Three stories that climate change tells about our continent

, by JEF Belgium, Nikolas Kockelmann

Three stories that climate change tells about our continent
Garzweiler coal mine, Germany, (c) Nikolas Kockelmann

The history of Europe as we have been telling it, might not find enough listeners anymore today. The scale of our current challenges seems unprecedented. Where do we find new certainty and stories in the past of our continent, when we face an uncertain future of climate change?

Which stories shall we tell to make meaning of European history in the 21st century? Do we mention how Aristotle described how deforestation warmed the local climate? How King Edward I of England banned the use of coal in 1306 due to air pollution? Or, how Marco Polo described the burning oil fields in Baku during his journey? Among many potential stories, this article presents three to look at history from a new angle.

Whaling – How the oil industry licked blood

Whaling has a long history dating back to ancient civilizations, with evidence of whaling dating back to prehistoric times. In the early days, whaling was a subsistence activity, with small-scale hunting of whales taking place along coastlines. In the Middle Ages and early modern period this slowly took a new direction.

Basque people in Europe began hunting whales as early as the year 670 in Europe, later along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. More countries adopted whaling later, such as the Netherlands, England, Denmark and Norway. Whaling was accompanied by national competition in Europe, as well as exploration of new territories and whale habitats in the Atlantic Ocean. The industrialization of whaling in the 19th century introduced the harpoon cannon and powered ships. This led to a significant increase in the scale and efficiency of whaling, and many species of whale were hunted to the brink of extinction.

The shrinking whale populations increased pressure to find new sources of oil, eventually leading to the industrialisation of fossil fuels. The demand and infrastructure for whale oil for heating and lighting made it easy to proliferate fossil fuels at an exponential and unprecedented rate. Whale oil was important for the whole economy. The oil, meat, bones and ambergris of the whale were used for a variety of purposes, including as lamp oil, fertilizers, and in the production of cosmetics.

Nowadays, scientists learned that whales are important CO2 sinks of the planet. A whale can store up to 33 tons of CO2 when the corpus sinks to the ground of the sea after death. Overall, the history of whaling led not only to brutal killings of sentient beings, it also created a greedy demand for oil and energy, setting the foundation for the modern fossil fuel industry.

Climate change and the French Revolution

Remember what you learned about the French Revolution? Perhaps you remember that food shortages and bad harvests led to farmers protests in France in the late 1780s. Writing these shortages off as random occurrences or bad farming management, however, would be shortsighted. In fact, it is very likely that these shortages were caused by climatic conditions.

First, the so-called little ice age, which started in the mid-13th century, preceded the French Revolution with centuries of cooler climate. 1775 already saw grain shortages which led to the French “bread riots”. In 1783, on top of that, a volcano eruption in Iceland influenced the weather over France for years. Moreover, in 1788, one of the strongest hailstorms in French history destroyed numerous livestock populations and agricultural fields. This led to floods, food shortages and dire conditions to access food for ordinary people.

The mixture of climatic volatility, financial and political instability culminated in the brutal revolution in 1789. The French elite, however, was unwilling to concede to reforms in favor of the poorer people. Voilà, that’s one way you can create a revolution.

Besides the influence of the climatic conditions on the Revolution itself, the revolution also had indirect influence on climate science. An educated mathematics fan and member of a local revolutionary committee, Joseph Fourier (1768-1830), was imprisoned during the so-called Terror. Luckily, the execution of Maximilien Robespierre and the end of the terror prevented Joseph’s own execution.

His revolutionary engagement and mathematical skills led to his appointment in academic institutions from 1795 onwards. Inspired by teachings of Newton, and with a bit of luck, he accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on his exhibition to Egypt in 1798. On this trip, he gathered scientific experiences and learned about new climate conditions. Continuing his scientific experiments back in France, he published theories about heat in the first decades of the 19th century. Although he did not use the term, today he is credited with first describing the greenhouse gas effect.

World Wars accelerated the risk of climate change

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed and the German Empire started World War I, Europe was all too nervous about survival, than to be concerned about the emerging knowledge of climate change through the burning of coal. The war, unfortunately, made things even worse.

Within a few years of brutal battles, European nations switched to war economies that exponentially increased reliance on fossil fuels. Consider the following figures to grasp the scale. The number of cars of the British military increased from 827 in 1914 to 23.000 in 1919. For motorbikes, that number rose from 15 to 34.000. For planes, the production output rose from 10 per month to 2688 per month, employing 268.000 workers by the end of the war. When the war started, 5% of the British Navy used oil as fuel, in 1918 it was 40% of the navy, due to Winston Churchill’s strategic switch from coal to oil powered ships. In total, Europe had produced tens of thousands of airplanes, cars, tractors and transformed the role of steel and oil in the economy and the energy system. Oil, which was abundant and flexible to use, became a matter of national security.

When the war ended, many of these vehicles were turned to civil purposes and offered to society. The war industry turned into profitable businesses afterwards, which would shape consumption patterns and mobility lifestyles for more than a century.

Between the wars, Germany, due to its geography, could not acquire oil reserves easily. Having abundant coal resources, it developed an industry for synthetic fuels made by coal. The lack of own oil resources would drive German military strategy in WW2, as Hitler aimed to conquer Azerbaijan for its oil – but failed.

The interwar years did not know the concept of a “Just Transition”. The switch from coal to oil led to infrastructural change, decreased labor power, and led to countless strikes. The increasingly industrial lifestyle got even more exacerbated by World War II.

World War II pushed the industrialization of agriculture to keep production levels high. In the UK alone, numbers of tractors doubled in the first year of war to 100.000 machines. Fossil-based fertilizers and pesticides were used in ever higher amounts to increase food production.

Moreover, the UK became 90% reliant on the USA for oil supply, as German submarines cut off the oil routes from the Middle East. Oil pipelines were built to avoid attacks on supply chains, and the plastics production in the US tripled. In total, the quest for power led to existential security questions of European nations during the two wars. This in turn, sparked the development of fossil-based militaries and economies that increased mobility and food surplus through mechanization. Political instability, in other words, created a vicious circle leading to increasing probability of climate change.

To be continued

The examples of whaling, the French Revolution, and the two world wars show two things. First, the demand for oil was driven by the greed for energy sources that humans could conquer, even before fossil fuels played a relevant role. Second, climate change can give a completely new meaning to major political events of our continent. In combination, a young generation that learns about these stories can learn to connect the dots that led us to the crisis in the first place.

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