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Social Sciences, Humanities Can Help in Response to Climate Change, Study Finds

UMD Anthropologist, Other Researchers Advocate for Importance of Historical Scholarship Alongside Data

By Liam Farrell

Inuit fisherman pulls in a fish on a sea filled with floating ice

Photo by AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

An Inuit fisherman pulls in a fish on a sea filled with floating ice shed from the Greenland ice sheet in Ilulissat, Greenland. A new study including a UMD researcher finds that humanities scholars can work with climate scientists and other researchers to better understand how climate has influenced human societies over the the centuries.

When the eruption of an Indonesian volcano in the 13th century suddenly cooled temperatures on the Italian peninsula, the governments of Bologna and Siena acted quickly to avoid famine, installing price controls on grain, forcing the wealthy to provide subsidies and even banning foreigners, criminals and prostitutes from accessing communal reserves.

Several hundred years later, as the “Little Ice Age” of the 17th-century soaked the nascent Dutch Republic, cities were able to better defend against Spanish invasions, sell grain for large profits and diversify their diets.

Such examples form the basis of a new paper published in Nature by archaeology, geography, history and paleoclimatology scholars, who argue that our response to present-day climate change needs to be informed by a more holistic study of the past.

“To deal with climate change, it’s not going to be anything one discipline can do,” said George Hambrecht, co-author and associate professor in the UMD Department of Anthropology. “(Research) is not going to do us much good unless we can apply it to human existence.”

Researchers’ reliance on data such as grain prices or easily documented events like wars have given too much weight to the idea that climate change leads to irreversible failure, the authors argue in the paper. Instead, they suggest that history has many examples of communities that adjusted and possibly thrived—even if it was at the expense of their neighbors.

“There’s going to be winners and losers. And there’s going to be inequities,” Hambrecht said. “Adapting is not always pretty.”

Hambrecht cautioned that integrating stories of resilience produced by humanities and social science researchers should not be taken as an argument downplaying the danger that the planet faces. While modern societies have far greater technology and resources at their disposal than their predecessors, the level and speed of man-made climate change occurring now is far greater than any in human existence.

Rather, the paper is meant as a potential solution to bridging communication gaps that can open between scholars relying on numerical techniques like weather models and laymen who can have difficulty relating them to daily life. The social sciences, Hambrecht said, offer a “huge database of how humans have reacted in the past.”

“All of these cases are little laboratories. We are adaptive and we have many ways of dealing with these problems,” he said. “In a sense, it gives hope.”

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