Russell Shorto

An Uncommon Cold

Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present

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For all the attention that has been devoted to climate change in recent years, one could argue that the subject is still woefully under-analysed. The alterations to the earth and its systems and the social upheaval that the coming decades promise to bring will be so profound and multifarious that the topic needs to be studied from every conceivable angle. Even then we surely won’t be braced for the hits.

Philipp Blom’s new book, Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, approaches climate change from an important angle: the past. His focus is on the last sustained period in which humanity confronted a significant change in the earth’s climate. Today, scientific research shows, we are in the midst of a period of global warming. The average surface temperature of the earth rose by about 0.85 degrees Celsius between 1880 and 2012, and a further increase of somewhere between 0.3 and 1.7 degrees is expected by the end of the century. During the Little Ice Age, the deepest trough of which ran from the late 1500s to the late 1600s, temperatures dropped by about two degrees Celsius. Although the temperature went down, some of the effects, such as a sharp increase in extreme weather events, paralleled what we are facing today. Blom asks, ‘Do societies change when the climate changes? And if so, how?’ The ‘long, wintry seventeenth century’ can serve as a test case for understanding what confronts us in the 21st century.

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