Book Club

The Chair read for you Les révoltes du ciel by Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher

Published on 23 November 2020

Getting human responsibility for climate change into the public debate has been long and difficult. This slowness could have been explained by the exceptional nature of climate change in the history of societies, both by its magnitude and its suddenness.

On the contrary, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher show that climate has long been an integral part of political debates since the 15th century. In Les révoltes du ciel[1] the two historians discuss the relationship to climate change in Western societies between the 15th and 20th centuries. Through about fifteen relatively independent chapters, the authors expose the key episodes in the scientific, economic and political history of the perception of climate.

In the centuries preceding the industrial revolution, economies were mainly agrarian. Societies were therefore at the mercy of climatic hazards. This context created real anxiety about the future of the climate and the possible human influence in this evolution. This anxiety spread in scientific and political circles and gave rise to intense debate.

Although the mechanisms of climate change, particularly the greenhouse effect, have only been known for a hundred years, geologists, physicists, biologists, botanists and philosophers have studied and thought about climate. In particular, the question of a human impact on climate stability has been one of the most notable topics. It was a question of how land uses, primarily deforestation, could improve the climate or not.

Sometimes hoped for, sometimes feared, climate change and its anthropogenic origin have been intertwined in many political debates over the centuries. We find it in debates on the justification of the colonization of the Americas, on political transitions in France since the revolution, and even on the role of the State in the management of national heritage.

Forests occupy a special place in these debates. Scientific discourse recognized very early on, via the water cycle, the link between their management and the climate. On the one hand, wood is one of the most crucial materials because it is both fuel and building material. On the other hand, land clearing develops agriculture. In France, forest management is then a political battleground between owners and users, liberals and conservatives.

The industrial revolution was to change the essence of these debates. For example, the development of the road led to international trade integration and reduced the risks for the population. Economic development will then extinguish anxieties about the climate. So much so that for Fressoz and Locher, the current climate awareness marks the end of amnesia rather than a discovery of the links between nature and culture. 

Quentin Hoarau, Research Fellow « Environmental policies in the automobile sector ».

[1] Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher, « Les révoltes du ciel », Seuil, 2020.