Skip to main content

Global cooling: When the climate changed astonishingly fast

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 11:23 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
Oliver Cromwell's troops attack the town's civilians after the Siege of Drogheda in County Louth, September 1649.
Oliver Cromwell's troops attack the town's civilians after the Siege of Drogheda in County Louth, September 1649.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: When we discuss climate change we act as if we have decades to prepare
  • He says climate can change astonishingly fast, as it did in global cooling of 17th century
  • The results were devastating, as millions died in famines and war, he writes
  • Frum: "Global Crisis" chronicles tremendous human suffering as result of climate

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- As harrowing images from the Philippines grieve the world, notice something that isn't happening: we are not hearing much debate about the connection between tropical cyclones and global climate change.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that rising temperatures would lead to more frequent and violent storms. Last year, the panel tempered that conclusion.

While warmer water makes cyclones more likely -- and while a higher sea level makes these tropical storms more dangerous -- changes in wind patterns might counteract those dangers. For Americans in particular, 2013 has proved the calmest hurricane season since 2002.

Yet hurricanes are only one example of an extreme weather event. In January 2013, The New York Times surveyed shocks around the world:

David Frum
David Frum

"China is enduring its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Brazil is in the grip of a dreadful heat spell. Eastern Russia is so freezing -- minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and counting -- that the traffic lights recently stopped working in the city of Yakutsk."

"Bush fires are raging across Australia, fueled by a record-shattering heat wave. Pakistan was inundated by unexpected flooding in September. A vicious storm bringing rain, snow and floods just struck the Middle East. And in the United States, scientists confirmed this week what people could have figured out simply by going outside: last year was the hottest since records began."

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

Media's global warming fail
Climate change the cause of typhoon?
Scientists 95% sure on climate change
Global warming is epic

When we talk about climate change, we are talking about two issues that are too often treated as one:

Is climate change occurring?

If so, is it changing because of human activity?

The strong passions aroused by question 2 - and the huge economic interests at stake - can lead people to prejudge question 1. And within question 1 are two further subquestions: How harmful is climate change? How rapidly is the change coming?

Greenhouse gases near record 39.6 million tons in 2013

Some wisdom on these questions may be found in an important new work of history, "Global Crisis." It's Geoffrey Parker's examination of the last great climate shock experienced by human beings: the Little Ice Age.

After a half millennium of very benign temperatures, the Northern Hemisphere began gradually to cool after about 1550. Slow cooling plunged into deep freeze in about 1620. Over the next half-century, the peoples of the Northern Hemisphere suffered climate catastrophe after climate catastrophe:

• Over the winter of 1620-21, the Bosporus dividing Europe from Asia (in modern-day Turkey) froze for the one and only time in recorded history.

• The summer of 1627 was the wettest recorded in Europe for 500 years, followed in 1628 by one of the coldest summers recorded.

• In 1641, the Great Canal that connected Beijing -- the planet's greatest city -- to its food supply in southern China dried up for lack of rain, again for the only time in recorded history. China suffered repeated crop failures through the 1640s because of patterns of drought and excessive rain.

In the 17th century, the catastrophe arrived astonishingly fast -- in one human lifetime -- and human beings adapted by dying in droves.
David Frum

• 1641 saw the third-coldest summer recorded in the Northern Hemisphere; 1642, the 28th coldest; 1643, the 10th coldest. Crops failed across the British Isles and central Europe three harvests in a row.

• The winter of 1649 was the coldest recorded in China.

• In 1657, Massachusetts Bay froze solid, and farther south, people could walk across the ice of the Delaware River.

• The next year, 1658, the Danish Sound froze so hard that a Swedish army and all its artillery could march over what is usually ocean water the 20 miles from Jutland to Copenhagen.

• Poland recorded 109 days of frost in 1666-67, compared to an average of 63 days in recent years.

• England's Thames River froze so hard that thousands of people could use it as a walkway for six weeks during the winter of 1683-84.

These extreme events are just a few of the hundreds of individual examples cited in Parker's deeply learned history of the period. "Global Crisis" was published this spring by Yale University Press.

Parker is best known as a military historian specializing in the Thirty Years War, the conflict that ripped apart Germany between 1618 and 1648, killing maybe one-third of the population by violence, hunger and disease.

Climate change: Why nations, not global talks, are leading the fight

Now in a hugely ambitious, late-career work spanning the entire globe, he synthesizes the horrifying violence that erupted across Eurasia during the coldest and hungriest years of the Little Ice Age: the overthrow of China's Ming Dynasty and conquest of the world's most populous country by invaders from Manchuria; civil wars in Iran and northern India; the collapse of Ottoman power; pogroms against the Jews of Ukraine, the worst mass killing of Jews between the Crusades and the Holocaust; New England's merciless war upon the Pequot Indians; the destruction of Poland, till then Europe's largest state; the Fronde rebellion in France; the English civil war; Oliver Cromwell's rampage through Ireland; the successful Portuguese and doomed Catalonian rebellion against the Spanish Empire -- all of it accompanied by pestilence and famines, culminating in the last great bubonic plague epidemic in European history in the 1660s.

Europe enjoyed only three years of complete peace between 1600 and 1700.

Historians are familiar with the statistic that one-third of Germans died during the Thirty Years War. Parker suggests that this figure could be extended across almost the whole landmass from Lisbon to the Pacific, with China suffering most and worst.

The Little Ice Age was obviously not man-made. The sun emitted a little less energy in the 17th century than we are used to, and more volcanoes erupted than usual. For tens of millions of human beings, the consequences of these unexpected events was miserable and fatal: death by violence, death by disease, death by hunger.

Parker hammers home the lesson again and again: What matters most about climate change is not how it is caused, but how fast it takes place.

Our contemporary debates over climate all seem to take for granted that change will unfold gradually over the next century, granting us all plenty of warning and time to react.

In the 17th century, the catastrophe arrived astonishingly fast -- in one human lifetime -- and human beings adapted by dying in droves.

There is in Parker's telling only one exception to the unhappy story: the Japan of the shoguns, where effective leaders found ways to manage and mitigate disasters they could not understand.

If preparedness for the worst was possible for some human beings in those prescientific days, surely it is possible for more of us in our advanced age?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT