Did climate change stoke past religious persecution?

December 1, 2008

A thought-provoking new book on Christianity’s “lost history” holds that one of the central causes of 14th century religious persecution may well have been climate change. You can read my interview with author Philip Jenkins about “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died” on the Reuters website here.

“The Chronology of Christian sufferings under Islam closely mirrors that of Jews in Christian states,” he writes, noting that “Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.”

If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and increased poverty and desperation across the globe.”

Jenkins notes that after a period of warming that had seen Europe’s population double from the 11th to the 13th centuries, the world entered a period of cooling which historians have long dubbed “The Little Ice Age.” Cooler, wetter summers hit harvests, leading to famines in Europe. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, there was widespread environmental collapse in the face of desertification.

This was all followed of course by the Black Death of the mid-14th century, which struck severely weakened societies and in Europe saw fresh persecution and pogroms against Jewish communities. This pushed many Jews to less developed, eastern regions of the continent; and Christians in Muslim societies also eked out their existence mostly in marginal or remote areas.

Jenkins is hardly the first historian to highlight the impact of climate change on past societies. But his observations are sobering against the backdrop of global warming and environmental pressures in our own time and the role many analysts think they are playing in stoking social conflict in places such as Nigeria and India, where religious tensions run high.

Climate change in our day — which most scientists attribute to greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels — is seen exacerbating conflict in poor, rural communities in the developing world in part because of competition over increasingly scarce resources such as arable land and water. It may also raise tensions in overcrowded urban areas as rural migrants leave the land.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that some fundamentalist Christians in the United States think climate change may be a sign of the End of Times — a widespread take in the 14th century on that period’s turmoil. Other U.S. Christians have joined the green crusade on the grounds that rising temperatures and their associated problems will be felt most harshly by the poor, making global warming a moral issue.

What do you think? Are there lessons from the links between religious conflict and climate change in the past that we can usefully draw on today?


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Why do we get so many one sided discussions regarding global warming? When the earth has warmed in the past, the world prospers with longer growing seasons and more CO in the air for the crops.

In another article, it was reported, “The U.N. Climate Panel predicts seas will rise by 18 to 59 cm (7-23 inches) this century because of warming stoked by human use of fossil fuels.”.

Most scientists refute this level of sea rise and do not beleive warming is significantly affected by burning of fossil fuels. The best book on this is “The Unstoppable Global Warming, Every 1500 years”. The sun’s impact dwarf’s the impact of buring fossil fuels. CO comes out of the ocean during warming cycles.

Let’s not waste our precious resouces on less cost efficient ways to supply needed energy. Let’s be correct and not “politically correct” for a change.

Posted by John Steinmetz | Report as abusive

Witch-hunting craze in Europe and fall of Chinese dynasties have been blamed on the climate as well, so this argument is nothing new. It does seem plausible that factors such as food shortage caused by colder / warmer weather would stoke resentment, when there is less to be shared among many. And it is often the case that someone different from the dominant group gets blamed (e.g. witches, religious and ethnic minorities).

Posted by MW | Report as abusive

It is my sad conclusion that for all of its lofty and necessary goals, that there will be no binding agreement. Each country, whether first or third world, has its own agenda. Regardless of whatever agreement may be hammered out, if a country feels that compliance is not in their best interest, they will ignore the agreement.

Witness how many times OPEC has tried to lever the price of crude oil by trying to adjust production rates. Each country would be assigned a quantity of crude to produce. Without exception, one member or another would disregard such production caps, upsetting the entire apple cart.

This leads me to conclude that there will be no cessation in the quantity of greenhouse gasses being spewed into the atmosphere. Global temperatures will continue to rise, and the Antarctic and Greenland icecaps will melt, raising the sea level by 200+ feet. We will witness a global population displacement unprecedented in recorded history.

Havoc will be wrought upon weather patterns globally, resulting in huge changes in where arable land can be found. America’s breadbasket could very easily become the “Great American Desert”.

The final result will be a mass starvation and die-off of humanity. Wars between the haves and have-nots will be rampant, further reducing the population. We will not become extinct, but will have greatly reduced numbers. With fewer humans around to cause ecological mayhem, we will then see (finally) a reduction in greenhouse emissions, and maybe, a millenia from now, in 3000AD the earth will have recovered.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Very interesting post, sir. Question: “Are there lessons from the links between religious conflict and climate change in the past that we can usefully draw on today?”
Well, it could be that as climate change turns into fullbore global warming in 200 to 500 years, and as millions, perhaps billions of climate refugees, head north to find refuge in “climate retreats” which James Lovelock has spoken of, then maybe all the religions of the world are going to have to learn to get along and help each other out and drop the triumphalism and superiority that many of our modern religions use to belittle non-believers and other-believers. We need a new concept of God, post-Christian, post-Jewish, post-Islam, post-Hindu. Sadly, I don’t think people are up to it, though. The future will be worse than those Mad Max movies.

Posted by danny bloom | Report as abusive

It is really foolish to find any relation between climatic change and religion.Climatic change is an environmental impact that has no ‘kith and kin’relation with anykinds of religioustic approaches or activities.As in ancient period,sun was believed to be a God like idol.But now the sun is the source of ‘renewable Energy’.

Posted by PRANAB HAZRA | Report as abusive

Feature that. Climate change in the middle ages.

I wonder if our SUV’s retroactively caused it. /sarc

Posted by Leo Pusateri | Report as abusive

John, that sounds like a best case scenario to me.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I think a perceived and poorly understood shift in average temperatures (which is entirely normal, to be expected and nothing to do with human activity) leading to increased stress on essentially subsistence level societies could very easily lead to increased mania, especially among those ignorants who vent such feelings through the dangerous collectivity of religious anonymity, allowing them to scapegoat vulnerable minorites. as such this article provides an interesting half seconds thinking. the real question i feel is why has our current round of ignorant climate-reactionaries formed a new religion out of their ‘environmental’ tenets? the demise of the old faiths (still in they’re death-throes)? a burgeoning ‘spitiruality’ (lol)? the self-presentation of ignorant propagandists as prophets and seers (mr. gore)? who really knows… its not good for the species though.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

“Develop Islamic Environmental Framework in Climate Change Control”

It is hope that the organisers of Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen Dec 2009 will take cognisance of these Syariah provisions-which is unlikely- given the stalemate at the recent Bangkok Climate Proceedings 2009.

The appropriate platform would be for OIC to table it within OIC Region for implementation within Islamic countries realm.

Western Europe and developed bloc will not be able to understand the implication of Islamic environmental protection requirement within the context of the Syariah. However, if properly executed, it may be a viable alternative/solution that may be adopted at the forthcoming Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen Dec 2009.

Jeong Chun Phuoc

Posted by JEONG CHUN PHUOC | Report as abusive