Climate & Colonialism: new paper in ‘WIREs Climate Change’

A postcard depicting the Royal Alfred Observatory, Mauritius, c. 1920. Source: Pinterest

Georgina Endfield and I have just published a review paper in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change on the topic of ‘climate & colonialism’. The paper seeks to take in a large volume of recent(and not-so-recent) research in two broad areas: the links between ideas about climate (such as tropical degeneracy) and ideologies of imperialism; and more recent work on how the practicalities of dealing with strange, troubling and unpredictable climates were woven into the everyday lives of colonial life and rule.


Writing this article was a nice opportunity to take stock of existing work on topics which seem to be increasingly popular among historians, historical geographers and others. Our recent themed issue of History of Meteorology was a response to this upsurge in interest in histories of climate, science and empire as well, but this paper offered the opportunity to review in a bit more depth this expanding body of work. Overall, we make the case that while the links between ideologies of climatic difference and ideologies of imperialism are well-known and (reasonably) well-studied, new work is pointing to the ways in which some of these ideas shaped the practices of dealing with colonial climates in day-to-day life (whether that be the lives of farmers, settlers, the colonised, government administrators or appointed meteorologists). It focuses to a large extent on Anglophone histories, partly due to our own linguistic capacities, but partly also because that’s where the field has been focused so far. This is starting to change though (see here for example, where I’ve tried to gathered together references on the history of met. and climatology from different national contexts), and we tried to cast as wide a net as possible. Hopefully it will prove a useful summary of an expanding field, for both aficionados and newcomers, and perhaps will spur yet more work in this fascinating area.


Recent years have seen a growth in scholarship on the intertwined histories of climate, science, and European imperialism. Scholarship has focused both on how the material realities of climate shaped colonial enterprises, and on how ideas about climate informed imperial ideologies. Historians have shown how European expansion was justified by its protagonists with theories of racial superiority, which were often closely tied to ideas of climatic determinism. Meanwhile, the colonial spaces establi shed by European powers offered novel laboratories” where ideas about acclimatization and climatic improvement could be tested on the ground. While historical scholarship has focused on how powerful ideas of climate informed imperial projects, emerging scholarship in environmental history, history of science, and historical geography focuses instead on the material and cognitive practices by which the climates of colonial spaces were made known and dealt with in fields such as forestry, agriculture, and human health. These heretofore rather disparate areas of historical research carry great contemporary relevance for studies of how climates and their changes have been understood, debated, and adapted to in the past.



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