Conceptualising Climate Change Archaeology

Article excerpt


Archaeology claims a long tradition, going back to the middle of the nineteenth century, of undertaking both palaeoclimate research and studies on the impact of past climate change on human communities (Trigger 1996:130-38). Such research ought to be making a significant contribution to modern climate change debates, such as those led by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); bur in practice this rarely happens (e.g. McIntosh et al. 2000). This paper will attempt to conceptualise a 'climate change archaeology', which is defined here as the contribution of archaeological research to modern climate change debates (cf. Mitchell 2008). Irrespective of whether climate change poses the greatest challenge in the twenty-first century or whether it is just one of many challenges facing humanity (cf. Rowland 2010), the absence of an archaeological voice diminishes the relevance and impact of the debate as a whole.

This paper will consider the current relationship between climate change research and archaeology, noting that an evidence base for the impacts of past climate change, and the responses of communities, is almost entirely missing from the agenda. An argument will then be made that archaeology is well placed to enhance the socio-ecological resilience of communities and their adaptive capacity to climate change through the study of past pathways to adaptation. Finally, the concepts of climate change archaeology and the contribution it can make to current debates will be illustrated in a case-study, focused on the North Sea.

Climate change research and archaeology

The IPCC was created by the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment Program in 1988. The United Nations' General Assembly defined the task of the IPCC as follows:

'to prepare a comprehensive review and recommendations with respect to the state of knowledge of the science of climate change; social and economic impact of climate change, possible response strategies and elements for inclusion in a possible future international convention on climate' (UN General Assembly Resolution 43/53; 6 December 1988).

The IPCC does not undertake primary research itself, but carries out meta-analyses of published studies and presents these in its 'assessment reports'. To date, the IPCC has delivered four such reports, and the Fourth assessment report (AR4) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. These assessment reports present the results of three different working groups. Working Group I is concerned with the scientific basis of climate change; the chapters on palaeoclimate provide a long-term context for the projections of future climate change, as well as distinguishing between its natural and anthropogenic components. Working Group II focuses on the impact on the environment and people's adaptation to climate change. Working Group III concentrates on the mitigation of the effects of fossil-carbon fuelled climate change. Many states have developed national assessments, agendas and policies based on the IPCC findings to consider what modern climate change means for them, such as the Stern review on the economics of climate change (Stern 2006).

In AR4, it was noted that there is unequivocal evidence that the global atmospheric concentration of Green House Gases (GHGs) has increased since AD 1750 'as a result of human activities' (Bernstein et al. 2007: 37). Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) and methane (C[H.sub.4]) are higher today than at any time in the last 650 000 years. Current concentrations of nitrous oxide ([N.sub.2]O) are very likely unprecedented for the last 16 000 years. The recent increase in C[O.sub.2] is due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels; the increase in C[H.sub.4] to agriculture and fossil fuel use and the increase in [N.sub.2]O primarily to agriculture (Bernstein et al. 2007: 37). Higher concentrations of these wellmixed GHGs result in increased radiative forcing and accelerated global warming (Bernstein et al. …