The scope of Chapter 4, Volume 3 is to assess the uses and limitations of reasoning by analogy as a methodological tool to understand future climate change impacts. A broad range of analogue approaches are examined, including research on urban heat islands, and archaeological, historical and contemporary case studies of extreme climate events, in order to draw inferences about future human response and adaptation to changing global climate trends. Significant attention is also given to review of the climate hazard literature and the conceptual underpinnings of social vulnerability, drawing from numerous historical and regional studies where climate impacts have been severe. These include medieval and early modern Europe, the North American Arctic, the US Great Plains, Northeastern Brazil, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The chapter concludes with a review of response typologies involving a range of human choice options, a brief commentary on the positive features of climate as a resource, and future research applications of climate change analogues as a viable diagnostic tool.


The reader is initially provided with a brief overview of major theoretical trends in the social science literature on climate-society interactions. The contributions have hindered scholarly inquiry and debate has been largely mute during the past century due to sensitive racial and political overtones in linking climate with specific cultural and geographical areas. Distinctions are made between formal and heuristic analogues, and the qualitative nature of such investigations is emphasized. Recent analogues from the Great Plains Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the Sahelian drought of 1970s and 1980s are presented to illustrate the differing interpretations of climate impacts and lessons learned that can be derived. The resulting divergent opinion on analogues leaves the authors to conclude: 'There is no way to judge conclusively what the lessons of a given analogue are, nor which is the better of two analogues to use for a given question' (p.223).

Several limitations in the use of climate-society analogues are noted in this chapter. First, a caveat in spatial terms concerns the application of analogues to new or different social and geographical contexts. Second, temporal dimensions of application may be problematic as well. Response to past climate events, particularly of shorter duration, may not accurately reflect longer-term meteorological trends and future human pathways of response and adaptation. Finally, it is noted that the climate-society literature may be disproportionately weighted toward a preoccupation with hazards or disasters, thus distorting or overrepresenting actual future lessons and outcomes that may be gleaned.

After cautioning against wholehearted adoption of the analogue as a crystal ball remedy to gain understanding of future climate impacts, pivotal contemporary and historical climate anomaly events are reviewed in terms of potential future implications. The METROMEX study of the St Louis metropolitan area is highlighted as an urban heat island study meriting attention. Analysis suggests that adaptation is a more viable option than mitigation. The authors are careful to point out the scale limitations of such urban analogues, in which extrapolation from local to global levels of analysis must occur. Archaeological analogues chronicling civilization collapse due to extreme climate change include the Near East and Aegean world during the Early Bronze Age, decline of the New Kingdom Egypt due to prolonged desiccation and failure of Nile floods, and Maya collapse from AD 800-1000 attributed in part to climate anomaly. Nonetheless, the central finding from these studies suggests strongly that climate events in and of themselves do not explain societal collapse. Rather, the interaction of climate with political, social, cultural, and economic contexts becomes the key explanatory variable to understanding the human ramifications of variation in climate.

Considerable discussion is devoted to climate as hazard and definitional distinctions are made between hazard and key related terms like social sensitivity and vulnerability. A consistent assessment of these terms concludes that hazards and related climate anomalies must be understood as a function of interacting physical and human systems. Climate processes and problems must be framed in their contextualized, human dimensions as well as their geophysical realm:

‘The intense concentration of research effort to date on projecting the physical attributes of a climate change thus scants an equally essential task: clarifying what they mean and for whom’ (p.239).

The hazards subtheme of ‘differential vulnerability’ is defined as having both biophysical and socioeconomic dimensions, linking human ecology to social science constructs like expanded entitlements (‘commodity bundles’) and political economy.

Differential variables associated with vulnerability include poverty, population growth, market integration, and land tenure regimes.In reviewing the corpus of literature on vulnerability, the authors marshal forth divergent academic opinions on the extent to which technological advance, modernization, and affluence place societies at greater or lesser risk to climate hazards. There is a general consensus that agricultural economies are more vulnerable than industrial ones, and that more isolated geographical populations are at greater risk, in addition to marginal population segments (women, children, elderly, minority groups).

An in depth assessment of climate hazards shifts from theoretical elaboration to empirical grounding with comparative evidence across space and time. Subsistence crises and climate change are documented across cultures, spanning the globe, from medieval and early modern Europe, to the North American Arctic, the US Great Plains, the Brazilian Northeast, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The range of examples given here invariably illustrate, time and again, the importance of examining dynamic, complex social variables such as cultural and political institutional structure as exogenous forces that directly influence environmental outcomes of drought or other extreme meteorological events. In addition, they underscore the salience of temporal scale of short-term anomalies versus longer term natural variability that must be addressed when using historical analogues to infer future long term climate impact trends. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from this chapter is that climate impacts must be understood as multidimensional, driven by the intersection of both geophysical and social forces. Single-factor explanations of vulnerability that identify causality solely in terms of climate anomaly are misguided and limiting interpretations of broader interactive social and physical processes at work.

A substantial discussion is devoted to adaptation and response to climate hazards, with a full delineation of what the authors term a ‘response typology;’ i.e., when faced with decisions concerning climate adjustment, one may choose from among the following strategies: modify the event, change location, change use, or accept losses. Each of these response options are reviewed in some detail, ranging from microclimate modification and flood control, to population migration, large-scale irrigation, and crop insurance programs. The conclusion drawn from this inventory is that response scenarios are not equally available to all actors as a result of differential resource endowments, institutional and infrastructural arrangements, etc. Glantz (1988)1 suggests that appropriate response measures lie primarily in a fundamental restructuring of economic and political policies that promote economic diversification and allow for long-term, planned response, rather than ad hoc individualized choices.

A final section examines, in brief, the converse side of climate hazard. It may also be interpreted as a positive force, to be leveraged as a resource. The redeeming attributes of climate as input, amenity, public good, and free access resource are summarized, although the objective of this discussion is not entirely clear.

The chapter concludes on a cautionary note, reminding us that global-scale phenomena as corollaries of analogy to climate change do not exist; currently existing analogues are invariably of a sub-optimal scale when documenting climate anomaly and human response. Despite such limitations, useful lessons can be drawn. Social science research on climate, while modest in focus, raises our attention to the most important concern of climate change – the human capacity to adapt and respond to future fluctuations and stresses brought on by warming of the earth’s atmosphere. The authors note:

‘If follows that predicting the occurrence and degree of a climate change, even quite accurately, is inadequate for deciding how important it is and what, if anything, should be done about it’ (p. 275).

The most important dimension of climate change is how societies will cope and adjust. This will require contextualized analysis, to complement the quantitative forecasting of general circulation models.


The strength of this chapter lies in the breadth of literature review as it relates to historical and contemporary analogues of climate anomaly and human response. The authors present a balanced assessment of both the utility and shortcomings associated with direct applications of past climate analogues to future undefined climate outcomes. The historical depth, elaboration of societal context, and comparative analysis of temporal and spatial frames underscores the importance of understanding the human dimensions of climate change as the nexus of multiple interactive forces, where socioeconomics and geophysics intersect.


Perhaps characteristic of the entire volume, the broad scope of analysis undertaken in this chapter is ambitious, at times handicapping the attention of the reader to digest so much contextual detail. Readers with a low threshold for historical and qualitative analysis will be hard pressed to move quickly through this section. The linkage of climate hazard and response to an emergent body of literature on environmental security and environmental refugees is -- perhaps due to scope, and the attention span of the reader -- omitted by the authors. Resource conflict, as an unanticipated response triggered by increasing climate variability, must not be overlooked as an instructive analogue of future resource constraint and contested outcomes.


Glantz, M.H. (ed)
1988 Societal Responses to Regional Climatic Change: Forecasting by Analogy. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.
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