History and Climate Change

This column originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of History News.An iceberg in a lake next to brown hills on a sunny day.

By John R. Dichtl, AASLH President and CEO

Midwinter, a week after the icy polar vortex, a tree in my neighborhood lit with pink blossoms. That night, there were tornado sirens, making climate change feel very real. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 2018 was the fourth hottest year in recorded history; 2016 was the warmest, 2015 and 2017 the second and third warmest. This is a historical record taking shape around us, patterns of cause and effect that go back decades. Scientists, social scientists, and historians can show that rising temperatures are related to human activity.

More of us in the history community should take visible action on climate change. Just as historians and public history practitioners have wrestled with difficult histories having to do with racism and genocide and poverty, we must address how shifting climate will impact our lives and work and the future. Why?

First, it is the biggest issue we face—literally global in scope and measured in centuries. For historical organizations to engage on this is to make history relevant. We need to apply past stories of how our communities dealt with extreme climate events, major technological and economic shifts, and complicated policy debates. We have examples to share of how our ancestors harbored resources and adapted to change. Museums have collections pertaining to long past meteorological conditions, agricultural transformations, patterns of resource extraction, and societal responses to disasters.

Second, we must talk about climate change because history is a discipline built on reason. There’s a battle going on between reason and falseness. Facts and evidence matter; historians rely on critical dialogue, practicing history with integrity, and establishing consensus until persuasive new evidence or interpretation of facts emerges. Legitimate scientific discourse long ago moved on from the question of whether climate actually was changing, and cohered around the well-supported theory that human industrial society is responsible. What’s lingered in the media and in politics are the smudges of calculated denial campaigns that intentionally obfuscate, delay, and mislead. Historical thinking and scientific thinking are closely related, and they should reinforce each other.

Third, the very historical records, collections, buildings, and landscapes we in the historical profession are charged to protect are vulnerable to the ravages of climate change—floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes. Or as I learned in a news report this morning, if you place these in the order of most economically damaging, it’s hurricanes first, then heat waves, floods, tornadoes/hail, and finally cold weather. February’s polar vortex was a $3-billion blow to the economy. Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Maria each did between $70 and $125 billion in economic damage.

While there is an obvious threat to historic structures or museum collections poised close to an Atlantic or Gulf seashore, this is not only about coastal risk. Museums have been flooded hundreds of miles inland; forest fires made into colossal maelstroms by drought, have struck in the mountains. Wherever a site is located, the stresses can build. Whether the damage is gradual or sudden, it is an existential threat for some historic sites. Through wind, fire, and water, material artifacts, paper records, and edifices will be lost forever. Gone. For good. Climate change also means a rising tide of expenses for all history organizations. Insurance costs. HVAC systems. Flood and fire mitigation. There’s also the cost to us all when visitors or staff don’t appear, due to weather emergencies. Where I live, these are more frequent each year.

Immersed in the historical record, no one knows better than we do what happens when societies don’t adapt.

When town leaders are in denial about looming changes to the economy, resource base, or workforce, when they miss chances to begin adjusting course, communities fail. If we keep acting as if each major storm is unique, neither learning from past societies’ experiences, nor putting the news into larger perspective and seeing patterns, then we spiral.

For the past two years, AASLH has had a Climate and Sustainability Task Force, and we signed onto the We Are Still In initiative in July 2018, a national effort to mobilize state and local organizations “to reduce emissions and stem the causes of climate change.” We are updating our Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs) to include environmental sustainability. Promoting relevance and sustainability are strategic imperatives for AASLH. Let’s explore all that historic sites and institutions can do on this issue. Let’s be sure that history organizations are at the table when conversations about climate take place.

What are we waiting for?