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Climate and Human History

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

With global warming constantly in the media the science of climate change has never been more relevant. But what are the facts behind the headlines? Major changes in climate have occurred throughout the ages, but how did different civilisations handle their effects? This fully illustrated course uses the latest results from archaeology and climate science to show how some societies were able to adapt while others crumbled in the face of climate change. The lessons for 21st-century civilisation will be discussed.

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No prior knowledge required.

Content of Course

  1. Climate and climate history: Introducing the basics of the climate system and methods to reconstruct climate history.
  2. The Ice Age: Humans spreading out of Africa throughout the world.
  3. Farming and City States: From ca 13000BC, a warmer and wetter climate may have supported farming in the Near East, and the development of city states could be linked to dryer conditions later on.
  4. Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire: Changes between 500 BC and 500 AD.
  5. Tang and Maya in the 10th Century: Both the Chinese Tang Dynasty and the Maya collapsed at a time when monsoon patterns changed.
  6. The Mediaeval Optimum and the Little Ice Age: The Vikings settled in Greenland and disappeared again, and the start of the Little Ice Age correlates with the end of the Middle Ages.
  7. El Niño through the Ages: The Pacific climate oscillation and its possible impacts on South America and Asia throughout history.
  8. Miscellaneous topics: Volcanic eruptions have sometimes directly destroyed civilisations (Minoan culture), but did they also affect humans through climate change? In this session we also look at some individual events like the Divine Wind that saved Japan from the Mongols.
  9. Current and future changes: Observed and modelled changes in the last century and the next few centuries? How will we react? Which regions of the world will suffer, which will profit? Plenty of opportunities for controversial discussions!
  10. Summary and re-cap.

Teaching method(s)

The course will be delivered through illustrated presentations combined with discussions. Students are encouraged to be actively involved through group discussion exercises etc., and a few optional tutorial questions give students an opportunity to reflect on the issue at home.
Related topics often appear in the media (e.g. news items, TV documentaries) and current news items will be discussed. Students are also encouraged to bring own material or suggest topics.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • understand the main components of the climate system and the basic factors that affect the climate,
  • describe natural climate variability and discuss past and present climate change from the perspective of climate science,
  • describe how different human societies have adapted or failed to adapt to changes,
  • discuss to what extent the reaction of different human societies is an interplay of external factors and the societies' internal dynamics.


Core Readings

Fagan, B., 2004. The long summer. How climate changed civilisation. London: Granta Books.
Brown, N., 2001. History and Climate Change: A Eurocentric Perspective. London: Routledge.

(Brown is very expensive and not recommended for buying. Fagan is a more popular, inexpensive book that gives a good overview.)

Fagan, B., 2000. Floods, Famines and Emperors. El Niño and the fate of civilisations. London: Pimlico.
Fagan, B., 2000. The Little Ice Age. How Climate made history 1300-1850. NY:Basci Books.

Web Sources European Society for Environmental History "Environmental history resources" by Jan Oosthoek, School of Historical Studies, Uni Newcastle.

Class Handouts

Handouts will be provided.

Student support

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