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date: 17 October 2017

Climate, History, and Social Change in Sweden and the Baltic Sea Area From About 1700

Summary and Keywords

The growing concern about global warming has turned 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 have 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 went on 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 were 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.

Although economic activities in the agricultural sector had climatic effects before the industrial society, when industrialization took off in Sweden in the 1880s it brought an end to the large-scale starvations, but also the start of an economic development that began to affect the atmosphere in a new and broader way. The 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 still was no environmental discourse in the Swedish debate. On the contrary, many leading debaters and politicians saw the tall chimneys, cars, and airplanes as hopeful signs in the sky. It was not until the late 1960s that the international environmental discourse reached Sweden. The modern climate debate started to make its imprints as late as the 1990s.

During the last two decades, the Swedish temperature curve has unambiguously turned upwards. Thus, parallel to the international debate, the climate issue has entered the political agenda in Sweden and the other Nordic countries. The latest development has created a broad political consensus in favor of ambitious climate goals, and the people have gradually started to adapt their consumption and lifestyles to the new prerequisites.Although historic climate research in Sweden has had a remarkable expansion in the last decades, it still leans too much on its climate change leg. The clear connection between the climate fluctuations during the last 300 years and the major social changes that took place in these centuries needs to be further studied.

Keywords: Climate, climate discourse, industrial revolution, preindustrial society, urbanization, population, history, social change, Sweden, Baltic region


There is widespread consensus regarding the ongoing global warming and the need for sustainable development. Due to increased knowledge and understanding, we have during the last three decades witnessed a growing concern about how climate change might affect human communities and social systems. As a result of this growing scientific interest in the climate’s impact on society, research has also begun to ask questions about the historical climate, the role of climate in older societies, and older societies’ impact on climate. However, it is an open question exactly how the complicated relationship between climate and society has been functioning historically, and how it will function in the future.

In view of the enormous changes in society that have taken place parallel to modern climate change, questions about the relationship between climate and society during the transition from preindustrial to industrial times have become increasingly urgent. Two major issues have marked these scientific discussions: How have humans and societies been affected by the climate, and how has climate been affected by humans and societies? Both issues have historical roots.

The first question has dominated the history of ideas as far back as we can follow the written sources. The long and learned tradition concerning climate’s influence on the human character and appearance has its origins in the ancient world, but gained ground in a Christian context during the Middle Ages and the early modern period. In the 18th century, it reached a first peak with Montesquieu’s theory on the relationship between climate and the human character (Glacken, 1967; Lilja, 2005a). Later this mindset was incorporated, with racist overtones, into the social Darwinism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Sweden the “State Institute of racial biology” was founded in 1922 to explore the importance of the environment and genetic heritage for the racial characteristics of individuals and peoples (Hagerman, 2006). After the rise and fall of Nazism during the interwar period and World War II, this theory tradition was abandoned. Modern research on humans’ sensitivity to climate is mainly based on new discoveries about our genetic conditions, and the focus is often on medical issues such as the correlation between solar radiation and increased cancer risk. But the research is also concerned with the kinship and genetic origins of individuals and populations (Bojs, 2015; Bojs & Sjölund, 2016).

The other issue dominates our modern climate discourse, but it is a complete reversal of the first question. Instead of climate’s effect on humans, the discussion has focused on whether modern man’s lifestyle and societies are changing Earth’s climate. Like the ideas of climate’s capacity to change humans, the ideas about humans’ capacity to change climate connect to a long tradition in the philosophical literature on climate. During the Enlightenment in the 18th century, Scandinavians nurtured high hopes concerning the barren northern Scandinavian climate, which they thought could be improved by cultivation. The modern debate concerns rather the ongoing global warming (Frängsmyr, 2000; Glacken, 1967; Weart, 2003).

This article tries to grasp and summarize the development of the relationship between climate change and human society from the late 17th century until today. It starts with effects from climatic change and fluctuations on premodern agrarian societies. In the mid-section of the article, “climate improvement theories” of the 18th century are represented through the optimistic thoughts and writings of some natural philosophers. The third section of the article concerns the current warming period and its relation to the emergence of our modern industrial-technological society. Finally, the article summarizes the contemporary situation and suggests some fields for future research.

Climate and Society in Premodern Times

The Little Ice Age

Much of the modern research has focused on the climate side of the equation of climate and society. A variety of reconstructed climate curves have been published, which cumulatively have given us a good picture of climatic variations far back in history. The number of published curves increases steadily, and contributes to the growing mass of knowledge in temperature development, and also hydroclimate, in different regions. The northern hemisphere, particularly the Atlantic region with its numerous continents, is well represented (not to say over-represented) in this research. (Concerning historical climate reconstructions and climate curves globally or for the northern hemisphere, see, for example: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] Assessment 5, 2014, pp. 2ff; Bradley & Jones, 1995; Brázdil, Pfister, Wanner, von Storch, & Luterbacher, 2005; Esper, Cook, & Schweingruber, 2002 (wooden rings); Guiot, 1992 (temperatures); Isaksson et al., 2005 (Svalbard, ice cores); Juckes et al., 2007 (temperatures); Ljungqvist et al., 2016 (hydroclimate); Luterbacher, Dietrich, Xoplaki, Grosjean, & Wanner, 2004 (annual and summer temperatures); Mann, Bradley, & Hughes, 1998 (temperatures); Mann & Bradley, 1999 (temperatures); McIntyre & McKitrick, 2005 (the Mann curve); Moberg, Sonechkin, Holmgren, Datsenko, & Karlén, 2005 (temperatures); Pfister, 2001 (climate change); Taricco, Mancuso, Ljungqvist, Alessio, & Ghil, 2014 (temperatures); Thejll, Christiansen, Gleisner, Schmith, & Wallöe, 2002 (solar activity)).

Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea countries are at the forefront of this research tradition. Sweden and other Baltic countries have during recent decades made significant scientific progress in the attempt to reconstruct historical climate change. Publication and analysis of historical climate data have gone hand in hand with various kinds of proxy measurements. Attempts have been made to reconstruct temperature variations based on the analyses of tree rings, ice distribution in the Baltic Sea, filed temperature data, seasonal variations of shipping, and harvest cycles. All in all, this has created a comprehensive view of the Baltic Sea region’s climatic history from the Iron Age to the present. (Concerning historical climate reconstructions and climate curves for the Baltic Sea region and the Nordic countries, see, for example: BALTEX Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea Basin [BACC] II, 2015, Chapter 3; Eriksson, Omstedt, Overland, Percival, & Mofield, 2007 (Baltic Sea, ice cover, temperatures, atmospheric circulation); Girjatowicz, 2005 (North Atlantic Oscillation and ice cover, southern Baltic coast); Grudd, 2006, 2007 (Torneträsk, wooden rings); Grudd et al., 2002 (Torneträsk, wooden rings); Jevrejeva, 2001 (Riga, ice break-up); Klingbjer, Brown, & Holmlund, 2005 (Salajekna glacier); Leijonhufvud, Wilson, & Moberg, 2008, 2009 (Stockholm, archival data, winter temperatures); Linderholm & Gunnarson, 2005 (Jämtland, summer temperatures); Moberg, 1992 (Stockholm, temperatures); Moberg, 1996 (Sweden, temperatures); Moberg, Bergström, Ruiz Krigsman, & Svanered, 2002 (Stockholm, temperatures); Tarand & Nordli, 2001 (Tallin, ice break-up); Tiljander, Saarnisto, Ojala, & Saarinen, 2003 (Korttajärvi lake, central Finland).)

The results of modern climate research have shown long-term warming in the Baltic Sea area from the 17th century to the beginning of the 21st century, but the warming was not continuous; it went on in a discontinuous sequence of warmer and colder phases. The measurements made of the Nordic climate suggests that the climate “regime” called the Little Ice Age (LIA), became noticeable in the latter part of the 15th century. The concept of the LIA includes a temperature drop during the late Middle Ages and early modern period, which was broken only during the 18th century. Although the gradual increase in temperature can be brought as far back as the mid-18th century, the beginning of the modern warm period usually dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. Within this larger regime several climate oscillations, with warmer and colder periods, occurred. Thus, in Central and Eastern Sweden there was a cold spell toward the end of the 16th century, and similar declines occurred several times in the 17th century. During the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, the Baltic temperature levels seem to have been at their lowest. This is also a period that in modern historical climate research has been identified as the coldest phase of the LIA. Then began a long-term rise in temperature, which was hampered on several occasions. Thus, a large part of the 19th century suffered from recurrent cold spells (BACC II, 2015, Ch. 3.6;Fagan, 2000; Jones & Briffa, 2001; Lamb, 1995, Ch. 12.)

Climate and History

The other side of the equation, human society, belongs to the field of historical research, and as such has been the object of philosophical reflection and thinking for millennia. Even the more scientific branch of historical research has roots far back in time. In the 19th century, the modern view of history as an academic field of research started to take shape. For a long time, historians focused on states, wars, and power struggle; they analyzed the mechanisms of power, the struggle of ideologies, and the importance of great men in history. Current historical research has, however, been extended significantly beyond the original frames. New research fields began to take shape in the late 19th century, when the history of ideas, economic history, and social history emerged. From the 1960s onward, additional research approaches and perspectives have been added. Previously forgotten population groups have been drawn into the focus of historical research, and new perspectives on historical traditions and the role of history have been formulated. Subfields such as structural history, history of mentalities, historical anthropology, Marxism, everyday history, people’s history, postmodernism, gender studies, and women’s history have created new undercurrents of research and greatly broadened and enriched history as a scientific field (Breisach, 1983; Breisach, 2003; Floto, 1985; Iggers, 1997; Torstendahl, 1964).

In line with the growing social and political interest in environmental problems, history too has started to take an interest in nature and the environment. Today we see signs of emerging historical research that does not take human beings and society for granted as research objects. This growing interest in environment and nature by historical researchers has also led to the introduction of the climate agenda of historians. Ever since Montesquieu’s speculations in the 18th century on climate and human character, nature and climate have existed as undercurrents in historical research, but these currents have been very weak, mostly trickles. A greater interest in climate had to wait until historical research was broadened toward economic and social conditions—but even then climate history seemed like something of a short-term perspective, only necessary for the understanding of social and economic progress.

There is no lack of pioneers in climate historical research (Claiborne, 1970; Ladurie, 1972; Lamb, 1995; Utterström, 1955). However, the more systematic study of the relationship between society and climate, where the climate is a key variable in the development of society, is a product of the new interest in climate’s role for our global future. Thus, historical research on the relation between climate and society is a relatively recent contribution to historiography (Fagan, 2000; Ljungqvist, 2009).

Climate, Crops, and Society

In historically and socially oriented climate research, the industrial revolution often is considered as a watershed between an older and a younger climate regime. Industrial society is seen as the crucial societal change with the power to affect climate. Before that, man and society were climate dependent. The relationship between climate and society is considered to have been essentially one-way directed, from climate to society. The reason for this view lies in the premodern society’s total dependence on agriculture and pastoralism as sources of income. From the formation of the agrarian society 12,000 years ago until today, large parts of the Earth’s habitable regions have been converted into food-producing areas, mainly for farming and cattle herding. In this economic system, harvest returns were a key concern for survival and prosperity (Braudel, 1982, pp. 60ff; Claiborne, 1970, pp. 311ff; Fagan, 2000, Chs. 2, 6, 10, 11).

The weather and short-term fluctuations of the climate had decisive importance for agriculture and society at large. When crops failed several years in a row, it caused famine and excess mortality—and crop failures were frequent. Various studies suggest that crop failures affected the earlier agrarian landscape on average every 10 years, but most of them were isolated in time and therefore not that devastating. Weak harvests were an expected phenomenon, and could normally be counteracted through the storage of cereals and other protective measures.

The risks of society increased significantly if yields failed several years in a row or included large contiguous regions. Such harvest crises occurred less frequently, but had larger social consequences. According to one study, extensive crop production crises, which could span two to four years, afflicted Sweden and parts of the Baltic Sea area at least five times from the late 1690s to the end of the 18th century. Continuous years of poor or failed harvests occurred in the late 1690s, 1708–1709, 1756–1757, the early 1770s, and around the 1800s. According to another estimate, seven of the 20 most serious crisis years between 1665 and 1820 happened in close time connection to each other. The most serious situation seems to have occurred during the late 1690s, with three consecutive years of crisis, but the whole period between the early 1690s and mid-1720s suffered from recurrent harvest failures. Of the 33 years between 1693 and 1726, no fewer than nine were crisis years (Edvinsson, 2008, pp. 52, 60; Lilja, 2012). In addition, during most of this period a protracted war raged between the northern European powers, and the situation escalated dramatically when one of the region’s last major plagues hit in the years 1710–1711. This protracted crisis coincided with the coldest period of the LIA (Englund, 1988; Frost, 2000, Chs. 9–10; Preinitz, 1985).

When harvests failed for a number of years in a row, or when a failed harvest affected large geographic regions, the risk of starvation and famine increased dramatically. It led to large refugee flows and social unrest. People were forced from their homes and driven out on the roads in search of something to eat. Among the most serious consequences of the crises were the periods of heavy mortality that could affect local populations. Thus, a very tight correlation between the death rates and failed harvests has been established in 14 Swedish parishes between 1647 and 1773. Of 11 identified harvest failures, heavy mortality peaks occurred at least seven times. Another study suggests that significant mortality crises hit Sweden nine times between 1650 and 1809 (Larsson, 2006, pp. 62ff, 93f; Palm, 2001, p. 70).

Excess mortality was caused partly by direct hunger, but it depended more often on epidemics such as typhoid and dysentery. In premodern societies, people were continuously subjected to virulent microorganisms. In times of famine, the people who were most exposed were weakened and fell easier prey to diseases. Diseases linked to malnutrition were the dominant cause of climate-related mortality. Death by direct hunger seems to have been quite rare (Appleby, 1981; Larsson, 2006, pp. 93–121).

The Crop Disaster, 1695–1698

One of the most profound crop disasters struck the Baltic Sea region in the 1690s. The first signs of declining harvests appeared in 1695. The crisis was at its deepest the following two years, and its effects lived on in society in 1698. This great famine had a geographic distribution that included large parts of the Baltic Sea region, where especially Finland and the Baltic States were affected. Finland lost, according to some estimates, a quarter of its population during these few years. Estonia is believed to have lost 70,000 people during the famine period of 1695–1697, representing a population loss of 5% to 7%. In two of the parishes on the island of Saaremaa (Ösel), off the Estonian coast, have been found several acute mortality peaks between the years 1690 and 1704. Excess mortality apparently peaked for several months in 1697–1698, but can also be seen in some months of 1692, 1694–1695, and 1704. Sweden, however, seems to have been less severely struck. It was mostly the northern part of the country that was hit. The geographic limit of this famine went through central Sweden, close to the capital city Stockholm. However, low harvest indices and mortality peaks occurred in central Sweden as well in 1691, 1697–1698, and 1717 (Muroma, 1991; Mäntylä, 1989; Jutikkala, 1955; Lilja, 2008; Palm, 2001).

Thus, the Swedish capital came to feel the consequences of the crisis. The Danish envoy in Stockholm, Ball Luxdorph, observed in early spring 1697 how people became thick and bulbous. At the end of March, he talked about how people were drawn to a nearby island, Dalarö, where a grain ship from Wismar anchored to buy grain and transport it to Stockholm. Fourteen days later, he mentioned people’s miserable condition and how poor and miserable people gathered in clusters in Stockholm. In his report on April 24, the face of the crisis became even clearer. The misery was increasing every day. Six thousand people made their way along the city’s streets, without anyone to take care of them or admit them into their homes. He feared that they all would perish when winter ended and the heat of summer began. The situation could not be eased up as the ice prevented grain supplies. All of nature seemed, in Luxdorph’s report, to have risen up against the poor starving in Stockholm. On May 12, cereal shipments had reached Stockholm but not the provinces, where hunger still was large. Two weeks later, he reported how “excitable diseases” had begun to wreak havoc (Lilja, 2008, p. 57).

The crisis in the 1690s is also reported from Russia, which was struck by harsh winters. In Norway the crop yields failed between 1695 and 1697. There was also an increasing rate of avalanches, landslides, and floods, and fish were driven south to the detriment of the fishing industry in the north. Even such remote areas as Scotland were affected by the climate crisis of the 1690s (Lamb, 1995, pp. 221f, 226f (Norway and Scotland); Hellie, 1999, p. 10 (Russia)).

The big crisis in the late 1690s was caused by a series of unusual weather events between 1695 and 1697 that affected the agricultural output in the most damaging ways. Excessive rainfall, dry and cold springs and early summers, and mild winter weeks followed by cold spells in early spring added up to severe crop failures and excessive mortality rates. The climatic causes of the crisis are harder to detect, but one explanatory candidate might be the so called Late Maunder Minimum (LMM) between approximately 1675 and 1715. The LMM was a period of sunspot minima that coincided with, and is supposed to have caused, colder temperatures than normal for this period in history (BACC II, Ch. 3.6 (LMM), p. 60 (cool summers and winters); Fagan, 2000, pp. 120–123 (Maunder Minimum); Lamb, 1995, Ch. 3 (general causes), pp. 69, 320–322 (sunspots); Lilja, 2008, pp. 70–73 (weather events), 72–77 (climatic causes) with references).

The crisis of the 1690s created fear, rootlessness, and large temporary population movements. Many people fled during the crisis years to escape poverty and hunger. The dramatic effects of the crisis depended, among other things, on the fact that the state was not able to confront such a great famine. The state lacked the resources needed to provide people with a minimum level of basic security. For sure, many of the 17th-century political devices had expanded rapidly under the pressure of an increasingly intense political competition and arms race, and the many wars bear witness to a century in political, social, and mental agitation, but the new strong state was a state on war footing. For that and other reasons, combined with the authorities’ fundamental skepticism about people’s motives, the state’s incapacity went hand in hand with a reluctance to mitigate the tax burdens and send emergency relief. When help or relief was sent, it usually was inadequate or came too late.

Climate Crisis and War

The harvest crises in preindustrial society were among the most obvious outcomes of the climatic fluctuations. But more recently, researchers have also begun to pay attention to the climatic role of other societal processes. The relationship between climate and long-term geopolitical processes has been highlighted in an article by a group of Chinese scientists. They conclude that large-scale geopolitical changes in Imperial China coincided with long-term precipitation cycles, stretching over several centuries: “Long-term territorial expansion favoured the polity (agriculturalist or pastoralist) that was better adapted to the changing ecological conditions in the country's heartland.” The link between climate and social crises has also been made for 17th-century Europe. In his comprehensive study, Global Crisis, Geoffrey Parker tries to link the era known among historians as “the general crisis of the 17th century” with the climate regime of the LIA. His study points to the 17th-century climate regime as an important factor behind the many wars and revolutions that plagued the European continent at that time. (See esp. Parker, 2013, pp. XV–XXIX, 668–704, esp. 686–696, and Chronology table 704 (general discussion); see also Fagan, 2000, p. 216 (war and climate); Lamb, 1995, p. 206 (Bohemia), Ch. 15 (general discussion); Ponting, 2001, Ch. 19, esp. pp. 586–588 (17th-century crisis); Zhang et al., 2015 (China).)

In the traditional military history, there are recurrent references to climate and weather conditions. The March of the Swedish army on the fragile ices of the Danish straits in 1658 is a famous example. Another is Napoleon’s great army, which met its doom in the Russian winter of 1812. As a rule, climate references in such historical context are used to frame conditions, and to explain the outcome of defeats and victories in battle and in war. Climate history gets the role of historical help science, but it is possible that this role in many cases represents an underestimation of the climate as a historical variable.

The large harvest and mortality crisis in the Baltic Sea region in the years 1695–1698 did not lead to widespread revolts or revolutions, but two years after the crisis one of the largest northern wars began. In the year 1700, Sweden encountered a coalition of hostile northern European countries, with Russia as the leading force. The great northern war was to drag on for 20 years before an exhausted and defeated Sweden was forced to give up most of the gains made during the previous century. The war had power-political causes, but it was so close in time to the large crop disaster that the correlation between climate impacts and the outbreak of war seems more than coincidental. In the hostile coalition against Sweden they had received reports that suggested a widespread famine and serious internal turmoil. Analysts believed that the war could trigger an uprising. In addition, the decisive defeat of the Swedish main army at Poltava in the summer of 1709 had been preceded by a severe winter with great tribulations and extensive losses of manpower (Englund, 1988, p. 28 (rumors of revolution), 44 (Poltava); Frost, 2000, p. 230 (Poltava); Kirby, 1994, p. 322 (rumors of revolution), 329 (Poltava)).

Climate history has apparently played a greater role in general history than the traditional historiography has admitted. The newer trends in historiography have therefore begun to pay attention to the importance of climate and ecosystems, and this is a research field that is not confined to the preindustrial agrarian economies. The role of climate in social stability is a very meaningful problem for social science research and contemporary history as well.

The Coming of a New Situation

Harvest crises would come back on several occasions during the 18th and 19th centuries. Even as late as in the 1860s, famine could occur in Scandinavia. The last great famine hit Sweden and Finland in the years 1867–1869. That period had been very cold, and the summer was late. When the famine was at its deepest in 1867, it forced people to eat bread baked on the bark. The Scandinavian famine of the 1860s coincided with the last major naturally caused famine in Europe, and it was a consequence of a decade that was hit repeatedly by crop failure. This great famine was one of the factors that contributed to the Scandinavian emigration to America, which started to take off toward the end of the 19th century.

However, changes were on the way. Recent research has shown that the situation had already begun to improve during the 18th century. A new demographic regime seems to have emerged gradually in the first half of the century. The mortality peaks were less serious, although the pattern of recurrent poor harvests continued, the population increased, and the need for food grew. To deal with harvest failures, the authorities began to build an infrastructure of public granaries (Larsson, 2006, pp. 30ff, 173ff, 199).

One can see a certain amount of covariation between climate periods and cereal production during the 18th century. The 1730s to 1750s was a period with a slightly milder climate than in the previous century. The better weather conditions may have contributed to improved grain cultivation. The crisis frequency fell during the first half of the 17th century, and the obvious combination of climate and harvest and mortality crises largely disappeared between about 1720 and 1755. During the 18th century, the colonization process started again and people began to plan for, and partially start up, a more systematic colonization of northern Sweden. In agriculture, reforms to improve yields began to be implemented.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the level of production steadily increased. A new agrarian cycle, the first phase of a modernization cycle, had begun. After the famine in the 1860s, Sweden had been spared from major crop disasters. The social organization had reached such a level of development that it could counter the hardest consequences of failed harvests. The sharp increase in population that started in the 18th century, not only in Sweden but in all the Nordic countries and the Baltic region as a whole, has continued into the modern era. The 18th century seems in retrospect to be the beginning of a transitional phase: the first tentative step into a modernization process that within 150 years would substantially transform the social structures of the northern European states (Larsson, 2006; Lilja, 2012).

A Formable Climate

Climate Improvement in Theory

The human capacity to transform the climate has been one of the most important themes of the scholarly climate discourse in Western philosophy. Philosophers and scientists not only theorized about how to redirect the climate, they also gave confident advice to rulers about how to choose locations for cities, how to avoid unhealthy places, and how one could settle on climate-friendly lands (Glacken, 1967; Legnér, 2010).

During the early modern period, the intellectual landscape of the Europeans expanded. The Renaissance opened the doors to a more secular way of thinking at the end of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution in the 17th century brought this trend further into modern ideas based on scientific methodology. It meant, among other things, that causality, the relationship between cause and effect, advanced as a scientific way to explain natural phenomena at the expense of the long-dominant teleological explanations (i.e., the notion that all living things evolved toward a given goal). Transoceanic shipping contributed further to the opening of new horizons, as did the “discovery” of new worlds previously unknown to the Europeans. Discussions on natural climate, nature, and society were influenced by changes in the spiritual climate of the time. The climate debate gathered fuel in a series of travel books and exotic collections from foreign countries and continents. Some of the travelers thought they witnessed ongoing climate change. When the forests were felled and new lands were opened for cultivation, the climate became warmer (Frängsmyr, 2000, p. 24; Glacken, 1967, Part 3).

Theories on the relationship between deforestation, cultivation, and rainfall—so-called climate improvement theories—were well established in the late 18th century. Many believed them to be confirmed by comparative studies. America was a recurring case in the debate. Several of the greatest philosophers and naturalists of the Enlightenment took part in the great debate (Glacken, 1967, Part 4). The English 17th-century writer John Evelyn and the German 18th-century philosopher Herder both used America as an example of the relationship between climate and deforestation. Count Volney, an enlightened traveler in the spirit of his time, thought he had found the same climate changes in America that he believed had taken place in the “long-inhabited and exploited” old countries in Europe and Asia. David Hume and Emmanuel Kant also belonged to the Enlightenment thinkers who examined the relationship between climate change and human activities. For Hume, the climate became warmer through deforestation; Kant saw man as a force of nature comparable to earthquakes, the ocean, heavy winds, and frost. When man drains marshes and cuts down forests, he alters the climate, said Kant. One of the greatest and most influential naturalists, Count Buffon, also believed that deforestation would result in a warmer climate (Glacken, 1967, pp. 524–542, 655–692).

But there was a counterflow as well. A parallel line of thought used God’s big plan as an axiomatic point of departure. During the early modern centuries, this design theory turned up now and then as a reaction against the modern scientific ideas. God created the Earth as a suitable environment for human beings. Thus, manipulation of natural phenomena was contrary to the revealed will of God. Dr. Adam Seybert was an outspoken proponent of this theory. He opposed the current ideas about drainage as a civilizing mission. The marshes were created by God as uninhabitable lands. They were meant to correct and balance overly clean air in the same way that nature’s prosperity was followed by decay, and human evil had its role in a moral world (Glacken, 1967, p. 689; for the modern discussion of deforestation and climate, see BACC II, Ch. 25).

Dreams of a Nordic Paradise

In the 18th century, the word “utility” became a key concept in European history, but also in the spiritual climate of the Scandinavian countries. Most of the ideas put forward in the Nordic and Swedish scientific environment in the 18th century were brought in from continental sources. The 18th-century climate discourse in the north was in many ways a faithful replica of the continental climate discussion, and the climate improvement theory was solidly anchored in the Scandinavian intellectual soil. The basic idea was to highlight the economic possibilities and downplay the obstacles that might arise from the harsh northern climate. In accordance with the utilitarian philosophy of the Enlightenment, the challenge was to explore, and propagate, the economic benefits of the Nordic climate and the Swedish nature (Frängsmyr, 1990, Ch. 5; Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 11ff, 40–66).

There was no shortage of visionaries in the Nordic countries of the Enlightenment. During the 18th century, several of the leading philosophers and natural scientists in Sweden and Finland nourished a favorable perspective on the Kingdom’s economic potential, not least in agriculture. The optimistic view of the assets of the Swedish realm created expectations that it could and should be possible to get more out of agriculture. Climate was admittedly seen as a limitation, but a limitation that could be overcome.

These discussions represented a broad range of ideas from the moderate realists to the incurable optimists. The realists saw with unclouded eyes the disadvantages of the north Scandinavian climate, but believed that it could somehow be bent in a direction so that it could serve a healthy economy. The optimists, in contrast, saw almost no barriers to economic development and future prosperity for the people of the north. In this optimistic discussion the utility discourse of the time, the utilism, merged commercial thinking with the leading economic ideology, mercantilism, toward a common political goal to exploit nature and its riches for the benefit of mankind.

Several of the most optimistic authors of the climate discourse stressed the possibility of changing the Swedish climate. They listed a number of beneficial properties, ranging from the health benefits of the Swedish climate to the potential resources that lay hidden in the Swedish countryside, its fauna, flora, and climate. Some of them emphasized the benefits of introducing exotic plants and animals in Sweden. Some believed strongly in a colonized Lapland, and had lofty visions of harmonious interaction between the reindeer-breeding Lapps and the Swedish farmers. Another was convinced that the northern region could not only be colonized, but also developed through a variety of economic achievements in mining, water, energy, fishing, crafts, and trade.

The colonization of Northern Scandinavia was a Nordic pipe dream with traditions stretching back to the Middle Ages. The idea took off in Sweden during its time as a major regional power in the 17th century, and it was passed down in the 18th century as a response to Sweden’s loss of status and power. Gradually a conviction grew that northern Scandinavia’s vast periphery of almost uninhabited land was suitable for agriculture. The obvious climate obstacles for these ideas met with arguments that put forward the positive effects on the climate that would follow by cultivation of the soil. Government regulations from 1673 and 1695 underlined the importance of cultivation and colonization in northern Sweden, and mandated that settlers be exempted from all taxes and military duties for several years. These regulations were backed up by a firm belief that the northern parts of Sweden and Finland should develop economically for the benefit of the state (Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 40–55; Sörlin, 1990, pp. 104ff, 109ff).

For the famous naturalist and botanist Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish winter was a grand and pleasant place, the cold was refreshing, and the “aurora borealis” (northern lights) a magnificent experience. The winter had economic benefits as well. When lakes and rivers froze transport improved, and darkness was kept away when the sun reflected off the snow. Linnaeus also argued for the introduction of alien species in Sweden. As a young scientist, he had ideas about resistant seed varieties that could withstand the harsh climate in the north, and he published a proposal that commercial plants from mountainous areas in foreign countries be imported into the Swedish mountains, to the benefit of hundreds of people (Glacken, 1967, p. 511f; Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 42f, 51).

The views on America and Americans held by Pehr Kalm, the Swedish-Finnish explorer, agrarian economist, and disciple of Linnaeus, were greatly inspired by the French thinker Buffon. Kalm argued that European cattle degenerated when they were brought over to North America, that people matured earlier and died younger, and that even the trees suffered from the landscape’s bad qualities. In light of his observations, he thought that the future of the New World looked pretty bleak. Despite his roots in the commercial thinking of the Enlightenment, Kalm was partly skeptical regarding the northern climatic advantages. He claimed that Finland never could be as densely populated as France, and that exotic plants had small possibilities to flourish in the chilly climate of the north. However, he also felt that through wisely managed cultivation projects, climate could be improved, and that Finland’s climate could become milder, like it was in the ancient southern European countries (Glacken, 1967, pp. 541, 683, 685f; Frängsmyr, 2000, p. 54).

When the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1764 announced a contest for “the Swedish climate opportunities and disadvantages in relation to the general and private economy,” they got five responses—four of them written in an unmistakably optimistic tone. Thus, it is no surprise that an optimistic contribution won the award. The winner, John Fredric Kryger, developed the climate improvement theory in terms of a problem rooted in a too-small population. If Sweden could grow into a country with a larger population, as it had been in former times, it would improve the ability to change the climate in a positive direction. This would automatically lead to cultivation, and through cultivation the frost would be defeated (Frängsmyr, 2000, p. 55–65).

The winner of the second prize, Pehr Adrian Gadd, saw a country filled with beautiful islands, fertile fields and parks, and a clear, fresh, and healthy air. He saw great potential for the cultivation of Kemi Lappmark far to the north, and was convinced that agriculture had favorable conditions in mountainous areas due to their climate and location. Another of the competitors for the prize, the priest Per Högström, did not deny the negative influence from the cold Nordic climate, but strongly stressed the climate improvement effects of colonization and farming.

The idea of climate improvement was clearly expressed in a Swedish map from 1811, in which the author argued that diligence and enterprise in the future would affect the climate. If the forests were thinned out, swamps were dried up, and the land turned into fields, the climate would be milder (Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 58ff, 61ff, 63ff; Sörlin, 1990, p. 124; for the modern discussion, see BACC II, Ch. 25).

Climate and Man

The 18th-century climate debate in the north was not just about the climate’s impact on society and vice versa; it was also about the climatic impact on mankind itself. One philosophical tradition in the Swedish debate, which also became a trademark of the Swedish historical self-understanding at the time, was the history ideology called “göticism,” or Gothism. The 18th-century Swedish Gothism had developed out of an earlier Gothism that tried to derive the Swedish people’s origins back to the ancient Goths and the mythical figures of the Old Testament. The difference was that in the 18th century, it was thought that Gothism then stood on a more solid empirical scientific basis, namely the Icelandic saga literature. The Icelandic sagas gave the Swedish climate optimists a tool that could be combined with the fashionable ideas of the continent, in particular Montesquieu’s ideas about people’s dependence on their climate environment. According to this line of reasoning, the Nordic chill promoted freedom-loving heroes, and rulers of courage and wisdom. On the other hand, people from the south were controlled by their emotions, greedy and lazy, and demanding law and order. Such thinking was further developed, in Montesquieu’s spirit, to be about human origins and human variations. In this discussion, the continental ideas flourished in a jumble of theological, racial, psychological, geographic, and cultural ideas (Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 29ff, 108f, 193).

In Sweden Jacob Fredrik Neikter, the cultural historian and professor at Uppsala University, appeared as one of the foremost exponents of this complex of ideas. Neikter had a historical perspective on the climate, and thought that it had changed, and could still change, through active measures by man. As an advocate of the climate improvement theory, he followed the mainstream of European Enlightenment thinking, but he also had a more anthropological perspective. He saw man as a unified art and explained the variations within humankind with reference to geographical factors. He believed that the variations were the result of degeneration and that the climate was one of the major causes of the degeneration. Neikter also got involved in the great debate about human origins. As a so-called “monogenist,” one who believed in mankind’s unity, he criticized the “polygenists,” who thought that man had been created several times and therefore had different origins and consisted of different species. Although man had a remarkable ability to adapt to different climatic environments, he was not uninfluenced by them. His body degenerates in shape and strength, so that residents in different locations seems to appear to be of different species. Skin color was caused mainly by climate, Neikter said, and he believed that an individual who has moved to a different climate zone would have a different skin color. White people in Africa would, due to the warm climate, get black skin like Africans, and vice versa. The same was true of hair color. Cold climate resulted in blond and hot climate in black-haired individuals (Frängsmyr, 2000, pp. 78–107; J. F. Neikter (b. 1744, d. 1803), professor at Uppsala University, 1785—most important work, De efficacia climatum ad variam gentium indolem praecipue ingenia et mores, published 1777–1797 (unfinished)).

Society and Climate in the Modern Age

Global Warming

The ongoing “global warming” is one of the major environmental issues today. The debate is based on an observed long-term increase in temperature from the 18th century until today. What has made the issue so inflamed is the claim that modern society is the main cause behind the change—man is responsible (Hughes, 2009, pp. 254ff, 257ff; Lamb, 1995, Ch. 13; Weart, 2003).

Regardless of the positions in the current debate on global climate, it is scientifically established that Earth’s climate has become warmer in the 20th and early 21st centuries. The current temperature rise is approximately 0.8 degrees C, and it can be detected from at least the 1880s or 1890s. But global warming from the late 19th century has not been continuous. It has varied in tempo, and over a long period in the middle of the 20th century it was more a question of temperature stasis or slight temperature drop. The time from about 1940 to the 1970s was a period of declining average temperature. The climate discourse during the 1970s was more about a coming ice age than about global warming. It is primarily the recent decades of global temperature increase that has convinced the world’s climate scientists that the changes are man made. Since the middle of the 1980s, we have had a period of rising global temperatures. (According to IPCC 2013 Summary for Policymakers, p. 5, “The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, over the period 1880 to 2012, when multiple independently produced datasets exist. The total increase between the average of the 1850–1900 period and the 2003–2012 period is 0.78 [0.72 to 0.85] °C, based on the single longest dataset available.” (See also figures p. 6; Fagan, 2000, Ch. 12, fig. p. 203; Lamb, 1995, pp. 254ff and figs. 91a–b; Weart, 2003, pp. 80–81 (a new ice age), Ch. 8, fig. 3 p. 184 (IPCC and global warming). For further examples of different historical climate reconstructions, see the reference list.)

The ongoing increase in global temperature is assumed to be caused by the development of society—it has so-called “anthropogenic” causes. The main reason is the “greenhouse effect,” created by industrial society’s energy needs and their impact on the climate. The modern energy system’s emissions of greenhouse gases have been a product o the industrial society’s need for bulk supplies of cheap energy for production, infrastructure, and standard of living. Emissions from industry, transport, housing, etc., have led to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide and methane), which has added to the Earth’s natural emissions in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases block heat radiation of the Earth into space, and have therefore been pushing forward an artificial (nonnatural) global temperature rise (IPCC 2013 Summary for Policymakers, pp. 17–19: “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together”; IPCC 2114 Work Group 2 Summary for Policymakers; Turco (2002, Chs. 11.3 and 12).

A temperature rise of less than 1 degree C from the late 19th century to today may not look like an impressive increase, but in the theories of the climatologists, biologists, and archaeologists, small temperature shifts can have major consequences. All life, including human life, must adapt to changes in climate regimes. When the temperature is changed, the flora and fauna have to follow, and when the flora and fauna are changed, humans and their societies have to follow. Thus, the conditions of life gradually transform.

Industrial Society and Climate

From the late 18th century to the present day, the Western world has undergone a comprehensive social transformation. When the societies of the West in just a few decades transformed from agricultural economies to industrial economies, this also created entirely new conditions for the human capacity to irrevocably change nature—to bend nature in the service of our own needs. Earlier in history, technologized industrialism gave humans tools for intervention in, and conversion of, the natural environment and ecological systems. The development toward an industrialized society also meant an influence on the climate system of the Earth. (For general overviews, see for instance the environmental histories of McNeill (2000), Chs. 1 (long-term perspective), 3 (atmosphere cities), 4 (atmosphere regional and global), 9 (population and urbanization), 10 (energy, technology, and economy); and Ponting (2007), Chs. 11 (population growth, modern agriculture, and deforestation), 12 (energy use, esp. pp. 280–293), 13 (cities, esp. pp. 302–313), and also pp. 352–363 (industrialization and air pollution), and 385–408 (global warming).)

The agrarian society did have major environmental impacts, and some of them affected climate, at least on a local or regional level. Large-scale deforestation and draining of marshes and wetlands could cause rising CO2 emissions and thus affect climate and weather. History shows us drastic cases of water scarcity or desertification due to excessive irrigation, or excessive land use and land exhaustion for agricultural purposes. Two famous examples are Mesopotamia and the Maya culture. But today we don’t have evidence of human-induced preindustrial climate change on a global scale. In general, agrarian economies were more affected by than affecting climate changes and weather swings (Hughes, 2009, pp. 42–48; Kander, 2008; Ponting, 2007, pp. 69–72).

The great contrast between the premodern agricultural society and the modern industrial society is not only a transformation from agrarian economy to industrial economy. It’s also a contrast between a climate-dependent society on the one hand, and a climate-changing society on the other. The direction of influence has been reversed, and now goes from society to climate (McNeill, 2000, Ch. 10; Lamb, 1995, pp. 340ff).

The industrial society reached the Nordic countries and the Baltic region somewhat later than it did in countries like England and France, but during the 19th century the changes in production, infrastructure, and consumption that we associate with industrialism began to penetrate northern Europe as well. When industrialism broke through in a big way during the late 19th century in the Baltic Sea region, it meant that climate-induced starvation disasters disappeared, but also that economic development began to affect the atmosphere. (For industrialization in the Baltic or Nordic countries merged, seeGustafsson, 1997, pp. 255ff, 185ff, 163ff; Kirby, 1996, pp. 166ff, 304–310, 388f; Klinge, 1994, p. 125.)

The City as Climate Generator

The great social transformation when people moved from the countryside to the cities is often highlighted as one of the main causes of global warming. The process of urbanization is part of the great social dynamic that has transformed large parts of the modern world. It’s also a change that created new types of landscapes, with new types of atmospheric conditions. Since the publication of Luke Howard’s classic The Climate of London in 1818 and 1822, the city’s climatology has existed as a scientific field (Hamblyn, 2004, p. 141; Lamb, 1995, pp. 257, 340–345; McNeill, 2000, pp. 281–295, 315f).

In the early 19th century, the level of urbanization in the Baltic Sea region was only around 10% (i.e., for every city dweller there were nine countryside dwellers). Agriculture was the economically dominant industry. In today’s high-tech Scandinavian societies, the degree of urbanization approaches or exceeds 80%. The relationship between countryside and city has been completely reversed. Cities and other urban places, which 200 years ago were small in both size and population and sparsely scattered in the landscape, have in the beginning of the 21st century grown to coherent urban regions. Many cities with only a few thousand inhabitants at the beginning of the 19th century have now expanded to agglomerations of tens of thousands of inhabitants. Around 1800, Scandinavia’s two largest capitals, Copenhagen and Stockholm, had approximately 100,000 and 70,000 inhabitants respectively. Today, both cities are globally oriented mega-cities with more than 2 million inhabitants, and they cover areas that are many times larger than their small preindustrial predecessors. (See BACC II, Ch. 22 (Urban Complexes); Bregnsbo, 2008, pp. 133–152; Degn, 2008, pp. 97–132; Jutikkala, 1987, pp. 461–471; Henningsen, 2008, p. 156; Klinge, 1994, pp. 124ff; Myhre, 2006, pp. 254–273; Nilsson, 1989, pp. 128ff, 212–224; Stugu, 2006, pp. 494ff; Tommila, 1987, pp. 583–592. For general perspective, see McNeill, 2000, pp. 283ff; Ponting, 2007, pp. 302–313.)

It is not an undisputable fact that cities and city life are more detrimental to the environment than other kinds of human life experiences. As dense, built-up structures, cities have the advantage of large-scale transport systems for people, goods, and information; their energy consumption can be organized rationally on a mass scale; their emissions can be detected and managed, and so on. In the future city, life might even be, from an environmental point of view, a preferable way of organizing societies.

However, population growth in general and the scale of modern urbanization are causes of major environmental disturbances in many places on Earth. The huge urban growth taking place in many parts of the world in the 21st century could not have happened without an exponential increase in energy consumption and waste production, and a significant part of the industrial development has been going on in or near cities. Many of the fastest growing cities were until recently pure industrial cities. They lived on the fruits of their manufacturing industries and were populated by workers and by officials linked to industrial production facilities. The Nordic countries, which today belong to the most industrially developed states in the world, are, despite their small population and relatively low population density, located in the most urbanized part of the world. The heavy urbanization in the Baltic Sea region, as well as in other industrialized parts of the world, have, therefore, contributed significantly to emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Jutikkala, 1987, pp. 472–485; Lamb, 1995, p. 366; McNeill, 2000, Ch. 3; Myhre, 2006, pp. 294–311; Nilsson, 1989, pp. 193–211; Stugu, 2006, pp. 468ff; Tommila, 1987, pp. 593–597).

Modern cities are artificial environments inserted in an ongoing interaction between the city and its atmosphere. Most modern cities are to some extent climate generators. Cities are like other landscapes. Their houses are mountains, their streets are valleys, their parks are forests, fields, and meadows, their channels and underground sewers are rivers. These structures affect the climate in the same way as their natural counterparts. Wind and water are channeled between the houses through tunnels, urban air can range from dry to humid, and the temperature can vary by a few degrees Celsius, depending on where in the city you are located (BACC II, Ch. 22 (urban complexes); Lamb, 1995, p. 273; Lilja, 2010).

As with the physical urban landscape, the urban climate is man’s creation. Cities create, and have throughout their history created, their own climates. The greatness of Rome, Cicero argued, was due to the town’s health-giving location with its windy hills, which gave coolness and shade in the valleys. In 18th century Stockholm, there was an ongoing debate about the city’s high mortality rates, which were considered due to unhealthy air. The highly respected physician Johan Lorens Odhelius was in 1785 worried about the impact on the city’s climate by local water collections, but the city’s location close to open water, he said, countered unhealthiness and poor air quality: As winds swept in from the surrounding bays and straits, they helped to clear the air in the city (Glacken, 1967, p. 102; Legnér, 2010, p. 272).

Macroclimate from global and cosmic processes meets the microclimate in the city’s own atmosphere. Their energy consumption in heating, transport, and industrial activities heats and encapsulates the city and creates a local climate. Although it has always been a human ambition to create physical urban landscape, it has rarely been people’s intention to create climate. Urban microclimate is an unintended side effect of human activities. As a man-made landscape, built and organized to provide protection against macroclimate, the city creates its own unintended microclimate. The quest to control climate ends in unintended consequences (Turco 2002, pp. 131ff).

Energy consumption and industrial processes contaminate the city’s air. Car traffic and industrial emissions are leaving their footprint. Instead of fluffy cumulus clouds that slowly glide across the city, we all too often see a green-gray miasma that covers the city. From a purely aesthetic perspective, the polluted, particle-tight air gives us beautiful red sunsets, but from a health perspective pollution-free air would be preferable. Atmospheric particles and their chemistry are less a result of natural processes than a result of air pollution (BACC II, Ch. 24 (aerosols); Lilja, 2005b, p. 79; McNeill, 2000, pp. 58ff).

A Temperature History of Stockholm

When it comes to the city’s climate history, Stockholm’s temperature changes have played a certain role in our altered state of knowledge. Through a unique climate-historical source, it has been possible to follow two Swedish cities’ temperature development for more than 250 years, from the first half of the 18th century until today. Stockholm’s temperature has been measured and documented since the mid-18th century, and in Uppsala the data series goes back to the early 1720s. These temperature series have been processed scientifically, and therefore provide a credible picture of temperature development in the two cities from the end of the early modern period into the modern industrial society.

Both temperature series shows how the temperature gradually rose. The increase can be seen in both cities with a striking parallelism. Both cities’ temperature curves rise slowly from the final stage of the LIA into the modern global warming period. The Uppsala curve began by falling in the 1720s. Since then, however, it has followed the Stockholm curve quite closely, but at a generally lower level (about 1 degree lower). During the 18th century, the annual average temperature in Stockholm fluctuated around 6 degrees C. There was an ongoing temperature rise in the long run, but the temperature was relatively stable from 1750 to 1870, and again from the 1940s to the 1990s. The long-term temperature rise appears to have taken place between these two periods of more stable conditions. Around 1990, the annual average temperature had risen to near 7.7 degrees C. The temperature rise can thus be estimated to more than 1.5 degrees C.

The measured temperature curves, however, are not the whole truth about the local temperature development in Stockholm. Temperature measurements were made on a hill called Observatoriekullen (Observatory Hill), which at the beginning of the measurement period was located outside the built-up city. Over time, the site has been influenced by the urban environment when the city expanded. The curves must therefore be calibrated for this change (Moberg, 1992, 1996 (calibration through recalculation of data series compensating for changes in the locations of instruments and observation times, and by comparisons with rural measurements near Stockholm)). When that is done, the result is remarkable, especially if one sees it from the global warming perspective. In this perspective, the long-term temperature rise in Stockholm between approximately 1750 to 1990 is almost completely eliminated. Converted in this way, the average temperature is quite stable from the 18th century to the late 20th century. Not until about 1990 did the 20th century temperature once again reach up to 18th-century levels. The result of temperature development from the mid-18th century to the late 20th century is fairly modest. The calibrated temperature curve from Stockholm seems, therefore, not to give a strong support to the theory of global warming.

But the conclusion that has been drawn by the apparent differences between the measured and the calibrated curves on the contrary gives an important support to the current explanation of global warming. The difference is mainly explained by the “urban heat effect” that occurred when the city of Stockholm began to expand geographically in the late 19th century. The temperature data of Stockholm were originally gathered within the rural surroundings outside the city itself. During the latter half of the 19th century, the growing industrial city expanded beyond its former space until it eventually swallowed up the city’s surrounding rural hinterland. Thus, the location of the data collection was gradually completely surrounded by an increasingly urbanized landscape. The city has created its own warmth, and formed a local “urban heat island” with its own microclimate. At the same time the city has, like all major cities on Earth, made its contribution to global warming (Moberg, 1992, 1996 (Stockholm temperature curve); BACC II, Ch. 22 (urban complexes); Turco, 2002, pp. 131ff).

A New Climate Agenda

One of the important social changes that have taken place in modern people’s mindsets and attitudes is the recent reversal in the perception of climate’s relationship to people and society. The climate debate in Sweden and the other Nordic countries is now mostly concerned with global warming and its consequences for society. In the early 21st century, the climate issue is owned by every citizen. Politicians, city planners, large institutions, and other companies have in varying but increasing degrees begun to take account of the “climatic factor” in their decisions and actions.

Today Stockholm, like most of its Scandinavian counterparts, is a relatively clean and orderly city of the world, but the city has the same problem as many of its larger sisters in other countries, and an uncertain future. The town is still growing, and in order to create a sustainable city of the future its leaders and politicians have decided to maintain effective environmental monitoring based on long-term goals and a precautionary principle.

But it took time before the climate change of the 20th century gained serious attention. Initially, the industrial emissions were not seen as problems. Even several decades after the industrial society was established, there was no independent environmental debate in Sweden. Instead, you could see chimney smoke as excited exclamations pointing forward toward development and prosperity for everyone (Lilja, 2010; Sheiban, 2010). During the great world exhibition in 1930 in Stockholm, the then young writer Ivar Lo Johansson enthusiastically wrote these words:

The air is full of inspirational songs, as an urban traffic decidedly bestows a modern man. Gasoline smell is the incense of a new age, which instils us with a feeling of trust, faith and optimism. An airplane high above us in the skies gives a sense of security, opportunities and perspectives. When the noise stops at some time, we become anxious. The city is beginning for many of us to be the most natural life on Earth.

(Lagerberg, 2003, p. 197)

It was only during the latter part of the 1960s that an environmental discourse reached Sweden. In the Swedish capital’s governing body, the contemporary environmental debate broke through during the years 1966–1968, and modern green parties began to form in the Baltic region in the 1980s. In Sweden, and in several other European countries, green parties were founded during the years around 1980, often with the German Die Grünen as role model. In Finland and Norway, nationwide green parties were formed in 1987. Poland got a green party in 2004, and Russia got corresponding parties and organizations in the 1990s and 2000s.

The politicians got the attention directed toward a variety of environmental problems, and the political debate was marked by a pronounced willingness to deal with the growing challenges. But in the beginning, the climate issue did not stand at the heart of the debate. Other environmental issues dominated the political agenda, such as industrial emissions and pollution in the Baltic Sea, whether or not to use nuclear power, energy savings in the aftermath of the first oil crisis, and dealing with toxic waste. In Stockholm, the ongoing and very extensive alteration and renovation projects of the city plan were increasingly questioned (Burchell, 2002, p. 26; Carter, 2007, p. 96; Helldén, 2005; Lilja, 2008, 2011; Sellerberg, 1994).

The contemporary climate debate began make its imprints first in the 1990s. It is only during the last two and a half decades that climate change has occupied a steadily growing space on the political agenda. Changes in attitudes and mentalities have had an impact on both the politicians and the general public. Recent developments have led to a broad political consensus for ever more ambitious climate targets, and people are starting to gradually adapt their consumption and lifestyle after the new conditions. There is today a wide support of ambitious climate targets. New technologies are applied to save energy and make use of solar, wind, and water energy.

There is today extensive research to reduce human vulnerability to climate change and environmental threats. We want to create cities, states, and communities that are resilient and adaptable in the face of threats and risks. The most serious global and regional environmental threats have been identified, and countries have initiated a number of measures to meet future changes in climate. Governments have been drawn into climate prevention policies, and in many cases regulatory systems and institutions have been transformed to adapt society to forecasted changes. One example from the Baltic Sea region is the Swedish government’s climate and vulnerability study of 2007, which notes that the country is threatened by future climate change. Sea-level rise might lead to floods, landslide hazards, and damage to buildings and infrastructure. It is therefore necessary as soon as possible to begin the adjustment to a new climate situation. Similar political initiatives have been taken in other Nordic countries (Mapping … 2009; NOU, 2000:1; SOU, 2007:60; Wamsler, 2013, p. 47).

The new awareness of the globalized climate and ecological problems has eventually resulted in extensive measures to improve the sustainability of Scandinavian cities. In our postindustrial society of today, some cities have fewer environmental problems than much of the countryside. In Sweden in general, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen somewhat in the last decades, and similar developments, although in some cases fluctuating, can be seen in the EU and other Nordic countries as well. This change is to some extent caused by economic development, but it can also be explained by “factors like improved technology and diminished use of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.” ( (2017-07-05), Top levels of CO2 emissions per GNP: EU 2000, Norway 2001, Sweden 2003, Finland 2003, Denmark 2007. (Fig. “CO2 utsläpp per bruttonationalprodukt, 2000–2010, ton och miljoner euro”))

It has also been a strong ambition in the Nordic countries to influence environmental and climate debate at the international level. Back in 1972, Stockholm hosted the first in a series of international United Nations conferences on the environment, where it was decided that the 1970s should be the “age of ecology.” Over three decades later, in 2009, one of the UN’s major climate conferences was held in Copenhagen (Worster, 1996, p. 273; Fores, 2009, p. 2010; Persson, 2010).


In recent years, the debate around global warming has shifted heavily in favor of the scientists who warn against the coming development, and who believe that global measures must be taken as soon as possible. While this scenario is growing stronger, contradictory opinions still exist. The opinions of these “climate skeptics” are to be found mainly outside the established scientific community, and they claim that the fears are exaggerated and that it is not proven that society is causing the current temperature rise. But the risks of underestimating the relevance of modern social developments to climate change are many and complex. Some scenarios point to big and serious consequences. Earth’s sea levels will rise and affect vulnerable coastal areas, the climate will become more volatile, with more storms, floods, and other extreme weather events, and changes in ocean currents and wind directions may lead to permanent changes in climate. The outcome is also assumed to vary over the Earth. The spread of desert-like areas may run in parallel with the emergence of a milder, more Mediterranean climate in the harsh climate zones of the Baltic Sea region.

Perhaps our biggest concern should be about human relations on Earth. What happens if large masses of people and whole states get their livelihoods undermined as a result of shifts in climate zones, and if the international community fails to compensate the losers? The risk of social unrest and large-scale war is an ever-present concern in today’s environment debate.

Within our current world of social and political tensions, climate change is seen as a key risk factor for our common future. Although the modern climate crisis might appear to be somewhat elusive, enough is known for us to understand the seriousness of ongoing developments and the importance of doing something to embark on a sustainable path for the future. To a growing number of people, it seems increasingly clear that the “precautionary principle” is the guiding principle for political decisions that should guide future leaders. More recently, the perception of air pollution and climate impact has influenced decision makers around the world to make great efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution.

We have become convinced of the need to reverse a trend that, in the foreseeable future, may contribute to global climate change, with social, political, and medical problems as a consequence. This gradually emerging realization is to no small extent due to the many emerging historical studies of climate change.

The overwhelming majority of the modern research on climate and society is, by nature, contemporary and future oriented. However, knowledge about the historical relationship between climate and society must also be deepened. Although historical climate research in Sweden and other countries in the Baltic Sea region has gotten a boost in recent decades, it is still leaning too much on the climate change leg. The clear link between the climatic fluctuations of the last three centuries and the great social change which then took place needs to be further investigated through thorough empirical studies. Only then can we understand when social change began to create climate instead of being climate dependent, how profound the societal climate impact has been, and how the interaction between climate and society in the Baltic Sea region has been developed, and will be developed, in its global context.


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