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WIREs Clim Change
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Climate and society in long‐term perspective: Opportunities and pitfalls in the use of historical datasets

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Recent advances in paleoclimatology and the growing digital availability of large historical datasets on human activity have created new opportunities to investigate long‐term interactions between climate and society. However, noncritical use of historical datasets can create pitfalls, resulting in misleading findings that may become entrenched as accepted knowledge. We demonstrate pitfalls in the content, use and interpretation of historical datasets in research into climate and society interaction through a systematic review of recent studies on the link between climate and (a) conflict incidence, (b) plague outbreaks and (c) agricultural productivity changes. We propose three sets of interventions to overcome these pitfalls, which involve a more critical and multidisciplinary collection and construction of historical datasets, increased specificity and transparency about uncertainty or biases, and replacing inductive with deductive approaches to causality. This will improve the validity and robustness of interpretations on the long‐term relationship between climate and society. This article is categorized under: Climate, History, Society, Culture > Disciplinary Perspectives
Illustration of geographical gaps in digitized Biraben plague dataset. Part (a) shows localities in Europe and North Africa reporting plague outbreaks in the period 1347–1760 according to the digitized version of the Biraben dataset (image courtesy of Yue & Lee, ; based on digitization by Büntgen et al., ). The gaps in spatial coverage are immediately visible when taking into account data for the Low Countries, indicated in the inset. When contrasted with an appendix of locations reporting plague outbreaks in the Low Countries just for the period 1349–1500 (part b) (Roosen & Curtis, ), the extent of the spatial gap for this region becomes apparent—and this appendix is far from exhaustive
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Comparison of two recent conceptual frameworks. Panel (a) shows the conceptual model of climate change and macro‐economic cycles in pre‐industrial Europe as used in Pei et al. (). The arrows indicate that “change in x is associated with change in y.” This framework focuses on unilinear and direct effects and does not consider the complex social and institutional contexts of societies affected by climate change. A more nuanced overview of climatic (and other) factors influencing historical collapse can be found in Butzer () (panel b). The text in bold is elaborated by the subscripts below each box. This conceptual model considers a range of variables and processes of stress and interaction and also reflects on a multitude of possible outcomes
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