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Making Climate History

This project — funded by the Leverhulme Trust for 5 years (2019-2024) — is collaborative between the Departments of Geography and History and Philosophy of Science (HPS).

Principal Investigators are Prof Richard Staley, Prof Mike Hulme and Prof Simon Schaffer. Also working on the project as PDRAs are Dr Sarah Dry (Oxford), Dr Tom Simpson (Cambridge Geography), Dr Harriet Mercer (Cambridge HPS) and Dr Sam Robinson (Southampton).

Short summary

Two centuries after the emergence of steam technologies and 170 years after initial suggestions that the atmosphere keeps Earth warm, scientists proved human disturbance of the Earth’s carbon budget changes the world’s climate. The work and timescales of making and knowing are decisively interrelated. Yet still too little is understood about critical links between, on the one hand, how imperial and global energy infrastructures have re-made climate and, on the other, how scientists have known climate. This collaborative project between historians and geographers of science maps largely unexamined connexions between histories of places, personnel, materials and power during the period that made and recognised both a global physics and a global climate.


This project uses new historical, oral and material methods to analyse the relation between making climates and knowing them. Its guiding principle is that the conceptual and technical work required to create effective knowledge of changing climates is strongly connected to the material technologies and practices that produce and change physical climate regimes. The current climate system has been re-made by technologies that alter the balance of carbon in the Earth system. Similarly, climate knowledge has been remade by shifting understanding of the timescales, the spatial systems and dynamics at work in climate. The infrastructure that has enabled the accumulation of data, the mapping of climate systems, and the organisation of disciplined observers of the phenomena of atmosphere and environment has been intimately connected with the technological systems that have exerted their effects on the planet’s climate. Changing forms of climate knowledge thus depend on the kinds of potencies attributed to different kinds of social, economic and physical forces. Several authoritative studies have addressed changing meanings of climate and climate’s effects in history; fewer offer histories of climate studies; very few indeed provide proficient studies of the ways that historical processes and imperial-economic infrastructures have affected climatic understanding.


The project therefore proposes a synoptic account of climate histories both as topic of inquiry and as systems of environmental and social connexion. Climates are never directly accessible through human experience. Histories and geographies show how the notion of climate has stabilised widely-varying cultural relations between humans and their weather. Yet the historical and geographical contingencies these relations reflect are often overlooked in current scientific, political and advocacy framings. The methods the project will use therefore derive their efficacy from historical inquiry and geographical analysis. The focus is on the vital relationship between climate sciences as accounts of variations of environmental phenomena across lengthy time-periods and planetary distances and how these variations have been experienced and known.

The aim is to study long-term developments of climates and climate sciences so as to make sense of the recent past and the present moment of urgent polemic and scientific debate. Investigating the past two centuries engages a fuller range of climate’s many temporalities, hence of its multiply contested meanings. The project avoids the assumption that climate knowledge inexorably expands and improves. It rejects the overly-simple notion that major climate changes depend on the common actions of a homogeneous human species. A key goal therefore includes focused study of the careers of a much larger number of practitioners who have been involved in different kinds of climate knowledge. Studies of eminent protagonists are combined with systematic accounts of informants, travellers, technicians and observers who contributed to the emergence and development of climate sciences. A complementary goal is the analysis of the changing scales of time and space used to make sense of climates; and how these scales have then worked to reveal progressively the rates and extent at which these climates are now changing.

Significance and originality

Better understanding of the complex relationships between changing and knowing climate is clearly of fundamental significance for strategies that respond to the challenges of human-caused climatic changes. Many recent responses have been oriented around somewhat isolated disciplinary approaches. There has been rather less careful examination of how the tools and principles that ground such approaches have their own built-in, seemingly self-evident, historical and geographical assumptions. Crucial to the originality of this project are its comparative questions about an interdisciplinary science of climate and the material technologies that have both enabled this science and re-made its object, namely climate itself.

A range of disciplines, which studied past timescales using physical, paleo-climatological and geographical approaches, were assembled to make a new kind of scientific and technical enterprise. The co-ordination of this enterprise’s components is one of the most important aspects of the politics and science of current climate debates. The significance of making these measures commensurable dominates the authority and the power of such an interdisciplinary climate science. So the means through which this has been achieved, and the uneven ways such mutual relations work, must be interpreted and clarified. The definition of what count as climatic periods or zones has depended on forging institutional and technical systems that can seemingly act through time and at long range. These systems link different agents and partners at all scales, from the very local to the dimensions of the planet: it is of utmost importance to see how different geographies of climate knowledge are rendered comparable, so as to secure an understanding of the dimensions of climate change and of climate knowledge.


The project’s unusual and innovative combination of documentary histories, oral recording, historical geography and expertise in climate sciences offers new ways to address these questions. Project members examine archival records of ranges of physical and environmental sciences that helped establish new sciences of climate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, studying the documents assembled in colonial and survey archives, in the principal international and state deposits, and in the rich biographical and autobiographical materials of the protagonists. Laboratories and survey institutions hold vital clues to the careers and interests of a much wider range of practitioners than typically figure in climate histories.

The interpretative approach of project members will be extended to include recent practitioners and institutions, notably the holdings of public and private research institutes, and the key regulatory institutions that sought to co-ordinate and direct data accumulation and the assemblage of novel forms of environmental and technical information. These historical and document based analyses will be complemented by a specific focus on the means through which data was visualised. A critical and comparative iconography of climate cartography will directly contribute to the project’s focus on the relation between knowing and changing climates through a carefully curated selection of significant climate charts and maps. Interviews will be conducted with the protagonists of recent climate science, so as to recover records of the personal experiences and career development that characterised the enterprise in key decades of its immediate past.

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