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The climate of history: from theories to actions

Theories about the origins of climate change have for a long time been part of international environmental debates. Since the 1970s governments, diplomats and activists have resorted to various explanations that link global warming to the colonial past, the history of capitalism and globalisation, or to a positivist narrative of technological progress since the 18th century. While the concept of the Anthropocene with its ambition to rethink the relationship between humanity and the planet is moving from geology into the political sphere, historical research rarely intervenes in these debates to provide expertise and democratise accompanying knowledge systems. However, if climate and earth sciences provide an analysis of the transformation of litho-, bio-, hydro- and atmospheres, history can explain how the human origins of this transformation took shape, and what factors caused them to emerge. As the source that feeds our collective understanding of the past (in its academic and popular narrative forms), history is also the foundation on which future political action can be built. Climate change is no exception to this, especially when it comes to determining responsibilities.

The aim of this panel is twofold: it wants to address the role of history in understanding global climate crisis, and discuss how historians’ role as academics change when they become activists and allies of environmental justice movements. Twelve years after D. Chakrabarty's famous essay «The Climate of History: Four Theses» (one of the most cited articles in the discipline), an assessment of the debates surrounding the historical theorization of climate change is necessary. How do historians position themselves in relation to suggestions from geology, climatology, archaeology or palaeontology? Can we complement these different contributions, or even provide new narratives to join human and geological history and to understand their convergence in the raging planetary ecological crises of the 21st century? Can we, as environmental historian Andreas Malm (2021) asks in his provocative new book «Learn to Fight in a World on Fire»? This panel discusses these questions by taking up recent arguments in the human and social sciences concerning anthropogenic climate change: about «fossil capital», the links between the history of colonisation and the advent of a new planetary ecological order, or the idea of an «early Anthropocene» triggered by Neolithic revolutions and increased methane emissions. By bringing together contributions from different continents, it seeks to analyse the anthropogenic origins of climate change in their plurality, notably by confronting Eurocentric narratives with new research on the historical links between humanity, technology and the environment in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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