Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

June 1, 2001

For most of the 20th century, climate was regarded as a constant boundary condition of modern society. On time scales that mattered for human decision-making, the prevailing convention was that weather statistics collected over a 30-year period or so provided the information one needed to make long-term planning decisions about the future.

A small number of people began to challenge this view during the 1950s and 1960s. Most notable in the UK was Hubert Lamb, founding director of the Climatic Research Unit at UEA in 1971 and ex-Met Office forecaster. He pointed out that climate fluctuated on much shorter time scales than geological ones. During the 1970s, when I started to study geography, a range of theories began to mature about the causes of these shorter-term fluctuations, some of them natural (eg volcanic eruptions) and some human in origin (eg land-cover changes). There was no clear consensus about which was dominant. Indeed, for a few years in the mid-1970s, the best-publicised view was that the Earth was heading into a new ice age. The book that brought all of this emerging thinking together was Lamb's Climate, History and the Modern World . Published in 1982, it surveyed a huge canvas on which Lamb painted in eloquent terms the relationship between climate and society over the past 2,000 years. The book embedded firmly in my mind the idea that climate could not be regarded by modern society as a fixed boundary condition. A year earlier as a final-year undergraduate I had listened to one of Lamb's conference lectures in Durham and afterwards timorously asked him whether I could study as a postgraduate student under him in Norwich.

The book appeared at the beginning of a decade in which our understanding of the climate system advanced by leaps and bounds and by the end of which the UN had established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC was charged with assessing the evidence and prospects for significant climate change brought about by emissions into the atmosphere of prodigious quantities of greenhouse gases. The rest of the story will be quite well known.

Although Lamb was never entirely convinced by the arguments for the enhanced greenhouse effect being the dominant cause of climate change we now believe it to be, he had grasped before all of us that climate and society are tightly coupled systems and co-evolve on all time and space scales. As he put it in 1982: "climate and our understanding of it are very much part of the problems of the modern world... affecting practical matters in agriculture and industry, government and international trade, not to mention human health and happiness."

Mike Hulme is executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

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