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date: 06 May 2021

The Advent of Climate Sciencelocked

  • Deborah R. CoenDeborah R. CoenYale University, Department of History


The advent of climate science can be defined as the historical emergence of a research program to study climate according to a modern definition of climate. Climate in this sense: (1) refers not simply to the average state of the atmosphere but also to its variability; (2) is multiscalar, concerned with phenomena ranging from the very small and fast to the very large and slow; and (3) is understood to be influenced by the oceans, lithosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere. Most accounts of the history of climate science to date have focused on the development of computerized general circulation models since World War Two. However, following this definition, the advent of climate science occurred well before the computer age. This entry therefore seeks to dispel the image of climate science as a recent invention and as the preserve of an exclusive, North American elite. The historical roots of today’s knowledge of climate change stretch surprisingly far back into the past and clear across the world, though the geographic focus here is on Europe and North America. The modern science of climate emerged out of interactions between learned and vernacular knowledge traditions, and has simultaneously appropriated and undermined traditional and indigenous forms of climate knowledge. Important precedents emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was in the late 19th century that a modern science of climate coalesced into a coordinated research program in part through the unification of divergent knowledge traditions around standardized techniques of measurement and analysis.

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