News Brief by Kip Hansen — 30 January 2024 — 900 words/7 minutes
Did Climate Change cause the Fall of the Roman Empire? No, but, hey, it makes a great story in these times of climate confusion.
The entertainment magazine, NewScientist, carried a story on 26 January 2024 penned by Alec Luhn, titled: “Plagues that shook the Roman Empire linked to cold, dry periods” with a subtitle of “A study reconstructing the climate of Italy during the Roman Empire based on marine sediments shows that three pandemics coincided with cooler, drier conditions”.
The NewScientist piece is discussing a ScienceAdvances journal paper:
Karin A. F. Zonneveld et al., ”Climate change, society, and pandemic disease in Roman Italy between 200 BCE and 600 CE”.
Kyle Harper, of the co-authors, is quoted:
“The Roman Empire rises and falls and rises and falls,” says Harper. “There’s a series of episodes of very extreme crises in some cases. And I think the case is now overwhelmingly clear that both climate change and pandemic disease had a role in many of those episodes.”
Luhn, author of the NewScientist article, goes on to say: “Cooler, drier conditions may have disrupted harvests, weakening the immune systems of Roman citizens and encouraging the spread of disease through migration and conflict. …. Before the Plague of Justinian, which was caused by the same flea-borne bacteria as the 14th-century Black Death, three massive volcanic eruptions dimmed the sun and launched the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’. Historical accounts from this time recorded crop failures.”
Just to drive the point home:
“But Harper [one of the co-authors of the research paper] says the study should raise questions about climate change in the Roman era, as well as our own: ‘It gives you perspective to understand that two to three degrees [Celsius] of change is absolutely enormous and puts tremendous strain on human societies.’”
Students of history may have quite different interpretations of the events of those critical 800 years of Roman history.
Zonneveld et al (2024) doesn’t go unchallenged, not even in the NewScientist coverage:
“While this new sediment record advances our understanding of Roman Italy, we don’t know enough about the rest of the empire to say climate change triggered or amplified the plagues, says Timothy Newfield of Georgetown University in Washington DC. He has argued that the effects of the Plague of Justinian have been exaggerated.
“Whether these three Roman pandemics specifically brought down Rome is in my opinion hard to argue,” he says. “No one variable or two variables can be held accountable.”
Paul Erdkamp, of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, has a pre-print up that starts with this “In 1984, the German ancient historian Alexander Demandt listed over two hundred causes of the decline of the Roman world that had been proposed in previous scholarship. The list offers a clear illustration of the fact that our views of the past are very much determined by contemporary concerns.” And goes on to say: “Beneficial climatic conditions generally allowed expansion of exploitation and habitation, but the reverse was far from inevitable. Societal circumstances determined whether drainage, irrigation or changes in cropping strategies overcame adverse natural conditions. Climate change may have caused an increase in the frequency of harvest failures in the West, but far more damaging was the declining ability of society to alleviate the impact of harvest shocks on the food supply, the wider effects of which triggered the spiraling down of the economy of the West [Western Roman Empire].”
1. There is pressure on all fields of science and in all areas of academia to find the Climate Change Crisis in every bit of research. Only a few brave souls see that this is the superposition of current academic fads onto prosaic facts.
2. The NewScientist piece manages to get in Climate Change (see #3) and Pandemics (plagues) while covering one study on “based on marine sediments” which posits “…three pandemics in the Roman Empire coincided with abnormally cold and dry periods” thus causing (contributing to) of the Fall of the Roman Empire, adding to the list of 200 other causes previously identified.
3. And here, while we will see headlines of “climate change caused the Fall of the Holy Roman Empire”, it will be unmentioned that it was not rising temperatures, not warming, heating or boiling, that caused this Great Fall, but “abnormally cold periods”.
4. The Climate Crisis Media cabals might try to use a line like “periods of drought, like today, brought down the Roman Empire” – the IPCC says “it ain’t necessarily so”. Some places at some times are droughty, some have been droughty for a long time. That’s climate and not climate change. To quote Paul Erdkamp: “The concept of climatic change refers to trends in these wild and seemingly random fluctuations, but these trends are far from apparent and readily discernible.”
5. The ability of society of adjust to, to adapt to, to mitigate the challenges of weather and climate determine the success of that society – the same today as it was for the Roman Empire. And that ability depends of wealth, stable beneficent governments and dependable supplies of energy.
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The reason that “climate change” affects poorer countries more than richer countries is that the poorer countries are poor—they haven’t the resources to adapt to, to mitigate, what the world throws at them. In many cases, poor countries do not have stable governments that work for the well-being of their citizens.
Quite simply put: Warm is better.
Stay warm, thanks for reading.
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