The climate chaos sparked the French Revolution – and is a serious warning for today

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Historians have long observed the connection between the natural environment and the fate of civilization. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and crop failures regularly plunge people into chaos. Long-term changes in the earth’s climatic conditions cause thriving societies like the Roman Empire to wither and fade. But perhaps there is no better example of the explosive intersection of climate destruction and political upheaval than the time around the French Revolution of 1789.

From the middle of the 13th century, a period of prolonged cooling occurred in the northern hemisphere known as Little ice age. This extended cold, however, was not smooth and even, but characterized by intervals of falling temperatures amid otherwise stable warmth. Such an interval of abrupt freezing began in the North Atlantic around 1770, the immediate devastation in shipping, transport and agriculture. In 1775, the severe grain shortage in France caused by consecutive years of poor harvests led to bread riots across the kingdom. Later referred to as the flour war, it was a harbinger of the future.
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The deteriorating climate exacerbates that Laki volcanic fissure erupted in Iceland in June 1783. Over the next eight months, the fissure spewed 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. In all of Northern Europe there is a “blood-colored sun“Hardly visible through a thick persistent haze. In addition to the excessive mortality caused by the bad air, the Laki eruption radically changed the atmosphere, causing the 1780s’ climate to become extremely volatile. After a long cooling off, the summer of 1783 was suddenly the hottest on record. The unusually hot weather has triggered severe thunderstorms with hailstones big enough to kill livestock. The scorching summer gave way to an equally extreme winter with heavy frost, followed by a warm spring that melted snow and ice quickly, causing extensive flooding.

These unusually wild extremes determined the weather patterns for the years to come: dry and blistering summers, interrupted by violent thunderstorms, followed by deep winter frosts and snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. The fluctuations ravaged the lives of the French population, ruined crops and killed cattle and create one unbreakable cycle of hunger, poverty, stress, fear and need. Tour of France in 1785, John Adams wrote, “The land is a pile of ashes. There is hardly any grass to be seen and all kinds of grains are short, thin, pale and weak, while the flax is quite dead …. I feel sorry for these people with all my heart. At this moment there is as little sign of a change in the weather as ever. “

Continue reading: How climate change can contribute to our political instability

The damage caused by these weather problems exacerbated an ongoing financial crisis that haunted the Kingdom of France in the 1770s and 1780s. The kingdom’s finances had never been well managed as the richest aristocratic families in France continued to be exempt from most taxes. With the agricultural devastation and the kingdom’s already inadequate tax revenues The ministers of King Louis XVI. introduced economic and financial reforms to stabilize the crown’s finances. But these efforts met with relentless hostility from the privileged elite, who refused to accept new taxes unless the king offered equally significant political concessions. Both sides refused to give in, and the deadlock prevented the crisis from being addressed.

The years of climatic stress, financial instability and political conflicts came together brutally in 1788 and 1789. A severe drought in the spring of 1788 left staple food crippled and withered. On July 13, 1788, one of the worst hailstorms in recorded history swept over France. The storm tore up a path of destruction that smashed and destroyed fields and vineyards. Grain shortages have skyrocketed, and families who once spent 50% of their income on food are now spending more than 90% of their household budgets to stay alive. With all disposable income used to buy bread, consumer demand for all other commodities collapsed and propelled the kingdom on already shaky economy in recession. Thousands of urban workers lost their jobs and wages, compounding the growing social crisis.

In the midst of the terrible harvests of 1788, the political conflict between the elite over financial, economic and political reforms reached a climax. The king’s attempts to force change met with furious opposition. A population, psychologically troubled by years of stress and fear, was now ready to outdo the politics of an absolute monarchy that did not serve the people. Calls for a national assembly to address the mountain of accumulated complaints became so loud that the king eventually gave in. King Louis at the end of 1788 demanded the Estates General to convene next spring.

Just as Louis announced this momentous concession, France was hit by the coldest winter in nearly a century. Thomas Jefferson, America’s then minister in France, wrote“There came a winter as cold as it was unprecedented in the memory of mankind or in the written records of history. …[A]Outdoor work was suspended, and of course the poor who had no wages were neither bread nor fuel. ”That vicious winter froze an already starving population. The death grip of winter lasted for months. In April 1789, the Comte de Mirabeau remarked in the south of France: “Every scourge has been released. Everywhere I found men who died of cold and hunger, and that in the middle of the week from a lack of flour, while all the mills were frozen. “

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When the Estates General met in Versailles in May 1789, the people of France had long and difficult years behind them, afflicted by endlessly destructive climatic fluctuations. The spring and summer of 1789 brought no relief. It would take months for the year’s crops to overcome last year’s deficits. The traumatized population of Paris, spurred on by political speakers, was ready to explode. As in many previous summers, the heat of July was an oppressive contrast to the freezing cold of the previous winter. The months-long political deadlock at Versailles was finally resolved in July 1789 when rumors of a reactionary conspiracy began to circulate in the streets of Paris and the alarmed and angry population rose to tear down the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution is a particularly dire warning, as scientists now know that the climate chaos we experienced then was the result of natural processes, while the warming crisis we are going through today is caused by human action and – unless we take immediate action stop – will only get worse. The connection between climate and political destabilization has become one urgent subject. A groundbreaking study 2013 Compare climate Major historical conflict data found “strong causal evidence linking climate events to human conflict … The impact of climate is considerable. ”The study warned that as the earth’s temperature rises in the coming decades,“ the increase in human conflict could have large and critical social impacts … in both low and high income countries ”. In August the United Nations published an IPCC Report described as “Code Red for Mankind”. The report states that “extreme weather, poor crop yields and low GDP are also linked to increased violence”.

The French Revolution was not caused by climate change alone. These disruptions devastated the economy, destabilized social order, and traumatized the population, but they required a broken political system, unable and unwilling to handle the effects, to bring the scales towards revolution. As we enter a new era of man-made climate emergency, it will be in our hands to mitigate the environmental impact, but it will not be enough to simply cut emissions or convert to green energy. We also need to ensure that our political structures can respond to the inevitable social crises caused by global warming and are flexible and resilient enough to weather the coming storm.

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