) is a whole lot better than an ice age.

    Reply

    Accept it, climate change will continue. Humans will continue striving to make their lives better. If I am better off living in a polluted city, where the pollution affects me directly, why would I worry about the world’s climate change if I don’t care/ act about the pollution affecting me directly in my home city? CO2 levels will double to 560 or 820 in my lifetime, deal with reality, the desire of people to improve their condition.

    Reply

    There is an article in the Washington Post today about the upcoming 400th anniversary of the first enslaved African people coming to North America. It seems they arrived in 1619 in a Dutch ship. To be fair it was a pirate ship, and I have no idea to the extent, if any, that their activities were sanctioned by the Dutch government but it makes sense: If traditional economic and agricultural means aren’t working out, go out and expand your opportunities and sell slaves. That just might allow your country to prosper even during tough times.

    Reply

    This is priceless. The period to which the author refers saw the birth and growth of the Dutch empire overseas. The Dutch did well during the Little Ice Age? Undoubtedly they did. Their trade expanded marvelously as country after country fell to its colonization and subsequent mercantilism. But do preach.

    Reply

    In order to impoverish others and spread misery among the vast majority of people……. impose socialism. More people have been killed at the hands of their government seeking to impose socialist utopia in which a few control the levers of power forcing “fairness” on the rest.

    Reply

    The pages of climate change history are limited and AGW proponents would like to keep it that way. The only way for them to win their arguments are to declare their opponents don’t believe in climate change. Quite the contrary.
    In studying the 300,000 years of Homo sapiens, I hear some scientists are keeping a eye out for any chemical indicators of earlier developed civilizations in ice and sediment cores.
    Other scientists are confident that by mid 2019, it should become evident whether another Little Ice Age is in process as the Solar sunspot cycle continues a downward trend. Throw a few large volcanic eruptions and it might get quite cold for decades.

    Reply

    i have seen up to 9.12 degree cause by Carbon dioxide and methane from human sources. Still it is a very small part of the 1.3 degree rise.

    Reply

    It is insane to ignore the fact the the US leads in reducing Carbon dioxide production. They are far ahead of the plans in the accords and are continuing onward. Meanwhile the Chinese are increasing carbon dioxide hand over fist. As for climatic change we could rise another degree and a half and overall the world would benefit. It is after that things become chancy. Finally Carbon dioxide is actually only a small part of climatic warming. Mush of it is from urbanization and deforestation, and the largest part so far has been solar variation. The world is going to warm. We MUST adapt.

    Reply

    civiletti, I wish you were wrong, but I’m cynical enough to think that many people will think it’s a good strategy.

    Reply

    Man causes .034 F warming from CO2 emissions.

    A little more than 3/100 of a degree, Farenheit.

    That’s the most accurate research based on new understandings of this complex, though hardly significant issue.

    The debate, or propagated fraud, was put to rest with the publishing of a paper definitively disproving the claims.

    The Equivalence Principal forever ends all discussions.

    What is now important is the investigation into this titantic fraud and severe, permanent punishment for these dispicable lying thieves.

    Read the Equivalence Principle and tge Carbin 14 link which finally puts this corruption jail.

    Reply

    civiletti@comcast.net

    “What lessons can we learn from the Dutch in adapting to present-day climate change?”

    In order to prosper capitalize on the misfortune of others. See “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” by Naomi Klein.

    Reply
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