Canadian Historians and Climate Change

7 12 2009
Polar Bear: Image of Climate Change

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill (Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada). Photo by Ansgar Walk

The great climate change conference has opened in Copenhagen. Some are branding this gathering as the most important international meeting since the Congress of Vienna. It remains to be seen what future historians have to say about it. Most historians hesitate to predict the future or how our descendants will view present-day events. In any event, historians have already said a great deal about past climate changes. You might think that climate change is a purely scientific topic about which historians would have relatively little to contribute. The reality is that historians’ work has been important in advancing the scientific community’s understanding of past climate changes and their impact on societies. Moreover, many of the existing climate models depend on data that historians have carefully gathered from archives all over the planet.

Patrick D. Nunn , Climate, environment and society in the Pacific during the last millennium; Brian Fagan; The Little Ice Age : how climate made history 1300-1850 ; The way the wind blows : climate, history, and human action edited by Roderick J. McIntosh, Joseph A. Tainter, Susan Keech McIntosh; Richard H. Grove, Ecology, climate and empire : colonialism and global environmental history, 1400-1940.

Canadian historians have researched a variety of topics related to climate change. The Hudson’s Bay Company archive is a particularly useful resource for climate-change historians because the clerks at HBC posts were required to record the daily temperature. The post records provide information about climatic conditions in the days before national weather services began collecting records. A list of other records related to the climate history of Canada is available here.

Last year, an academic conference on Canadian history and climate change was held at the University of Western Ontario. The presentations were recorded and are available online here. More information about the Early Canadian Environmental Data project is available here.

Athabasca Tar Sands, Early Twentieth Century. Image Source: Library and Archives Canada

Also, check out: Paul Chastko’s history of the Alberta tar sands,  Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands : from Karl Clark to Kyoto.

Update: the blog at has some more information on historians and climate research.



3 responses

8 12 2009
Adam Crymble

You might also check out what Jay Young, a PhD candidate at York University said about this topic yesterday:

8 12 2009

I’m leaving for Copenhagen on Thursday. I’m one of two academics on the provincial delegation, and while the major concern is either political (the subnational discussions, world energy cities, etc.) or entrepreneurial (buy our tidal/wind/wave/etc. power), everyone’s been very respectful of the idea of having a teacher along. Which is nice to see.

8 12 2009

Hi Claire,

That’s fantastic! Will any member of the NS delegation be live-blogging? If you could send images, updates, links, impressions, or anything else I could post to my blog, that would be appreciated!

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