“Global crisis” – what if lots of catastrophes happen at once?

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Global Crisis Book Cover


Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Geoffrey Parker, 2013, Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-15323-1.

Four Stars

What happens when lots of catastrophes happen at once? Geoffrey Parker’s book describes a period in history – the mid 17th century – when they came thick and fast, and happened everywhere. We study a wide variety of catastrophes at the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies to assess how they might affect the economy. We have compiled and published a taxonomy of catastrophic threats that are broadly different in cause and that we’ve seen occur periodically through history, at irregular intervals, in different parts of the world. What if many of them occurred at in a short period of time?

A cluster of catastrophes 1620-1690

Geoffrey Parker provides an authoritative historian’s analysis of a turbulent period – roughly 1620 to 1690 – in which there were a cluster of natural catastrophes, social and economic crises, and extraordinary historical change. He catalogues extreme weather events, disease outbreaks, revolutions, volcanic eruptions, financial crises, urban conflagrations, famines, and wars. This apparently caused population decreases in China, Germany and France, and, claims Parker: “killed up to one-third of the human population” of the world. The term “General Crisis” has been applied to this period by other historians before Parker. It was a period of incessant war in Europe, and regional conflicts in the Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires. There were several revolutions and civil wars. It is cited as having the greatest break-up of states of any historical period and the highest number of wars. It was clearly a period of political upheaval and change.

Due to climate change?

Geoffrey Parker explores this in some detail, and tries to tie it neatly to one underlying cause: “Climate Change”, the zeitgeist of the 21st Century, which he embeds in his title.  He implies that our current period of anthropogenic global warming could trigger another “Global Crisis” of a cluster of correlated social, economic, and political catastrophes similar those of the seventeenth century.

However, this is the weakest part of a fine study. The “Climate Change” that Parker claims as the cause of all the seventeenth century chaos is a period of cooling, not the warming that we currently face, and not all of the crises he catalogues could be attributable to cold weather, either scientifically, chronologically, or logically.

Was everything really caused by cold weather?

Parker presents an argument that this was a period of colder-than-normal climate (part of a ‘Little Ice Age’ that afflicted the planet for several centuries) and this caused droughts and harvest failures, which in turn triggered famines and food price hikes, that in turn resulted in social unrest, revolutions, and wars, with associated banking crises, monetary failure, social reformation and political change. This is plausible, but difficult to substantiate. Parker spends 870 pages trying to do so. He shows that this was truly a chaotic period, but he is less convincing that all these events were causally related. His case is not helped by trying to tie everything in to his thesis. Urban conflagrations triggered by climate change – really? (Not new cities built without fire regulations?) Plague outbreaks? (Not foreign pathogens spread through rapidly developing trading routes?) Couldn’t some of these catastrophic events have been unrelated to variations in climate?

Sunspots and volcanoes

The trigger for the initial climatic cool period is claimed to be a period of weaker sun radiation, marked by the ‘Maunder Minimum’ of sunspot records 1645 to 1715, combined with cooling from volcanic ash in the atmosphere resulting from above-average volcanic activity with 12 eruptions in seven years, 1638-1644. Parker draws on climatic evidence (contemporary accounts, tree rings, ice cores) to show that the mid-17th century saw a number of summers with lower-than-average temperatures and several severe winters. But climate trend interpretation is difficult enough even in our modern age of abundant instrumental data. For the 1650s without objective measurements, it gets very conjectural.

More questions than answers

Parker doesn’t pretend to be a climatologist or a statistician. He is interested in the process of social change, military history (his specialty) and political processes. As a scientist involved in the study of catastrophes, my immediate reaction to Parker’s work is one of real interest that he has drawn our attention to a period of history in which we have a cluster of crises. His work triggers more questions: Were there quantifiably more of these crises than occurred in earlier or later periods? Did they become more frequent, or more severe, than in other periods (and by how much)? Were they truly correlated by an underlying cause like a period of cold weather? Could a future period of warm weather cause a similar correlation of related catastrophes? Could a cluster of different types of catastrophes like this have arisen by chance, within the statistical bounds of their variation, from independent catastrophe processes? So for example could the cluster of wars and diseases be purely coincidental? What is the likelihood of another above-average cluster of catastrophes occurring in the next decade?

A benchmark for catastrophe studies

It will take some work to construct catalogues of historical events in all these categories to test Parker’s assertions, but this is what the Centre for Risk Studies is committed to do. As we move into the phase of trying to assess the frequency and severity of future catastrophes from different threats, and how they might correlate and coincide, then the “Global Crisis” of the seventeenth century is a key benchmark for clustered catastrophe occurrence.

Parker’s essential precedent for risk managers

Businesses and policy-makers today need to be prepared for future disruption from crises from a large number of potential causes. There will be periods when these occur in clusters. Geoffrey Parker has produced an excellent study that shows a historical precedent of a cluster of catastrophes occurring. He demonstrates that the consequences compound each other and the net effects are worse than if individual catastrophes had happened separately. If – when – future periods see a cluster of catastrophes occur, this book should ensure that businesses are prepared for the worst.

Andrew Coburn
Andrew is a Founder and Director of the Centre for Risk Studies' External Advisory Board, and Senior Vice President at Risk Management Solutions, the leading provider of catastrophe risk models to the insurance industry

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