While it may or may not remain true that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor dark of night can slow the couriers of the U.S. Postal Service (a notion first expressed about couriers in almost the same words by Herodotus in the 5th century BC), such conditions and other weather events have been known to bring military actions to a shuddering, slithering halt.
People—in the military and out—have likely been talking about the weather since well before Herodotus. And yet the most obvious facts of daily existence sometimes elude otherwise perspicacious people, including military strategists. Examples of military operations that have gone awry because of weather predictably changing for the worse are too well known to require repeating here. But surely, one might think, the best military minds would have noticed over the centuries that the onset of winter brings cold days and colder nights (and soldiers wanting to dress accordingly), that rainy seasons mean everything and everyone is going to get wet (and muddy), and that merciless summer sun raises the chance of heatstroke and debilitating thirst for man and beast.
In short, when it comes to weather and military operations, there is nothing new under the sun. Or is there? The extent to which climate change can disrupt both peace and war—and can trigger armed conflicts around the globe—was recently described in detail by historian Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. His success in connecting the dots between the weather changes in the middle of that century and the ensuing widespread upheavals—“revolutions, droughts, famines, invasions, wars, regicides”—should be a wake-up call for us. Parker’s timing is spot-on: The year 2013, when his book was published, was one of the 10 hottest on record. Then, in early 2014 major scientific documents published by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change support the conclusion that our world is warming significantly, chiefly as a result of our own civilized activities. Parker’s historical data suggest that climate change, with its concomitant weather extremes, can lead to years of social upheaval. What is new this time is that such changes are largely of our making.
After millennia of just talking about the weather, we may have finally done something about it.
—Michael W. Robbins
More about climate change and warfare in history:
Interview with Geoffrey Parker, author of Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century
Interview (optional full audio podcast) with Sam White, author of The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire
“Climate Change and the Rise of an Empire.” Historian Nicola Di Cosmo discusses how climatic changes may have urged Mongol expansion under Chinggis Khan