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date: 24 April 2017

Climate and Social Change in the Baltic Region After the Industrial Revolution

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The growing concern of global warming has turned the focus in Sweden and other Baltic countries toward the connection between history and climate. Important steps have been taken in the scientific reconstruction of climatic parables. Historic climate data has been published and analyzed, and various proxy data have been used to reconstruct historic climate curves. The results have revealed an ongoing regional warming, from the late 17th to the early 21st century. The development was not continuous, however, but proceeded in a sequence of warmer and colder phases.

Within the fields of history and socially oriented climate research, the industrial revolution has often been seen as a watershed between an older and a younger climate regime. The breakthrough of the industrial society was a major social change with the power to influence climate. Before this turning point, man and society was climate dependent. Weather and short term climate fluctuations had major impacts on agrarian culture. When the crops failed several years in sequence, starvation and excess mortality followed. As late as 1867–1869, northern Sweden and Finland were struck by starvation due to massive crop failures.

When industrialization took off in Sweden, in the 1880s, these kinds of starvations came to an end, but the start of economic development began to affect the atmosphere. Industrial society, with its population growth and urbanization, created climate effects. Originally, however, the industrial outlets were not seen as problems. In the 18th century, it was thought that agricultural cultivation could improve the climate, and several decades after the industrial take-off, there was still no environmental discourse in the Swedish debate. On the contrary, many leading debaters and politicians saw the tall chimneys, cars, and airplanes of the early 20th century as hopeful signs in the sky. It was not until the late 1960s that international environmental discourse reached Sweden. The modern climate debate began to make its imprints as late as the 1990s.

During the early 2000s, the Swedish temperature curve has unambiguously turned upwards. Thus, in parallel to the international debate, the climate issue has entered the political agenda in Sweden and the other Nordic countries. The latest developments have created a broad political consensus in favor of ambitious climate goals, and people have gradually begun to adapt their consumption and life styles to the new prerequisites.

Although historic climate research in Sweden has seen a remarkable expansion in the last decades, it still leans too much on its “climate leg.” The clear connections between the climate fluctuations during the last 300 years and the major social changes that took place in these centuries need to be studied further.