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Ghosts of Climate Future and Climate Past

Published onOct 26, 2023
Ghosts of Climate Future and Climate Past

As I write this, in the late summer of 2022, heatwaves rage in China and floods ravage Pakistan. Glaciers are melting in the Alps, and wildfires are an annual occurrence in Australia and the western United States. Once-in-a-lifetime droughts and storms now occur, it seems, all the time. We ask: what are we going to do about this? We should also be asking: how the hell did we get here?

Through studying and writing about climate-change stories for more than ten years, I’ve come to realise that the second question will help us answer the first. I’m a great believer in the axiom that understanding history helps us to understand the future: how to live in it, shape it, do better with it. I also believe that, to really understand climate history, we need to understand climate story—that is, we need to account for creative responses to and reflections of climate. Studying not just climate history but storytelling means we can write new stories and take new approaches; in other words, learning from climate histories (plural) helps us to write and live a better climate future.

Of course, the study of climate history isn’t new. From analysing ice cores that tell us about the distant past to exploring archives that show more recent historical shifts, environmental scientists have helped to reconstruct climatic fluctuations and environmental historians have shown how these can be linked to social change, such as the rise and fall of civilisations. But what is less understood is the cultural history of climate—a history not of climate per se but of our attitudes to it.

A Cultural History of Climate: The Ancients to the Moderns

A cultural history of climate is a history of how the very idea of climate has come to be. Climate, after all, is not just weather: it is the weather measured over time and space. Any given climate is only arrived at by averaging and aggregating the weather records of a particular location over a particular duration. While weather is, of course, as old as the planet, the concept of climate as an aggregate of weather events is not.

For sure, the measurement of weather over time—the discernment of climatic patterns, the prediction of meteorological events, and the adjustment of social and economic activities accordingly—is an ancient human habit. Even primitive humans would have recognised seasonal variation. There is evidence of phenology, or the study of meteorological and ecological changes through the seasons, in ancient civilisations such as those of Greece and China.

From the time of the Han Dynasty in China, retrospective annals of previous dynasties were compiled; these included seasonal observations of flora and fauna, with particular interest in unseasonal phenomena such as early or late fruit blossoms and significant droughts. The format of the first such record, the Book of Han (or Hanshu), assembled by the poet and politician Ban Gu (32-92 CE), was closely adhered to by each wave of post-dynastic historians for almost two thousand years.

Meanwhile, the Greeks of the third century BCE produced inscriptions in stone, usually in public places, such as this one on a wall of the theatre in the Asia Minor city of Miletus (in modern-day Turkey). On the tablet, called a parapegma, statements about the placement of heavenly bodies in the skies (“The sun is in Aquarius” or “Andromeda begins rising in the morning”) are accompanied by small holes drilled into the surface. A peg would be placed within a hole and moved along as those key astronomical events occurred and the seasons progressed. Weather would be observed, its predictable occurrences determined, and those then announced. People could plan their fishing, sailing, and planting accordingly.1

Close-up photo of a roughly rectangular stone tablet with faded Greek lettering carved into its surface, along with rows and columns of circular holes punched through the stone.

Fragment of a Parapegma (almanac with pegs). Greek. Miletus, Turkey. 2nd BCE. Marble, 31 x 46 x 20 cm. © bpk, Berlin / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, inventory number Sk 1606 IV / Johannes Laurentius / Art Resource, NY.

Both the Greek and the Chinese examples are public recordings of seasonal data, and therefore represent early attempts to quantify weather over space and time—what we now call climate. From out of such temporal records, these civilisations developed their comprehension of distinctive local or regional weather patterns—and thus of how climates differ from place to place. The Chinese annals are sensitive to the distinctive climes across the northern and southern parts of the vast dynastic realms. Similarly, the Greeks described regional variations while connecting them to the particular physiological or psychological predispositions of inhabitants of different locales, as in the influential medical treatise On Airs, Waters, and Places, attributed to Hippocrates (460-377 BCE). The Greeks expanded this understanding of regional meteorological differences into global differences. It’s in this conceptual leap that we find the origins of the word “climate.” Aristotle’s Meteorology (384-322 BCE) divides the world latitudinally into five bands of klima (or klimata, in the plural), from frigid regions near the pole to a torrid one at the equator; Ptolemy did the same with seven zones in his Geography (ca. 150 CE). Klima simply means “slope” or “inclination,” referring to the angle of the sun, which would differ from zone to zone.

For the ancients, weather needed to be measured primarily because understanding and predicting it was so intertwined with the success or failure of human actions, from poor crops to poor shelter, from lost livelihoods to death at sea. These early “climate records” reflect an immediate and intimate connection with weather.

Stories from this time aptly demonstrate this stage of climate’s cultural history. For example, the advice that the poet Hesiod gives to farmers in his Works and Days (ca. 700 BCE) to pay heed to the different weather patterns of various regions is perfectly complemented by the vivid squalls conjured up by his counterpart, the poet we know as Homer, whose hero Odysseus is dramatically waylaid by storms, his men all drowned, on his long-awaited journey home.

The storms faced by Odysseus remind us of another key aspect of ancient weather storytelling: meteorological disaster is framed as the expression of divine wrath, and thus is ultimately caused by human failings. The Chinese, thanks to the Confucian philosopher Dong Zhongshu in the Han era, have long understood this as tianren ganying, which translates roughly as a kind of stimulus-response relationship between heaven and humans.

Humans, then, have long known the life-or-death importance of recording the weather and understanding its patterns, while holding to the idea that any control we might have over it lies in keeping the Gods happy. In the Chinese tradition, what the sinologist Mark Elvin calls “moral meteorology” (the idea that humans, especially emperors and officials, bring wild weather on themselves and the populations they’re charged with stewarding) has proved remarkably long-lived; it is because of this that careful phenological descriptions are included in dynastic chronicles for the best part of two thousand years.2 Even in Europe, that Hesiodic advice (don’t take the weather for granted) and Homeric storm (showing what happens when you do) echo into the Renaissance and early modern era. So we see, by the early modern period in Europe, a continued interest in keeping tabs on the weather. The practice of weather chorography—the daily observation and documentation of data such as rainfall, temperature, and wind conditions—takes hold in Poland, Germany, and Switzerland from the 1500s, Iberia in the 1600s, Italy in the 1700s, and Britain from the 1700s onwards.3 We also see the continuance of the idea that weather might be divinely or supernaturally ordained; perhaps its most memorable and famous expression is Shakespeare’s tempests, whether magically wielded by Prospero in The Tempest or visited by an omnipotent God upon King Lear.

The Enlightenment

The cultural history of climate becomes especially revealing for us in the present when it moves into that age called the Enlightenment. As far as the European cultural history of climate goes, there is a great—if almost imperceptible—conceptual shift. It’s not only that, with technological change, humans’ means of gaining food, shelter, and livelihood are less vulnerable to the elements, and so weather observation ceases to feel like a matter of survival. It’s also that weather chorography advances into a distinctive body of knowledge. The early modern weather diaries were insistently subjective; they are the product of firsthand experience and eyewitness accounts of daily weather.4 With the quantifying spirit of Enlightenment science, impartial observation is emphasised, as is the ability to measure weather phenomena under controlled and replicable circumstances.

By the eighteenth century, then, replicable meteorological observations were, of course, being replicated. They were compared across locations and regions. The emblem of this new way of perceiving climate is the isotherm—those lines on a map that connect points of equal average temperature—introduced in 1817. An isothermal map is a far cry from representations of Aristotelian or Ptolemaic klimata, which were still being circulated in the Middle Ages, as in this representation based on the ideas of the late Roman philosopher Macrobius (whose writings, dating to about 400 CE, were avidly copied and disseminated in the twelfth century):

Illustration of the Earth as a circle divided into Aristotle's five climate zones, in 12th-century manuscript

Macrobius’s Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, ca. 1150 CE. Photo by Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, ms. NKS 218 4°.

An isothermal map is derived from data: its boundaries come about because, on one side of the border, mean temperatures (among other things) are hotter or colder than those on the other; those means have been determined by collecting weather observations and averaging them. In other words, observations have been turned into numbers, and numbers have been visually rendered as climatic zones. For Alexander von Humboldt, the isotherm’s inventor, climate was more than just temperature: its key components included such quantifiable factors as “all the changes in the atmosphere which sensibly affect our organs, as temperature, humidity, variations in the barometrical pressure, the calm state of the air or the action of opposite winds, the amount of electric tension, the purity of the atmosphere or its admixture with more or less noxious gaseous exhalations, and, finally, the degree of ordinary transparency and clearness of the sky.”5

A photo of a flat map of the Earth, with the Americas on the far left and East Asia on the far right. The map features horizontal lines in a rainbow of colors, from blues, greens, and yellows to oranges and pinks.

Isothermal map, 1823. Photo by Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, New York Public Library.

Climate, rendered as data, becomes something no longer intimately connected to our activities; it becomes something “out there,” the steady backdrop to human action, an unseen set of forces realisable only as scientific information. What’s more, rather than weather events being thought of as divine judgements, weather, when measured as the dynamics of climate, seems to tick away like a clock set by a watchmaker God. The climate historians James Fleming and Vladimir Jankovic describe this change in attitude as a historical shift in human perception: a change from the ancients’ everyday encounters with climate as agency (“defined as what it does rather than what it is”) to a modern quantification of climate as index (“a derived entity, a statistical index of averaged parameters across time and space”).6

From the Enlightenment onwards, the settings, plots, and scenes of literature may include representations of discrete weather events, but these stories are also capable of flattening out these phenomena into the features of a stable climate—just as climate science was doing with individual weather observations. If we stay within the European, and especially British, context, we see the storms that waylay Gulliver’s voyages in the early eighteenth century playing up the dramatic potential of wild weather, but, equally, find that James Thomson’s influential series of nature poems The Seasons (1730) shows winter storms as part of a reassuring cycle of predictable British weather.7 Meanwhile, the capacious form of the novel allows the steady build-up of meteorological events to become a climatic setting (such as Dickens’s foggy, smoggy London).8 Climate, not just weather, can be a feature of such stories, so much so that the effect of microclimate on characters becomes a palpable feature (we can think of the blustery conditions of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), the peculiar attributes of the heath in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878), or the particular meteorological terroir of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels (1871-1893)).9

In other words, in the “Western” imagination right up to the twentieth century, climate became established as a norm. Weather, or at least individual weather events, might prove an exception but, if anything, these served to confirm the idea of overall climatic constancy. In this way, historically, literature both reflected and helped to consolidate the Enlightenment distinction between weather and climate. Its descriptions of (occasionally unpredictable) weather alongside (generally predictable) longitudinal climate observations represent the same epistemological operation found in contemporary scientific practice, collapsing discrete events and features into a coherent, stable state known as a climate.

Writing the Climate Future

Focusing on this historically established idea of climate as an unchanging backdrop to our lives helps us understand why we’ve been so rudely awakened in a time of rapid, anthropogenic climate change—and why we’re so resistant to this awakening. For the climate emergency punctures this particular myth. Climate is neither the statistical index removed from lived experience, nor is it an expression of divine agency. Lo and behold, it is something over which we have long had agency and something we have taken for granted. It turns out that climate is a fragile network, a delicate tissue, whose interdependencies and feedback loops are susceptible to actions performed by humans. Only in the mid-twentieth century did the methods of modern science reveal (too late) that those climate mechanisms scientists had so studiously quantified showed not stasis but dynamism (which we were slow to understand, and to which we have been even slower to react). Only in the mid-twentieth century, then, did climate scientists cease, as global warming historian Spencer Weart puts it, to consider climate “in the old fashion, like some simple mechanism that kept itself stable” and to begin to think of it as “a complex system, precariously balanced.”10

Since then, it is as though public opinion—and literature—have been playing catch-up. In our century, eco-anxiety and climate trauma are being addressed and trumpeted, assuaged or provoked, by poems, plays, films, and, most of all, novels. Over the course of fifteen years, I have tracked the growth of climate fiction from a maligned and marginalised idea (a journalist reported to me in 2012 that a leading publisher had claimed climate fiction simply didn’t exist as a marketable genre) to an established literary form (it is now a fixture in bookshops, book clubs, creative writing courses, and university syllabi). I have traced how novels grapple with the curious existential status of climate as index and attempt instead to inject into their narratives some sense of climate as agency. But, all the while, they must strive to lift that agency away from ideas of divine intervention to notions of human responsibility. In other words, in the Anglophone literary world, climate fiction is booming because climate awareness has, at last, come to dominate headlines. Our cultural history of climate has finally caught up with us.

The Cultural Histories of Climate, Plural: The Case of China

But to write a cultural history of climate that pivots on the Enlightenment is to write only one kind of history, a Eurocentric account that dramatically shifts ground from the ancients to the moderns. A look at other contexts reminds us of the importance of attending not just to a cultural history of climate, but to cultural histories of climate. And it shows us why other approaches to what we’re currently calling climate fiction might exist.

Just as a Eurocentric cultural of history of climate might help to explain why the climate crisis has been the shocking and inconvenient truth that it is, a look at the Chinese cultural history of climate reveals why China’s climate change awareness has taken the path it has. And just as the former history is the necessary background to the contours of climate fiction as we now know it and read it in the West, the latter history explains the status of climate change awareness and climate fiction in China.

The Chinese penchant for “moral meteorology” endured as long as the habit of compiling dynastic annals. Over two thousand years, until the final dynasty of the Qing gave way to a Chinese republic in 1911, the annals presented instances of meteorological phenomena as divine reaction to imperial action (or inaction). Indeed, one might say that this conceptualisation of climate outlives the record-keeping that preserved it, since even the records of the Qing dynasty (meticulously maintained, but destined not to be compiled) continue to affirm the idea. Alongside this, the formulae of weather depictions in poetry kept step, particularly influenced by the season poems of the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), whose forms remained influential till at least the Qing.

No Enlightenment pivot occurs in the Chinese history of climate. This is not to say that China didn’t see its own scientific leaps, for sinologists have conclusively shown that its technological advances had outstripped those in the West centuries before (perhaps to such an extent that China did not experience an Enlightenment in the same way when that time came in Europe).11 During the European Enlightenment, the Qing emperors took an interest in instruments for weather record-keeping, for the Chinese had long used rain-gauges and weathercocks, and the Jesuit missionaries who were cautiously welcomed into China brought with them astronomical instruments that greatly aided meteorological understanding.12

Moreover, the emperors maintained astonishingly detailed climate records, requiring daily weather observations to be conveyed to Beijing from all over the kingdom, under an exhaustive system of reporting. A dedicated office outside the Qianqing Gate of the Forbidden City received provincial messengers and their “memos to the emperor” every morning, including rainfall and snowfall data that local officials were required to record accurately, on pain of punishment. Spot checks by central government mandarins from Beijing were not uncommon.13

Yet, through the Qing dynasty, climate remained a matter of agency, not index. Weather events continued to be seen as heavenly verdicts on the success and failure of governments. There is evidence to suggest that at least one Qing emperor, taking advantage of the “memos-to-emperor,” cannily shifted the blame for catastrophic events from himself to officials or even populaces in the provinces; the disasters had come about, he declared, because they had not shown him sufficient loyalty.14 The endurance of such moral meteorology is one key factor in understanding current attitudes to climate in China.

One must remember, too, that the Chinese concept of tianren ganying (that balance between heaven and humans) subsumes more than just climate under the rubric of heaven, or tian. The word tian conjures up a conglomerate of divine and nonhuman vital forces: god, nature, the skies, the world. “Heaven” on these terms is capable not just of passing judgement on humans but of visiting this judgement beyond the meteorological, through earthquakes, droughts, blighted harvests, and more.

Finally, the interchange is not about simple harmony between humans and their environment: for sure, humans were expected to work with nature, but only in the manner of cultivating the land for their comfort. And, if emperors and populations fulfilled their duties (constructed as duties to each other, and not necessarily to nature as such), then the natural world would reward them by playing its part too. The environment remains, in this rendering, a service to humankind, even as humans must strive to understand it and engage with it wholeheartedly.

A Chinese cultural history of climate shows, then, that the Confucian bargain of heaven and humankind persisted long after what we think of as the Enlightenment in Western terms. It shows, too, that climate is but one component of the term “heaven” as it sits in that equation.

Could the country’s long history of climate yield clues to explain the (somewhat shorter) history of climate-change awareness in China? While environmental matters are of concern in Chinese society, there are two factors that emerge as distinctive. First, it is local environmental problems, especially those that have an immediate impact on lives and livelihoods, that take precedence in public and media discourse over the problem of climate change. Second, climate change tends to be conflated with these local issues (water toxicity or pollution, poor air quality, waste mismanagement), rather than disaggregated.15 What is easily dismissed as a relative lack of discussion around climate change in China takes on a different emphasis when one considers the country’s history of climate discourse more generally. Just as the Western tendency to locate climate “out there” has led to the shock of the climate crisis, the Chinese positioning of climate within a Confucian framework might explain how what looks like climate reticence hides a different but no less significant engagement.

The scholar of climate fiction may well ask similar questions. The critical consensus amongst non-Chinese scholars is that there is little climate fiction in China.16 (For the record, there are two Chinese climate stories that have received critical and public attention: Regina Kanyu Wang’s “The Story of Dao” (2019), originally written in English, is set on an island whose inhabitants must come to terms with climate change, and Wanxiang Fengnian’s lesser-known “Hou bingchuan shidai jishi” [Post-Ice-Age Record] (2007), which depicts a climate-ravaged dystopian future.)17 Yet there is a plethora of ecological science fiction not explicitly related to climate change. So common is ecological science fiction in China that it has received its own label of “soft science fiction,” to distinguish it from the better-known “hard science fiction” of writers such as Liu Cixin (most famously the trilogy The Three-Body Problem, 2008-2010).

China’s soft science fiction is characterised by its interest in social and environmental justice. It is most closely associated with Chen Qiufan: Chen’s novel Waste Tide (2019), published in Chinese as Hongchao (2013), centres on a town whose inhabitants’ lives and livelihoods are dominated by the e-waste industry and the profiteering men who run it, while his short stories “The Smog Society,” published in Chinese as “Mai” [Smog] in 2010, and “The Fish of Lijian” (2006), critique both the country’s air pollution standards and short-termist, techno-scientific efforts to mitigate it.18 The absence of climate fiction in China, just like its apparent lack of climate change awareness, repays another look, this time through the lens of its climate history.

Neither Chinese nor “Western” attitudes to climate are comprehensive. A Confucian perspective views the natural world (climate included) as not just intrinsically bound but in service to humankind. The post-Enlightenment tendency to locate climate “out there,” out of reach of human influence, has created a false sense of security that is only now being addressed.

It may well be useful to retain the notion, deeply ingrained in Chinese climate history, that climate impacts, as one aspect of tian, are part and parcel of environmental concerns directly affecting local communities. Indeed, this attitude might be productively combined with the shock and awe that accompanies the “Western” or Eurocentric idea of climate change as an external, existential threat.

In other words, any chance of dealing with the looming climate crisis of the future requires some understanding of how our attitudes to climate change in the present have emerged out of ideas about climate from ages past. To short-circuit our unhelpful preconceived notions of climate, we need to know how they came to be hardwired. Moreover, even as we dig deep into our respective cultural histories of climate, we should also reach across to other cultures—comparing these histories and the culturally divergent ideas to which they’ve given rise, learning from each other’s stories about the planet we share.

Such a comparative approach might help us to rewire our concepts about climate and climate change, and to rewrite our climate future. Like Charles Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, given the chance to learn from historical visions of climate past and storied visitations from a climate future, we could use these lessons to effect change from our vantage point in the increasingly urgent climate present.

Acknowledgements: I thank Xi Liu, Loredana Cesarino, Yue Zhou, and Guohong Mai, my colleagues on the research project, “A History of Climate and Literature: A Comparison of Chinese and Western Texts,” and the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University Research Development Fund (RDF 20-02-01).

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