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The impact of climate change on Europe has been felt for centuries.

The impact of climate change on Europe has been felt for centuries.

Climate change brought a huge chill to Europe centuries ago.


  • Temperatures fell by about 2°C in northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, creating what is known as the little ice age and causing social and economic shocks.
  • Possible explanations include volcanic eruptions or European destruction of indigenous American societies in the Americas. This caused forests to re-grow on farmland that was once abandoned.
  • Scientists of the day debated why temperatures had fallen, but they didn’t have the ability to predict such changes.

Just as the UK was regaining its strength from storms EuniceAnd Franklin, scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report warning of a future with spiralling weather extremes, fiercer storms, flash flooding and wildfires.

This isn’t the first time that Britain has experienced drastic climate change, however. In the 16th and 17th centuries northern Europe had reached its medieval warm period and was now languishing under what is sometimes called “the little ice age”.

The average temperature in the British Isles has been increasing since the beginning of the 14th century. cooled by 2°C, with similar Anomalies across Europe. Much colder winters ensued. Rivers and coastal oceans frozen, which halted trade and communications. Crops and livestock were ruined by downpours that spoiled harvests, causing widespread hunger and hardship.

Climate change is a serious threat that requires urgent action. Climate change has already had a significant impact on the lives of communities all over the globe, including rising sea levels and droughts. These environmental threats are still at the top of The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum Climate InitiativePublic and private sector collaboration is essential for the acceleration and scaling of global climate action. The Initiative has several work streams that help to develop and implement ambitious and inclusive solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders. It is a global network of business leaders representing various industries that are developing cost-effective solutions for transitioning to low-carbon, climate resilient economies. CEOs leverage their influence and position with policy-makers and corporate partner to accelerate the transition and realize economic benefits from delivering a safer environment.

Get in touchTo get involved.

A chart showing the global average temperature change

It is believed that the little ice age lasted for nearly 400 years

Image: The Conversation/Ed Hawkins/RCraig09

The climate crisis of early modern times was as politically explosive than the one we are currently experiencing. There were revolutions, wars, and plague. Also, there was the scapegoating by witches who were suspected to have caused the bad weather.

The Recent IPCC reportFuture climate change will have devastating effects on society, especially for the 3.6 billion people who live in the poorer countries that are most vulnerable to it. Studying the impacts of the last climate crisis has on people can reveal a lot about our collective fate.

Researchers have offered many explanations for Little Ice Age. Volcanic eruptionsTo the European destruction of indigenous societiesThe result was that forests grew on land that had been abandoned in the Americas. Others have suggested the Minimum MaunderThis was the period between 1650-1715 when observed sunspots suddenly became scarce.

No matter what the cause, there are plenty of historical records that document the little-known ice age. The River Thames in London froze several times between 1400-1815. These freezes increased in severity and frequency from the early 17th century to the early 18th. People seized the opportunity to hold fairs on the river’s icy surface. The first fair was held in 1608, and there were many more. Notable frost fairsIn 1621, 1677, and 1684

During the “Great Frost” of 1608, people played football, wrestled, danced and skated on the Thames. A pamphlet was printed concerning the “Cold doings in London”. It was just over a decade later that the pamphlet was printed about “Cold Doings in London”. The frost of 1621Ice was so thick that teenagers could burn a gallon worth of wine on the Thames. Meanwhile, a woman asked her husband for permission to get her pregnant on the frozen river.

A pamphlet from a Thames frost fair in 1608

There were many events and activities held on the Thames after it froze

Image: The Conversation/Thomas Dekker/Houghton Library at Harvard University

The poet John Taylor wrote of that winter’s frost fair:

You might also see spiced cakes and roasted porks.

Beer, ale and tobacco.

Fires made of charcoals and sea-coals

Playing and cozening in the pidgeon holes

Two pots at tables, cards or dice.

Unexpectedly, the frost fairs saw a mixture of social classes. Between January and mid-February 1684, thousands of people from King Charles II and the royal family to the lowliest pauper ventured out to “Freezeland”, as one pamphleteer had christened it. The fair stretched for three miles from London Bridge up to Vauxhall. Many market stalls were established in search of making money and no ground rent to be paid.

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There were many stalls selling delicious food and drink such as beer, wine, coffee, brandy, beef, pies, oysters, and gingerbread. Entertainment included skating, sledging, dancing, horse racing, bear baiting, and cock throwing. There were puppet shows and peep shows with tame monkeys. There was also fire-eating and knife swallowing.

A frost fair on the Thames at Temple Stairs in London, England

Unemployed people saw the trade opportunities at the fairs at that time as an opportunity.

Image: The Conversation/Museum of London

This whimsical scene was actually a sign of upheaval: an early modern crisis in the cost of living. Taylor, a waterman who ran a river-taxi service across the Thames, saw his livelihoods go. Many of the frost fair stallholders were out-of work watermen. Fuel prices (predominantly) FirewoodAs the demand for heating increased, so did the demand. And in Taylor’s “gnashing age of snow and ice”, the shivering poor begged the rich for charity.

Life for London’s poor and newly unemployed was increasingly desperate, with many lacking money to eat and keep warm. Similar scenes were seen across Europe. As Philip IV of Spain toured Catalonia’s barren fields, an associate observed that “Hunger is the greatest enemy”.

Contemporaries were concerned about the social consequences. The “cryes and teares of the poore, who professe they are almost ready to famish”, wrote John Wildman, 1648, prompted fears that “a sudden confusion would follow”. King Charles II of England authorized the Bishop of London to collect money for the poor of London and its environs. Also, he donated a sum from his royal treasury.

Local parish relief (a mandatory tax on the wealthier citizens of each parish to provide for their less fortunate neighbours) reduced hunger and saw England experience fewer deaths. France is the most popular. Nevertheless, many people died in the terrible winter of 1684. Because the ground was too difficult to dig, burials were stopped. Trees split apart and some preachers interpreted the events as God’s punishment, for which the people must repent.

History offers lessons for us

A global body of scientists, like the IPCC, did not recognize climate change as a problem 400 years ago. Natural philosophers, the scientists of the day did, however. Exchange ideasThey had to deal with the changing climate and social and economic shocks that resulted from temperature changes they could not predict.

The winter of 1825 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, at the end of the little ice age

Many European nations were affected by the little bit of ice.

Image: The Conversation/Bartholomeus Johannes van Hove

People used superstitions to justify their actions, such as women of low social standing who were accused in witchcraft for their involvement in the destruction of farming communities due to crop failures.

Some people who lost their jobs made a virtue out of necessity and found new ways to earn a living. There are also those who Adapted, notably Dutch navigators who exploited changing wind and weather patterns to establish new international trading routes in their “frigid golden age”.

Most were Less fortunate. As one historian Notes, the little ice age was experienced as “a sharp deterioration in the overall quality of life”.

The history of climate change has shown that it can last centuries and have serious consequences for civilisation. As now, solidarity is the best defense against the unknown.


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