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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Making Climate History will engage collaborative work in four distinct workstreams together with the collection of participant histories from leading climate scientists.

1. Physics as environmental science

Much recent debate has identified the decades around 1800, notably in Europe and north America, as the moment when human agency decisively achieved the scale and intensity of a geological agent of climatic and environmental change. The argument has principally focused on the carbonisation of the economy through steam-driven industrial production (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016). Much less commonly observed are corresponding changes in efficiency of fuel use, the relation between sciences of work and of natural resources, and, notably, the exactly contemporary development of new disciplines of the physical sciences linking studies of heat diffusion, magnetism and meteorology to place. We test the hypothesis that this kind of physics was specifically born as a science of the global environment, forging a connexion between models of planetary environments and of patterns of work and industry. Its protagonists were concerned with surveillance of atmospheric, oceanic and planetary phenomena, aiming to build systems that could accurately describe and in principle predict quantitative variations in these parameters. They established an innovative pattern of survey knowledge, thermal physics and instrument-based practice, pursued in a key period around 1800 in expeditions and the construction of observatories within Europe, but also in Egypt, the Americas, the Pacific and India. Exemplified especially in Fourier's account of a cooling earth and von Humboldt's endeavour to map isolines, practitioners first declared that the phenomena they would scrutinise, such as temperature and pressure, magnetic strength and tidal heights, must in principle be seen as the effects of world-wide physical causes operating on a planetary scale.

These claims were used to win resources for globally deployed surveys under the aegis of militarised and economically ambitious states. Then their outputs, artfully accumulated data sets to be juxtaposed and analysed, were used as decisive evidence for the planetary models these men of science and their allies had first propounded. The integration of such survey sciences with analysis of the steam economy and the science of work was crucial: the resources of the economy of steam and iron were indispensable for the deployment of the survey teams, the knowledge of heat and work was taken to be the key to understanding how the planetary systems of magnetism, meteorology and hydrography functioned, and the knowledges those teams generated were directly applied to making sense of, and redirecting, the workings of industrial and thermal engineering systems (Malm 2016). The received histories of this set of crucial developments have too often attended solely to a few protagonists whose heroic status has been identified only in the retrospective light of subsequent climatological understanding. Throughout this period, relations between a host of observers and informants distributed on a planetary scale were decisive, both in producing knowledges of climates and in the processes that were remaking them (Grove 1997). Our aim is to broaden and deepen the knowledge of the large number of practitioners whose survey work and physical inquiry helped build a new global physics in this period: a biographical directory will be compiled using reliable information sources and archival directories for the physical sciences (Poggendorf), maritime services (available through the National Maritime Museum and the Musée de la Marine), instrument-makers (through Project Simon and Webster Signature Database) and many other indigenous expert collaborators and informants.

The implication of our claim is that the application of advanced physical sciences to climate knowledge in the later twentieth century was not the sudden and belated application of exact laboratory physics to environmental modelling that subsequent protagonists have described. Rather, this version of physics was founded two centuries ago as a science of survey of the environment on a global scale. The aim of this work stream is to document and analyse how this system of survey sciences and worldwide inquiry and scrutiny then emerged; what gave its own sense of global networks a particular scientific and political significance; and its implications for the subsequently close and consequential relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries between climate history and the history of climate knowledge. In addition to the opening sections of the project's headline book 'Making Climate History', it will yield an academic paper on the emergence of global physics for Studies in the History of the Natural Sciences. Our second work stream focuses on the most influential synoptic representations of this knowledge.

2. Cartographies of climate

In the nineteenth century, the worldwide reach of physics depended on the growing infrastructures and standardised practices of European colonial systems, notably in the case of meteorology, on the observatory, telegraphy and metrology (Grove 1997; Mahony and Endfield 2018). The conduct of these administrative systems in turn depended directly on applications of newly globalised forms of physics (Davis 2000). The integration into imperial systems of governance of the new physics of environment science was therefore coetaneous with significant changes occurring to the geographical and temporal scales at which the idea of climate was being imagined and represented (Coen, 2016). Indispensable to these processes of extension and stabilisation was the production of maps depicting spatial configurations of newly measured physical variables. The synoptic map became essential for fieldwork, administration and for claims to understanding new environments and their spatial relations. 'All-seeing' was a prerequisite to 'all-knowing'. The map operated as a powerful social technology that did not merely describe the world but brought new worlds into being (Harley 2002). As an 'environing technology' (Sörlin and Wormbs 2018), cartography has always been central to new conceptions of climate. Emblematic of these new nineteenth century cartographies was von Humboldt's isotherm map of the northern hemisphere, published in 1817 as what may be thought of as the world's first climate map (Schneider 2018). By the interwar period in the twentieth century, Huntingdon's climate civilisations had been joined by Walker's maps of teleconnections and Köppen's climate classification. New technologies of sensing and representation, driven by the carbon-fuelled forces of modernity, were refracted through the climate map to give rise to an evolving understanding of, first, how climate became global and, second, how global climate became human-made with Kellogg's maps of climate engineering in the 1970s, for example.

In this work stream a series of iconic maps of 'global climate' selected from the past 200 years will be critically interrogated to disclose the different epistemic imaginaries which have changed the ways in which climate has been described, explained, predicted and hence made (putatively) governable. In particular, we hypothesise that these cartographies of climate can reveal the inter-related histories of the evolving technologies of climate science – observatories, thermometers, buoys, satellites, computers, the internet – and the visual representations of climate that these technologies allowed. Recognising the networks of human and material actors which lie behind each map, the individuals, institutions, networks, patronage, data, cartographic norms and political contexts which enabled each maps' construction and subsequent mobilisation will be disclosed, thus offering a thick account of the making of climate. This will form the basis for a monograph called 'Critical climate cartographies: 12 maps that made climate [to] change', and an accompanying public website containing these maps. Of course, some of the most vital implications of these maps concerned their ability to reveal change – often subtle – over considerable timespans. Our third and fourth work streams engage place with time.

3. Defining climatic eras

Timescales have shifted both through the recognition that humans are now a geological force and in recent arguments for a need to re-examine temporality (Chakrabarty 2018, Antonello and Carey 2017). Examining climate eras and periodicities across two hundred years, this work stream tests the hypothesis that establishing climatic periods has depended particularly on strategic treatments of place (and sometimes mapping), by documenting just how scientists have learned to shift between diverse temporal scales from geological epochs to planetary cycles of tens of thousands of years to the shorter-term periodicities of monsoonal or El Niño dynamics. Thus a second hypothesis is that calibrating climatic periods has also always depended on diverse forms of evidence, and usually therefore on recognising a variety of temporal regimes. This has been particularly critical to establishing causal accounts of climate (fingerprinting); it also helps explain why debate about the existence of a Medieval Warm Period has been unusually important for both paleoclimatologists and climate sceptics (Mann 2010). We build on important studies examining the introduction of geo-history (Rudwick 2005, 2008) and complement significant attention paid to ice ages and glaciers (Imbrie 1986, Carey 2010) and to the work of Croll and Milankovitch on orbital variation. Yet the methodological novelty of examining arguments about climate periodisation over a long temporal period and across diverse sciences (geology, climatology, dendrology) will enable a new form of historical perspective that increases the resolution of our knowledge of the diverse disciplines and cultural sectors engaged in knowing climate. Paying close attention to the material evidence central to different treatments of climate periodisation will help relate our means of knowing climate to the regimes of making – evident in geological interest in coal formation, the significance of forestry and agricultural records, survey sciences and the infrastructures required to yield ocean sediments, ice cores, satellite data.

But it will also tell another story, of the material dependence of natural archives and global measurements on forms of physical isolation. Europeans first related climate strongly to time as a result, in part, of what we have here described as global physics. Fourier's account of a cooling earth offered a newly dynamic understanding of geophysical history. This is one of the reasons arguments for distinctively climatic change in a past ice age were initially marginalised but then later provided such a fundamental reorientation to geology when they were first advanced forcefully by Louis Agassiz in the late 1830s; work that rendered geological maps of terrain also climate maps. Similarly, studies of the roles of H.H. Lamb from the 1960s and Michael Mann from the 1990s in, respectively, forwarding and combatting the Medieval Warm Period will show the necessity of mapping climate in order to open the question whether this period was global or European, indeed was a period or an anomaly. This still remains a significant proving ground for the historical climate sciences. This will be the subject of an academic paper for Climatic Change together with two collaborative papers – one on time and place, and one on temporality across time and disciplines – to be published in historical and interdisciplinary journals.

4. Calibrating temporalities

Our fourth work stream builds on previous accounts (Rotberg and Rabb 1981, Fleming 1998, Weart 2003) to provide the first detailed history of the emergence of a novel interdisciplinary field called climate science in the roughly two decades from the 1965 President's Science Advisory Committee Report on atmospheric carbon dioxide to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Our hypothesis is that the formation of an interdisciplinary science of climate required dual acts of calibration: that of different methods for addressing temporal scales within diverse disciplines (e.g. ice and sediment cores, tree rings, historical documents) and that of the institutions through which the new science was to be enacted (e.g. international, national, disciplinary). The impetus for the self-conscious formation of this field came from a recognition of climate as both essentially unified and exhibiting variation on all temporal and spatial scales (a re-discovery that echoed both the work of von Humboldt at the end of the eighteenth century and cosmic physicists at the end of the nineteenth). The challenge of understanding the inbuilt unity and variability of a global climate system was so great that it would 'require the contributions of disciplines ranging from meteorology, oceanography, geomorphology, geography, and hydrology to botany, geology and archaeology', as the report of an international meeting on 'Changes in Climate' convened by UNESCO and the World Meteorological Organization in 1963 put it. A central focus of our work here is to articulate how data and methods from a range of scientific disciplines were integrated into a unified discipline of climate science, in the same way that scientists sought to relate change at different temporal and spatial scales to an entire climate system. Not yet centre-stage in 1963 were three sub-disciplines which would signally shape climate science: paleoclimatology, geophysical fluid dynamics and computer modelling. Calibrating the distinctive approaches to variability across space and time offered by all of these disciplines was necessary to forge the new science of climate.

The data for this endeavour came from planet-spanning observational networks based on those socio-technical systems whose origins and cartographic techniques we describe in other work streams. During World War II and the Cold War, national ambitions for strategic control of skies and seas promoted massive investment in the global systems required to probe the oceans, atmosphere and cryosphere at a dizzying range of scales. In the 1950s, earth-observing satellites brought a new level of synopticism to climate observations and further cemented links between the science of climate and geopolitics. Computing systems relied on government support and were understood ab initio as tools for potential climate and weather modification that might be undertaken by federal or state governments.

Scale also became a key social question in the organisation of the new science. At the international scale, the status of climate science related to concerns over the potential for natural global warming and cooling, intentional and inadvertent weather or climate modification, the response of agricultural production to climatic fluctuations (highlighted by the 1972 grain crop failure in the USSR and several devastating droughts), and the economic and environmental impact of air pollution, flooding and hurricanes. This led to cooperation as well as competition, notably in the influential 1957–1958 International Geophysical Year, which paved the way for subsequent international collaborations. At the national level, government ministries, universities, and private and public research institutes became centres for the application of physical sciences to environmental questions, often with generous state funding. Key sites include in the US, MIT, Caltech, INSTAAR (UC Boulder), US Weather Bureau, Office for Naval Research, and the National Science Foundation; in the USSR, the Soviet Academy of Sciences; in the UK, University of Cambridge, University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, and the Met Office.

The discovery that change was endemic to the Earth's climate at all temporal and spatial scales transformed climate science during the 1970s into a planning science – governments now needed to constantly forecast and adapt to a system newly understood as always in flux. Contributing disciplines brought with them different methods based on empirical, theoretical and eventually modelling values. Determining the relative status and importance of these methods for interpreting the epistemic relationship between past and future climate changes was crucial. Could the past serve as a guide to the future? If so, on what temporal and spatial scales and how could it be tested? If not, might other techniques, such as modelling, function to relate empirical evidence to future changes? This period saw climate models emerge as the epistemically primary form of climate knowledge at the same time as did institutional, national and international structures necessary for fluid exchange between disciplines (e.g., Oldfield 2018). Understanding how this happened may explain in part why climate science has not to date acquired many of the traditional components of disciplinary identity (university departments, undergraduate degrees and, with a few exceptions, discipline-specific journals) (Weart 2013). In addition to contributing to the main monograph, one outcome of this work stream will be a paper for The British Journal for the History of Science analysing publications from the period tracking interdisciplinary contributions; a second will be a contribution to the project's biographical directory capturing shifting disciplinary affiliations within climate science.

Participant histories

The four work streams of 'Making Climate History' use artefacts, maps, published writings and archival sources to examine the historical relations between knowing climates and making them. The project will supplement these sources by capturing the voices of a generation of climate scientists and science administrators who were active over the last third of the twentieth century, and yet will not be with us for much longer. This programme will record, curate and analyse the voices of a selection of these long or newly retired protagonists in climate science from the 1960s onwards. Interviews offer unique insights into the lives, works and personalities of scientists, offering new insight from living sources into the multiple and contested understandings of climate that shaped the emergence of the multi-discipline of climate science and its development as a historical science of the environment in the latter decades of the Cold War. Critical analysis of these oral histories will test and refine our readings of sources used elsewhere in the project, whether accounts of climate science re-constructed from archival sources or found in the historiographical climate literature. There is a significant population of retired climate scientists and administrators from this era to select from. Choices will be made systematically to represent diverse sub-disciplines and regions, but also pragmatically considering access and consent. Interview narratives will be shaped by the emerging questions and issues arising from other work streams and will revolve around career trajectories and choices, epistemic networks, institutional patronage, technologies of analysis and representation, and contribution to salient debates in climate science about periodisation, attribution, and politicisation. We will work with the American Institute of Physics oral histories archive and the British Library ('the oral history of British science'/'voices of science' project) for the long-term curation of these recordings.

Questions of interdisciplinarity and the calibration of methods for relating temporal and spatial variability remain essential to the making of climate knowledge (Caseldine and Turney 2010). In broader historical and contemporary frameworks, both the emergence of 'big histories' linking environmental data with societal and climate change (Behringer 2010, Parker 2013) and currently contested stratigraphies rely on bringing human and natural histories into meaningful contact. Similar aims are pursued more technically within current climate science, generating tools such as integrated assessment models that engage physical, economic and social systems. As our synoptic book will show, understanding the contingent formation of this version of a global history of climate change across 200 years of endeavour is indispensable to knowing how to make climate history part of our own work for change.