Climate Change Deep History Is Valued–Not So History of Later Times

“History Repeats” is the title of the recent online U.Maine News story about the fascinating and highly important studies being conducted by UMaine’s Climate Change Institute. Under the direction of world-famous Professor Paul  Mayewski, a team of researchers has been analyzing ice cores from Greenland that are nearly 11,700 years old. They have concluded that today’s climate situation in the Arctic is similar to, but more than localized than, the warming during the Younger Dryas (near glacial)/Holocene (relatively warm period) shift nearly 12,000 years ago. The team uses laser technology to examine ice cores which. according to Mayewski, are “timelines of past climates.”

One need hardly be an expert in climate change to appreciate the extreme significance of the research over the years that has made the Climate Change Institute one of the gems of the University of Maine. No wonder that Mayewski has been featured on  such popular television and radio programs for educated audiences as “60 Minutes,” “NOVA,” “Fresh Air,” and “The Diane Rehm Show.”

No less appealing is the team’s contributions to the formulation of “realistic climate prediction, adaptation, and sustainability.” These serious, systematic studies are as far from shallow prophets using crystal balls as America’s Founding Fathers and Mothers are from influential Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe, who has long dismissed climate change as comic–book fantasy.

One might naively believe that, if the “deep” history illuminated by the Climate Change Institute is so widely appreciated outside of Senator Imhofe’s office, it might seem logical that the history of later periods might also be appreciated. Alas, what is meant by “History Repeats” does not apply to the continuation of history courses at the University of Maine these days. There is no institutional appreciation for the perspectives provided by the teaching of the history of any period since Greco-Roman times. The motto of the National Archives–“The Past is Prologue”–does not matter when decisions are made about replacing retiring or deceased full-time faculty, much less covering such fields at Latin American or African history and the Civil War era.  The only hope in most cases is the availability of adjuncts, and funding even for them–with their modest pay and absence of benefits–is not assured and must be sought on a case by case, semester by semester basis.

Obviously the intrinsic value to governments, to businesses, to policy makers, and to the interested general public of our Climate Change Institute’s brand of history cannot be duplicated by professional historians. But the two kinds of history are not completely separate from each other, and in a future academic “climate” the latter might be given a bit of the deserved respect accorded the former.  For now, though,   the gap between these two historical enterprises–11,700 years ago versus Ancient Greece and Rome up till the present–will likely remain cosmic.