In an era of record-high temperatures, devastating deluges, prolonged droughts, and relentless wildfires, world leaders are gearing up for another round of United Nations climate talks. These meetings aim to address the centuries-long trend of humans releasing increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Throughout history, humans have reshaped the world around them to reap benefits. Lakes have been drained to safeguard infrastructure, wealth, and populations. Billions of tons of coal, oil, and gas have been extracted to fuel empires and economies. The allure of exploiting nature and burning fossil fuels as a means to prosperity has been adopted by nations seeking energy security.
The belief in controlling nature and harnessing natural resources for progress has driven societies to manipulate their environments. This impulse has also had a profound impact on the planet’s climate, pushing it toward a precarious precipice.
Controlling the Environment: Mexico City, with its origins in a settlement built on islands in Lake Texcoco centuries ago, serves as an example of how environmental alterations have consequences. Most of the once-vast lake has been drained over time to accommodate the city’s expansion, which now houses over 22 million people. The city’s arid environment requires deep groundwater pumping to meet its growing water needs. However, this centuries-long practice has resulted in subsidence, causing curbs to crumble and structures to tilt. Furthermore, the city is now more susceptible to severe flooding due to climate change-induced heavy rainfall and compromised drainage systems.
This example reflects a broader trend of people and empires transforming their natural environments to serve their interests. Large swaths of forests have been deforested for agriculture and livestock grazing, while quarrying and mining have degraded and contaminated land for the extraction of metals and minerals. This exploitation of nature has propelled progress and productivity but has also driven emissions and environmental degradation.
Historians point to the 16th and 17th centuries, when European colonization of the Americas was in full swing, as an early catalyst for modern climate and environmental crises. Conquering and cultivating landscapes, clearing forests, and draining swamps were viewed as measures to change the climate for the better.
The concept of engineering environmental changes was rooted in notions of racial and cultural superiority. Even today, vulnerability to climate extremes is linked to populations of color, while white elites pursue climate adaptation projects that protect themselves at the expense of marginalized communities.
The Fossil Fuel Economy: While Mexico City’s history illustrates one facet of environmental manipulation, the United Kingdom’s reliance on coal offers another perspective. The country’s abundant coal reserves, harnessed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries through technological advancements like steam power and new transportation networks, propelled the nation into a coal-dominated energy era.
Steam engines, fueled by coal, revolutionized manufacturing and transportation, enabling factory owners to exert greater control over labor and energy usage. This mobility and convenience contributed to coal becoming the primary energy source for British industry and transport. As Britain expanded its empire, it exported this fossil fuel model worldwide, entrenching coal’s role in the global economy.
As the 20th century progressed, oil emerged as another dominant fossil fuel. Oil’s energy density, ease of storage, and adaptability to various forms of transportation solidified its significance in modern economies. The rise of automobiles, especially in the 1920s, solidified oil’s role as the central energy source, with internal combustion engines becoming the norm.
The adoption of fossil fuels, both coal and oil, led to a massive increase in carbon dioxide emissions, fundamentally reshaping the Earth’s climate.
A Global Problem: The last few generations have seen unprecedented growth in carbon dioxide emissions. In 1960, humans released about 9 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, while in 2021, this figure exceeded four times that amount. The expansion of energy use, from cars to air travel and technology, contributed significantly to this surge. Nations like China, Japan, and India developed their energy regimes around fossil fuels, further exacerbating the situation.
The United States, despite growing awareness of environmental issues in the 1960s and ’70s, faced challenges when addressing fossil fuel dependence, particularly oil. Adapting to weather extremes resulting from climate change was often seen as a risk that could detract from emission reduction efforts.
Today, historians stress the importance of radical shifts away from centuries-old notions of progress. Rethinking the need for constant growth and striving to operate within the constraints of finite resources and atmospheric limits is essential for a sustainable future.
While the exploitation of nature and fossil fuels have shaped the world, humanity’s ability to adapt to a changing climate and foster equitable solutions will determine the path forward. These lessons from history serve as a reminder of the urgent need for global action to combat climate change and safeguard the planet for future generations.