How did humans get to the brink of crashing climate? A long push for progress and energy to fuel it

. (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Amidst record-high temperatures, deluges, droughts and wildfires, leaders are convening for another round of United Nations climate talks later this month that seek to curb the centuries-long trend of humans spewing ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

For hundreds of years, people have shaped the world around them for their benefit: They drained lakes to protect infrastructure, wealth and people. They dug up billions of tons of coal, and then oil and gas, to fuel empires and economies. The allure of exploiting nature and burning fossil fuels as a path to prosperity hopped from nation to nation, each eager to secure their own energy.


People who claimed the power to control nature and the energy resources around them saw the environment as a tool to be used for progress, historians say. Over hundreds of years, that impulse has remade the planet’s climate, too — and brought its inhabitants to the brink of catastrophe.

Controlling the environment

Mexico City traces its roots to a settlement centuries ago on islands in the midst of Lake Texcoco. These days, most of the lake is gone, drained long ago to make room for the building and growth that today has more than 22 million people sprawling toward the edges of the Valley of Mexico.

Getting water in the arid valley — a need that has spiked as droughts have worsened — relies on pumping from deep underground. The toll of centuries of such pumping can be seen in curbs that crumble and structures that tilt atop the resulting subsidence, with some areas sinking around 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) a year. At the same time, neighborhoods are at increased risk of severe flooding because of climate change-fueled extreme rain events and drainage systems that are less effective because of the subsidence.

Mexico City is just one example of people and empires altering their natural environments in ways they believe will benefit themselves and the land. Elsewhere, huge swathes of land have been deforested for agriculture or livestock grazing, or degraded and contaminated by quarrying and mining for metals and minerals. Tapping nature for its resources drove progress and productivity for some, but it’s also been a major driver of emissions and environmental degradation.

Jan Golinski, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, said Europeans of the time thought that their changes — cutting down forests, draining swamps, plowing land — would change the climate as well, to something closer to their homelands. He said they saw this engineering as positive.

It’s a belief that several historians say is rooted in feelings of racial and cultural superiority.

“We hear echoes of these tropes” in the present day, said Deborah Coen, a historian of science at Yale. Being more vulnerable to climate extremes is associated with populations of color, and at the same time, “we find white elites pursuing projects of climate adaptation that protect themselves at the expense of communities of color,” she said. For example, residents in areas that were deemed safer from extreme weather following wildfires in Maui this summer are now getting priced out of their own neighborhoods.

The early modern period’s ideas on race have “long tentacles into the present,” said Zilberstein, and also solidified notions of environmental control, productivity and growth as positive, making it harder to tackle the current climate crisis.

The fossil fuel economy

While Mexico City was built over water, Britain was sitting on vast expanses of coal that would eventually help form the blanket of carbon dioxide emissions that now clogs the atmosphere.

Coal had long been used in homes on the island for heating and cooking. It wasn’t the only source of energy but the balance tipped dramatically in its favor through the late 18th and early 19th centuries through technological inventions like steam power, new transportation routes like canals and later railroads.

When the steam economy arrived — engines fueled by coal to heat water and make steam power — it made it easier for factory owners to control labor and nature than an economy based on water power, for example, said Andreas Malm, an associate professor of human ecology at Lund University in Sweden.

“Steam engines were mobile in space, so you could erect them anywhere, and the great benefit of this was that you could concentrate steam factories in towns where there was access to cheap and disciplined labor power,” said Malm. Steam power was also less vulnerable to the droughts, floods and storms that could affect water power: “You could just turn it on at any point in the day, regardless of the weather outside.”

It made coal the central energy-maker for British manufacturing and transport.

By the mid-19th century, steam power was adopted in manufacturing, cotton mills, steam ships and locomotives around the world, turning coal into a global trade.

Centuries later, the United Kingdom has nearly weaned itself off coal, with weeks or months at a stretch where the national grid gets no coal power. The U.K. plans to stop using coal for the production of electricity by the end of next year, although it’s still used in heavy industry like steel-making, with a new coal mine approved in Cumbria as late as 2022.

A global problem

Previous centuries created the right conditions for human-caused climate change, but the last few generations made it a reality. In 1960, humans put about 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air; in 2021, they produced more than four times that amount, according to the Global Carbon Project.

Energy use skyrocketed as cars, air travel and technology became more affordable in many North American and European countries. Other nations such as China, Japan and India were assembling their own energy regimes based on fossil fuels. And this all happened amid growing understanding and concern about heat-trapping gases.

Oil use grew in the late 19th century because it wasn’t as labor-intensive as coal, an industry whose workers now had strong unions in some Western nations, historians say.

Meanwhile, coal kept its place in the global economy.

In China and Japan, growing consumption was a barometer of economic development by the early 20th century, said Harvard historian of science Victor Seow.

After the Communist Revolution in 1949, the Chinese government measured growth by its production of items like cloth, electricity, wheat, iron, steel — and coal, too, which was key measure of growth. Japan studied Western mining to develop its own coal fields in both its home islands and empire.

China is the world’s current largest greenhouse gas emitter, although the United States still trumps it historically.

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