Amidst record-high temperatures, deluges, droughts and wildfires, leaders are convening for another round of United Nations climate talks later this month that seek to curb the centuries-long trend of humans spewing ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
For hundreds of years, people have shaped the world around them for their benefit: They drained lakes to protect infrastructure, wealth and people. They dug up billions of tons of coal, and then oil and gas, to fuel empires and economies. The allure of exploiting nature and burning fossil fuels as a path to prosperity hopped from nation to nation, each eager to secure their own energy.
People who claimed the power to control nature and the energy resources around them saw the environment as a tool to be used for progress, historians say. Over hundreds of years, that impulse has remade the planet's climate, too — and brought its inhabitants to the brink of catastrophe.
Mexico City traces its roots to a settlement centuries ago on islands in the midst of Lake Texcoco. These days, most of the lake is gone, drained long ago to make room for the building and growth that today has more than 22 million people sprawling toward the edges of the Valley of Mexico.
Getting water in the arid valley — a need that has spiked as droughts have worsened — relies on pumping from deep underground. The toll of centuries of such pumping can be seen in curbs that crumble and structures that tilt atop the resulting subsidence, with some areas sinking around 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) a year. At the same time, neighborhoods are at increased risk of severe flooding because of climate change-fueled extreme rain events and drainage systems that are less effective because of the subsidence.
“Nature doesn’t create these huge problems,” said Luis Zambrano, professor of ecology at the National University Autónoma of Mexico. “Nature behaves as nature ... we are increasing our vulnerability by allowing the city to sink by pumping as much water as we possibly can from the aquifer."
Mexico City is just one example of people and empires altering their natural environments in ways they believe will benefit themselves and the land. Elsewhere, huge swathes of land have been deforested for agriculture or livestock grazing, or degraded and contaminated by quarrying and mining for metals and minerals. Tapping nature for its resources drove progress and productivity for some, but it's also been a major driver of emissions and environmental degradation.
Anya Zilberstein, a historian of climate science at Concordia University in Montreal, highlighted the example of Europeans colonizing the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries as an early catalyst for modern-day climate and environmental crises.
“They bring with them this idea that conquest and then the development of the cultivation of landscapes, like taking down trees, opening up lands to European style agriculture, that the draining of swamps ... will also change the climate, usually for the better,” Zilberstein said.
The Aztecs built Tenochtitlán — what became Mexico City — on the lake's islands and chinampas — small, artificial fields. When the city later fell under Spain's rule, it was seen as the “most gorgeous jewel in the Spanish empire," with ornate palaces and commercial hubs, said Vera S. Candiani, a historian of Latin America at Princeton.
Catastrophic flooding in the mid-16th century led the Spanish to pursue drainage projects that aimed to keep the city dry and prosperous, and stretched on for three centuries, Candiani said.
But not everyone benefited equally.
Candiani said that capital-owning elites got technicians, engineers and other professionals to implement a system of extracting resources and labor from the countryside to benefit the city in colonial Mexico, and more broadly from the colonies for the gain of the home country. Rural populations, who contributed the most to the project through coerced labor, didn't benefit.
Jan Golinski, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, said Europeans of the time thought that their changes — cutting down forests, draining swamps, plowing land — would change the climate as well, to something closer to their homelands. He said they saw this engineering as positive.
“They believed that their society was making progress, that it was gaining greater control over nature, that they were becoming more civilized and were civilizing the environment around them,” Golinski said.
It’s a belief that several historians say is rooted in feelings of racial and cultural superiority.
“We hear echoes of these tropes" in the present day, said Deborah Coen, a historian of science at Yale. Being more vulnerable to climate extremes is associated with populations of color, and at the same time, “we find white elites pursuing projects of climate adaptation that protect themselves at the expense of communities of color,” she said. For example, residents in areas that were deemed safer from extreme weather following wildfires in Maui this summer are now getting priced out of their own neighborhoods.
The early modern period's ideas on race have “long tentacles into the present,” said Zilberstein, and also solidified notions of environmental control, productivity and growth as positive, making it harder to tackle the current climate crisis.
“There are plenty of people who would say, yes, I believe climate change is real and I’ll go on a march, but I can’t accept de-growth," she said. “And I understand why businesses won’t commit to it and nations won’t commit to it. It’s sort of unfathomable. It goes against the deeply held ideology of progress.”
While Mexico City was built over water, Britain was sitting on vast expanses of coal that would eventually help form the blanket of carbon dioxide emissions that now clogs the atmosphere.
Coal had long been used in homes on the island for heating and cooking. It wasn't the only source of energy — timber, water and peat were in use as well — but the balance tipped dramatically in its favor through the late 18th and early 19th centuries through technological inventions like steam power, new transportation routes like canals and later railroads, and a desire to better control how, when and where energy was used.
When the steam economy arrived — engines fueled by coal to heat water and make steam power — it made it easier for factory owners to control labor and nature than an economy based on water power, for example, said Andreas Malm, an associate professor of human ecology at Lund University in Sweden.
“Steam engines were mobile in space, so you could erect them anywhere, and the great benefit of this was that you could concentrate steam factories in towns where there was access to cheap and disciplined labor power,” said Malm. Steam power was also less vulnerable to the droughts, floods and storms that could affect water power: “You could just turn it on at any point in the day, regardless of the weather outside.”
It made coal the central energy-maker for British manufacturing and transport.
“Britain forcibly exported this model and integrated other countries such as India or Egypt or what became Nigeria into a kind of an economy that was dependent on fossil fuel,” said Malm.
By the mid-19th century, steam power was adopted in manufacturing, cotton mills, steam ships and locomotives around the world, turning coal into a global trade.
On Barak, a historian at Tel Aviv University and co-founder of the Laboratory for the History of Climate Change, likened steam engines and coal to the British empire giving other states coffee machines and capsules. Nations consistently needed to buy new capsules, or coal, for their coffee machines, or steam engines, feeding an ongoing addiction.
“This kickstarts ... searching for fossil fuels in various places in the Ottoman Empire, in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere,” he said. And while it led to some discoveries, other empires and nations kept coming back to the more energy-rich British coal.
Centuries later, the United Kingdom has nearly weaned itself off coal, with weeks or months at a stretch where the national grid gets no coal power. The U.K. plans to stop using coal for the production of electricity by the end of next year, although it’s still used in heavy industry like steel-making, with a new coal mine approved in Cumbria as late as 2022.
But the country’s move away from coal wasn’t before its empire left its sooty footprint around the world. Its legacy can also be seen at home, where many of the mining and port towns in the north of England and parts of Wales and Scotland once buoyed by coal now languish, and abandoned mines and heaps of waste and debris scar the landscape.
Previous centuries created the right conditions for human-caused climate change, but the last few generations made it a reality. In 1960, humans put about 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air; in 2021, they produced more than four times that amount, according to the Global Carbon Project.
Energy use skyrocketed as cars, air travel and technology became more affordable in many North American and European countries. Other nations such as China, Japan and India were assembling their own energy regimes based on fossil fuels. And this all happened amid growing understanding and concern about heat-trapping gases.
Oil use grew in the late 19th century because it wasn't as labor-intensive as coal, an industry whose workers now had strong unions in some Western nations, historians say.
Like coal, oil was easy to store. It is more energy-rich than coal, and it's easier to move; as a liquid it can be shipped through pipes, as well as by trucks, tankers and railcars, said J.R. McNeill, a historian at Georgetown University.
The rise of automobiles in the 1920s led the U.S. to build its energy system and much of its technology around internal combustion engines that still dominate cars, ships and planes. And as Europe and Japan followed suit, it made the global investment in an oil-dominated fossil fuel regime “gigantic and harder, but not impossible, to reverse or replace,” McNeill said.
Meanwhile, coal kept its place in the global economy.
In China and Japan, growing consumption was a barometer of economic development by the early 20th century, said Harvard historian of science Victor Seow.
After the Communist Revolution in 1949, the Chinese government measured growth by its production of items like cloth, electricity, wheat, iron, steel — and coal, too, which was key measure of growth. Japan studied Western mining to develop its own coal fields in both its home islands and empire.
China is the world's current largest greenhouse gas emitter, although the United States still trumps it historically.
In India, too, which was part of the British Empire until it gained independence in 1947, coal was used to further the country's development and help state governments win popular support, said Elizabeth Chatterjee, a historian at the University of Chicago.
India set up state-owned coal-fired plants and started electrifying its cities and larger farms, with many other rural areas not coming online until the early 21st century. And they electrified while also understanding the environmental risks of coal, she said.
“Indira Gandhi, as early as 1981, spoke publicly about climate change, for example, as a threat, but plowed on with this (coal) regardless," Chatterjee said. “If you're a country with few resources, what choice do you have?”
In the United States, environmental issues started gaining traction in the 1960s and '70s, with the first Earth Day in 1970, said Joshua Howe, an environmental historian at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He cited major legislation — to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act — as “really big responses to that really big moment.”
But tackling fossil fuels — what Howe called “the center of the global economy” — was more difficult.
Yale's Coen described fear in the U.S. around discussing how to adapt to weather extremes caused by climate change that were already unavoidable in the late 20th century. Talking about adaptation was seen as a risk to detract from the will to slash emissions, she said.
Howe also noted unwillingness to join international climate agreements, including a unanimous U.S. Senate vote in 1997 against signing any climate treaty that would mandate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
That vote "was, in my opinion, pretty much when optimism for a national-level commitment to climate mitigation — especially via international agreements — went up in smoke,” Howe said.
But many historians agree, amid the gloom of spiraling concerns about the climate and environment, that radical shifts away from centuries-old ideas of progress can shape a better future.
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, a historian at the University of Chicago, said if humans rethink the need for persistent growth, societies can operate within the restrictions of finite resources and atmospheric limits.
“There are two kinds of boundaries to this economy,” said Jonsson. “One is a sort of upper boundary of planetary limits” of what our natural world can withstand, “and then there’s a lower boundary, that would guarantee minimum social needs, entitlements, the right to education, the right to clean water, the right to a steady income.”
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