Analyses of the Roman climate show government action to address climate change works

The Spring 2018 issue of Jewish Currents had my latest “Left is right” article that uses the latest research to show that the left position on environmental issues is the correct one: that the government has a role in addressing climate change and that the best way to do so is with regulation and not market solutions.

There are no current plans to post the article on the Jewish Currents website, so I thought I would give you a taste of it in hopes that you will buy the issue to read the whole piece, and maybe even start a subscription. Jewish Currents is a leading left-wing journal of politics and the arts.

Here’s the excerpt:

There are two conceptual differences between the left and the right when it comes to the environment and environmental policy. The first difference is fundamental: The left believes it is appropriate for the government to coordinate or dictate action to respond to environmental degradation and climate change, whereas the right questions the effectiveness of any governmental solution that impedes the freedom of individuals or corporations. The second difference is tactical: Once a nation or a group of nations has decided that government intervention is necessary, leftists prefer simple regulation, whereas right-wingers insist on complicated, market-based solutions like carbon trading. Readers may immediately think that I’m leaving out the fundamental issue of whether global warming is actually occurring and, if so, whether humans have caused it. In fact, that question has been decided by science.

Recent research gives us a fresh perspective on the impact of climate change on past societies, and the ways that past governments reacted to sudden modifications of weather patterns. Historians are poring over statistics from carbon dating, tree rings, ice bores, human records of harvests, food prices and plagues, population estimates and fossils to understand how weather has affected humans in the past. Although the discipline of history has only recently begun investigating the impact of climate on past civilizations, a fair amount of research already suggests that government intervention works better than denying the realities of weather.

Before the industrial revolution and the development of vaccines and advanced agricultural techniques and sanitation systems, sudden environmental change typically led to famines and epidemics. A decade of droughts or cold summers could ruin enough harvests to create widespread hunger. As classicist Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma) details in The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, a change in temperature could also force a carrier of disease such as rodents or mosquitos to move to a new region and infect human populations already weakened by famine.

Harper finds that weather change is implicated in the entire history of the Empire. From circa 200 [BCE] to 150 [CE], the Roman world had such good weather that climatologists call the period the “Roman Climate Optimum—warm, wet, and stable across much of the territory the Romans conquered. In an agricultural economy, these conditions were a major boost. The population swelled yet there was still enough food to feed everyone. But from the middle of the 2nd century, the climate became less reliable. The all-important annual Nile flood became erratic. Droughts and severe cold spells became more common. The Climate Optimum became much less optimal.

According to The Fate of Rome, the unrest throughout the Empire in the second half of the 2nd century is tied to cooling weather at the end of the Climate Optimum and the epidemic, probably of smallpox, that it helped to cause. Two hundred years later, a large and significant drought in the Asian steppes turned the Huns into “armed climate refugees on horseback.” In the 530s and 540s, a series of violent volcanoes, highlighted by the “year without summer” in 536, ushered in the Late Antique Little Ice Age, which saw the greatest decline in the energy the Earth receives from the sun over the past 2,000 years. This Late Antique Ice Age likely led to the first known outbreak of bubonic plague in 541. Over the next century or so, the Eastern Roman Empire’s population fell by as much as 50 percent, as the plague recurred about every ten years.

How did the Roman Empire react to these weather crises? Harper documents that the Roman governments took aggressive action to ameliorate the damaging impact of climate change on the economy and society. Because the emperors and their advisors perceived the menace of climate change as epidemics, their actions primarily related to population management: From Augustus onward, the Roman state penalized childlessness and rewarded fecundity in its policies. About 30 years after the Antonine plague of 165 to 180 CE, Caracalla took the unprecedented step of granting citizenship to all non-slave residents of the Empire, leading to an infusion of talent, growth of the imperial bureaucracy, and the dissemination of Roman laws and customs throughout imperial territory. Diocletian and Constantine’s answer to the Cyprian Plague in the 250s—which devastated the population and led to severe food shortages—was more government control of the economy and the military, producing the economic good times of the 4th century

Justinian, however, ruling from 527 to 565, could not add new peoples into the imperial system in his response to the disasters of the Late Antique Little Ice Age because there was no additional population left to integrate. Instead, writes Harper, Justinian built cisterns, aqueducts, granaries, and transport depots, reclaimed floodplains, and moved riverbeds, trying to “control the flux of nature.” But in the end, the Eastern Empire could not do enough to overcome the depopulation caused by a severe cooling of the Earth that lasted about two hundred years.

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