One of the more recent trend in historical writing is the integration of climate history with political, military, economic, and social history. As we extract more and more details of past weather and climate from ice cores, lake sediments, tree rings, written records and other sources, the data has increasing relevance for historians. Two years ago, Geoffrey Parker, one of the leading Early Modern Europeanists, published his award winning Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. I am only now starting to read it, but the main thrust of Parker's book is how humans, particularly leaders and governments, exacerbated the effects of climatic catastrophes through their policies and actions.
This past year a number of books have pursued the integration of climate with other aspects of history. Of those that I've read, William Rosen’s, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and The Great Famine of the Fourteenth Century, is the closest thematically to Parker's book. Highly readable and aimed at broader audience, Rosen lacks the depth and global breadth of Parker's work, but still shows how the political and military ambitions (and ineptitude) of the rulers of England, Scotland, France, and the Low Countries were often thwarted by, motivated by, or intensified the effects of the onset of the Little Ice Age. Rosen tried to tie climate and history together in a previous book, Justinian’s Flea, but had more difficulty due to lack of source material and a tendency to exaggerate long-term effects of cooling caused by volcanism and he Plague of Justinian. He suffers from neither problem in his new book.
Also about climate, but a much briefer episode lasting less than a decade, is Gillen D'Arcy Woods' Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. There have been a few books about the Year Without a Summer (1816) over the past decades, but Woods is the first author to try to bring together the threads and trace its effects throughout the Northern Hemisphere. While he fully covers such well-known topics as the lack of a summer in New England and much of Europe, the skies in Turner's paintings, the influence of the the weird weather on the writing of Frankenstein, and the lethal advance of the Swiss glaciers, Woods also explores its effects on the outbreak of Cholera in Bengal (which became a global epidemic), the devastation of Yunnan (where famines, floods, and fear led both to brilliant poetry of despair and the spread of Opium production and consumption), and a famine in Ireland that was nearly as severe as the one the better known one of the 1840s.
A third book, where climate plays a more uncertain role, because our sources are meager and the evidence more open to interpretation, is Eric H. Cline's 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. The title is a bit misleading, as the main point of Cline's account is not that civilization suddenly collapsed in 1177 (or even within a year or two of that), but the decline was much more gradual and that some, such as Egypt, survived, though much diminished. Cline has less to say about climate than the others, which is interesting, as climate changes of varying kinds have been posited for the Late Bronze Age Collapse for more than a half-century. Only recently has archeoclimatology begun to reveal solid data about the climate of the Late Bronze Age. As he does throughout much of the book, Cline dials back the rhetoric of the past and takes s much more cautious attitude towards climate as the cause of the breakdown. Instead in his penultimate chapter, he looks at a variety of possible causes, including climate change and what are sometimes called earthquake storms (long spells of violent seismic activity in a region) that could have interacted, but for which there is a lack of conclusive evidence or even consensus among scholars.
We are probably still in the infancy of the fusion of archeoclimatology and historical climatology with other fields of archaeology, history, and the broader humanities, but I am struck how far it has come in the two decades since I was in graduate school. We need to see a lot more of this integration in the future, and look at very familiar events in this context. Thirty years ago, I became aware that the massive drought that afflicted the western US in 1862 and the years following, affected the Confederate economy and logistics, and mentioned it in passing in my MA thesis. I was unaware of its true extent (for a quick reference, see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/12/the-drought-that-changed-the-war/?_r=0) and have hardly seen or heard it mentioned during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Likewise, there has always been a lot of comment on the hard winters during the Napoleonic and World Wars, but I have yet to see anyone go beyond the weather and look at the climate of those periods and how the policies and actions of the belligerents interacted with the climate in those periods. Quite possibly I've missed some early work in this regard, but with the exception of a few, brief periods such as the Year Without a Summer or the Great Dust Bowl, American and European historians have paid little attention to climate. Now that they have the tools, this is finally changing.