Environmental history is the study of how humans have shaped environments in the past, as well as how environments and environmental changes have shaped us, and how people have regulated their management of natural resources. Today, a new chapter in environmental history is being written: a newly globalized society is confronting a global problem of its own making, human-induced climate change.

Using as a starting point that humans are the only “story-telling animal,” environmental historian William Cronon argues that it is not possible for us to consider history only as a chronology of events.1 Instead, we understand these events in the context of a narrative. Indeed, it is core to the business of academic historians to shed new light on how and why past events happened. In other words, they tell new narratives to describe historical events. Cronon also reminds us that a story has a beginning, an execution, and an end. These points in time bracket the events with which the story deals, and help determine its central moral. They are, however, imposed by the narrator on what is in reality an ongoing continuum of interacting processes. Placed at different points in time, alternate readings become possible, and these can generate alternative moral messages.

With respect to human-induced climate change, we are still in the execution phase of the story and do not yet know what the ending will be. Nevertheless, we try here to put ourselves in the place of a future historian looking back on our time; to tell the story of how humanity came to terms with the knowledge that accumulation of its waste (i.e. greenhouse gases) was beginning to have profound effects on its living conditions, and bringing with them potentially dire consequences for humanity’s future well-being. Our purpose is to juxtapose today’s narrative concerning efforts to manage human-induced climate change with the narrative a future historian might use, and in this manner, illustrate that the events of today can be used to develop both negative and positive narratives. Before moving to our future historian however, we first need to examine the story historians tell concerning how past societies have managed their interaction with the surrounding environment.

What Has Come Before

Award ceremony recognizing the United Nation Development Program’s contribution to the success of the Montreal Protocol in December 2012, which marked the 25th anniversary of the protocol.

For many natural resource management stories, we can use past events to tell stories that actually do have endings. All societies developed formal and informal institutions that regulate collective behavior and practices governing their relationship to environmental resources. Often, settled societies did so in response to the realization that, as their numbers multiplied, their wastes were contaminating key resources and undermining critical life-support services. For example, pollution of drinking water with fecal and other waste products poses a threat to community health, and there was a realization that over-exploitation of game and other resources could potentially threaten community livelihoods. In other words, societies recognized that environmental regulation was in their best long-term interests. Likewise, historical societies often recognized transboundary environmental problems, i.e., those emanating from or affecting domains beyond the local. Maintaining clean air and water in one country or community demands that neighboring communities also respect certain restrictions regarding the use of the air and water in their surroundings.

Not until humanity’s reach became truly global did there seem to be much reason for concern about planetary environmental problems, such as global climate change.2 Indeed, it is only in the last three decades that there has been widespread attention to human-induced climate change as a global problem demanding a global response.

Environmentalism, which emerged before climate change became widely recognized as an important issue, did attempt to introduce a concern for planetary ecosystem health into the global discourse. However, environmentalists’ campaigns have met with mixed success. While some tactical victories have been won, environmentalism still does not appear to be a strategic global priority. Perhaps this is because environmentalists’ calls for wise stewardship of planetary resources have traditionally hinged on our common good. Thus, the environmentalist mantra has been to “save the planet,” when, for most people throughout history and indeed prehistory, “save ourselves” has probably been the more compelling cry, albeit sometimes with a more enlightened view of self-interest. This is a valuable lesson, and one that offers some hope for today’s struggle to avert dangerous climate change. Indeed, humanity is coming to recognize the need for global environmental resource management, and is even engaged with developing and implementing such mechanisms through which this management could occur.

We saw this first in 1987 with the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, which limits the emission of ozone-depleting gases, thus protecting humanity from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. The success of the Montreal Protocol belies the difficulty of reaching a similar, binding, comprehensive agreement on cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases. The sources of greenhouse gases are much more widespread and diffuse than those of ozone-depleting substances. Moreover, growth in carbon emissions is tightly coupled to economic growth, which is tied to prosperity. Decoupling carbon from material prosperity (i.e. energy, food security, etc.) is key to any successful global management of human-induced climate change.

Making Historic Change

It is in this light that the importance of the rapid growth of the global renewable energy industry should become apparent.3 Even so, renewables are often regarded as too expensive to become the mainstay of civilization, although there are signs a tipping point in this regard may be approaching. Indeed, under the dominant economic paradigm, the opportunity cost of wind, solar, etc. may well be higher compared to fossil fuels. As Costanza and colleagues point out however, economic models can change, depending on what restricts societal development.4 These authors argue that the current mainstream economic model was developed for conditions of low population and seemingly unlimited access to natural resources. Thus, built capital was the limiting factor for growth. Now, however, both humans and built capital are abundant and it is access to natural resources that potentially limits economic growth. This, in the eyes of Costanza et al. (as well as many others), implies a need for the development of a new or modified economic model with much more focus on environmental externalities. This, indeed, is what the move towards carbon pricing is all about: internalizing the costs of emissions of greenhouse gases.

While in its immediate wake in 2009 COP15 was considered a failure, a future historian will likely see COP15 as playing a significant role in the process towards global emissions regulations.

Thus, while our current focus is often on a comparison of contemporary prices of different energy sources, a future historian might instead see the period as the one in which humanity began to shed its reliance on classical economics. Indeed, the historical significance of carbon pricing, while it may be obscured by political debates today, cannot be overestimated. The example of carbon pricing illustrates an important point, namely that key factors driving adaptation and change in human societies change through time. At different times, different beliefs, values, and knowledge sets can be relatively powerful and dominant. Consequently, different institutions can be created or empowered with the intent of converting those dominant ideas into collective action. Through these actions, human well-being and environmental health are affected for better or for worse. Whether societies learn and adapt their behavior as a result of these changes depends in part on how much relative importance or care is placed on human well-being and environmental health (see Figure 1).

From Environment to Diplomacy: The UN Climate Process

Countries operating under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meet annually in Conferences of the parties (COP) to discuss possible actions in response to human induced climate change. For some COPs, such as COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, expectations of progress have been particularly high, but have ended with hopes dashed. COP15 was uniformly reported in the media and considered by environmental NGOs to be a failure, with no binding global agreement on the reduction of emissions secured.

However, rather than dwelling on the success or lack thereof of any one COP, our future historian would likely see the COPs as being part of a process, with COP15 representing a significant step towards global emissions regulation for several reasons. Firstly, there was a high and widespread acceptance of the scientific evidence for human induced climate change; its causes and risks. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed, with a very high degree of certainty, that humans are causing climate change. Secondly, there was also a political consensus that human-caused climate change should not be allowed to exceed 2oC above pre-industrial temperatures. This amounts to an agreement on the limits of the global resource, i.e., the capacity of the atmosphere to store waste greenhouse gases without jeopardizing civilization.

Figure 1. Changes in dominant values drive changing policy priorities through time, with consequent impacts on the health of the environment and human well-being. Under certain conditions, learning and adaptation feedback from these changes can change values and thus policy. Here, an ongoing iterative process.
A snapshot in time, as if a section were cut through these processes at the moment indicated by the dotted line in order to evaluate them.

Lastly, at COP15 it was not environmental ministers, but prime ministers and presidents that dominated the participants. The presence of national leaders at Copenhagen signaled that climate change had become more important diplomatically than a simple environmental issue. Indeed, as long as greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to economic growth through energy use and food production, the establishment of the 2oC limit for human-induced climate change, in effect, transforms any negotiation on emission reductions into a question of how the right to future economic growth should be distributed among countries. Thus, the presence of national leaders at COP15 elevated the dialogue concerning human-induced climate change to the realm of geopolitics, in which the power relationships and balance between countries are at stake. It is no wonder then that no binding international agreement was achieved!

Our future historian will likely be impressed by the pace at which countries identified possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—primarily by decoupling energy use and emissions— immediately after COP15. Global renewable energy generation has risen dramatically since 2009. Solar is up from 21 GWH in 2009 to 139 GWH in 2014, an increase of over 660 percent. Wind, coming off a higher base, has doubled from 159 GWH in 2009 to 318 in 2014.3 This is despite difficult financial circumstances in major economies. Individual country pledges in relation to the COP21 in Paris, December 2015 showed a historic rise in ambition: 187 countries, that together accounted for 95 percent of global emissions in 2010, submitted pledges to cut emissions significantly and introduced society-wide plans to achieve these cuts. If they hold their pledges, then it seems possible to maintain climate change to around 3oC, possibly even lower. This is, of course, still not enough to respect the agreed 2oC guardrail, but is still considerably better than the approximately 4oC global temperature increase projected by the IPCC to occur without further action on climate change taking place.6

Figure 2a: Levels of planned or announced pledges for CO2 emission reduction relative to emissions in 1990 for the EU (blue) and USA (red) at negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol, COP 15 and COP21 and the EU 2050 goal. The EU has the long-term reduction goal of 80-95% by 2050. Both endpoints are depicted here. 
Figure 2b: Emission reduction pledges for China.7 Because China was originally considered a developing country, it is not possible to use the same scale for all three polities.

The Final Chapter is Yet to be Written

Humanity does not yet have mechanisms in place that give reason to be confident that global warming can be confined to within 2oC. Nevertheless, at COP 21 politicians reconfirmed—even strengthened —commitment to the 2oC guardrail. Although COP 21 sent a clear signal to the international community concerning the delegates’ preferred societal trajectory vis-à-vis greenhouse gas emissions and human-induced climate change, we—in contrast to our imagined future historian—do not yet know whether the story of humanity’s attempt to manage climate change will end in success or failure. We have nevertheless chosen to paint a rather optimistic picture here of how future historians might view the events we are living through now. We do so not to encourage complacency.

On the contrary, science tells us clearly that if this story is to end with humanity avoiding the unmanageable consequences of climate change, decision makers need to move quickly and resolutely to put in place carbon pricing and other key reforms that decouple greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth forever. It is important, however, and it might even serve to reinforce collective efforts, to put the apparent failure of individual COPs in the kind of perspective history offers. In this way, we can see the world has actually made remarkable progress in terms of awareness of the problem and its solutions, and commitments to cut emissions. These are not small achievements, even if they are clearly currently insufficient to meet the global challenge of human-induced climate change by themselves. The increasing level of ambition and commitment to managing human-induced climate change does suggest however, that a change of direction is, while not easy, certainly possible. Whether or not the story of human efforts to control and manage the climate change for which it is responsible has a happy ending will likely depend on the speed of human actions against the speed of climate change itself. It is, however, still within humanity’s power to offer future historians the opportunity to tell a positive story and a tale of hope.



  1. Cronon, W. A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative. The Journal of American History 78(4) (1992).
  2. Rockström, J. et al. Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2) (2009).
  3. Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century. The First Decade 2004-2014: 10 Years of Renewable Energy Progress. REN21 United Nations Environment Program, Paris (2015).
  4. Costanza, R. et al. Development: Time to leave GDP behind. Nature 505(7483) (2014).
  5. Dyball, R. and B. Newell. Understanding Human Ecology (Routledge, London, 2015).
  6. IPCC: Summary for Policymakers, in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds. Stocker, T.F. et al) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).
  7. Teng, F. and F. Jotzo. Reaping the Economic Benefits of Decarbonization for China. China & World Economy22(5) (2014): 37-54.

Katherine Richardson

Katherine Richardson is a professor in biological oceanography at the University of Copenhagen and leader of the Sustainability Science Centre.  She was Chairperson of the Commission on Climate Change...


Robert Dyball

Robert Dyball convenes the Human Ecology program in the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. He is also Visiting Professor at the College of Human Ecology, University...


Will Steffen

Will Steffen is executive director of the ANU Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, Canberra, and also serves on the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and as a climate commissioner.

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