“Keep calm”? A critique of Wolfgang Behringer’s “A Cultural History of Climate”

Abstract

The field of climate historiography is still young, and more internal criticism is needed. In the German-speaking world, the bestseller in this field is Wolfgang Behringer’s A Cultural History of Climate, which has also been translated into various other languages, including English. This book runs the climate change denier business. In doing so, it violates the standards of historical science. The paper demonstrates this problem by means of Behringer’s highly problematic handling of sources and literature, both in the field of history and in the natural sciences. Further, fundamental premises of the author—such as the parallelization of climate science with the witch-hunters of the early modern period or the assumption that global warming has historically always been favorable—are analyzed in the sense of a critique of ideology. Behringer’s political concern of delegitimizing climate science is wrapped up in a par force ride through earth and human history, for which the book has been widely acclaimed. But ideology comes to the surface on many pages. Thus, he criticizes the use of metaphors within climate science without understanding the inevitability of metaphorical language use within the sciences. Dealing with the natural sciences, he uses obsolete insights, confuses logical categories, contradicts himself, and violates the literature used—all these only if it is in favor of his objective. And this does not change when it comes to his own field of expertise, historical science. The essay contextualizes the criticized work within the oeuvre of the renowned author, and it presents the remarkable reception history of the book. Behringer’s call to inaction appears to be very influential indeed, at least in German language discourses of education and of journalism. In a time in which fast, decisive action is the highest duty of the international community, and of every national government, this makes his book a dangerous phenomenon.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Information on the total number of printed copies cannot be obtained from publishers. The licensed edition of bpb had a circulation of 2000 copies.

  2. 2.

    I have primarily used the 5th paperback edition (Behringer 2016a), which I checked with the 5th hardcover edition (Behringer 2010a). All the checked text passages are identical. In this essay, I quote from the English hardcover edition (Behringer 2010b), where also all the problems of the original version reoccur. The information on the translations comes from Behringer’s institute homepage.

  3. 3.

    The Duden (the primary dictionary of the German language) gives the following definition under the lemma “Sünde” (“sin”) among others: “[...] act of unreason, which cannot be answered for; misconduct against existing [moral] norms”.

  4. 4.

    I refer to as “climate deniers” those participants in the discourse who deny either the fact of a current unique global warming or the fact of the prominence of anthropogenic causation of this trend. To forestall an accusation popular in these circles, of course, I do not assume that these people deny the existence of climate at all.

  5. 5.

    Cf. the illustrations in Behringer (2010b, p. 2). The caption there shows a further trick by Behringer: fighting self-built scarecrows. “The fable of climate balance was already disproved in the first IPCC report, in 2018,” he writes. But nobody had believed in such a fable for over a hundred years in 1990, if—as Behringer insinuates—“balance” is to be identified with uniformity.

  6. 6.

    In the German version of the book, Behringer uses the value-laden concept of “Hochkultur” (Behringer 2016a, pp. 70–74, 110).

  7. 7.

    Book of Jonah, chapter three.

  8. 8.

    Incidentally, such an assertion of present incompetence based on earlier errors would also be bizarre: hardly anyone today would refuse the surgeon’s scalpel, because Western medicine 150 years ago still sent more patients to their graves than saved them from it. Climate science, as far as I can see, is the only scientific discipline that Behringer excludes from his evolutionist narrative of progress.

  9. 9.

    This seems to be the one and only case where a mistake in the German version of the book has been corrected in the English translation. Behringer had introduced Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as “Präsidentenenkel” (“president’s grandson”) while the translation correctly calls him the “nephew of the famous president JFK”. Cf. Behringer 2016a, p. 275.

  10. 10.

    Ludwig (2006, p. 160), who refers to the same article by Kennedy, could easily understand his reference to the wrath of God as an “ironic allusion.”

  11. 11.

    The debate on the extent of anthropogenic climate change and its impacts cannot be reproduced in detail in this paper. I refer here to the ongoing publications of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

  12. 12.

    Gospel of Matthew, 7, 3 (King James Bible 1769).

  13. 13.

    The preface of the 5th hardcover edition (Behringer 2010a) claims that the 2nd and 4th editions have been “reviewed” and the 5th edition has been “updated.” All of the statements quoted here remain unchanged in this allegedly updated edition; only the preface (p. 7f) has been exchanged. Behringer here puts another log in the fire and refers to the “Climategate” conspiracy theory, which was based on the theft, publication, and misinterpretation of documents from the Climate Research Center of the University of East Anglia.

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Haude, R. “Keep calm”? A critique of Wolfgang Behringer’s “A Cultural History of Climate”. J Environ Stud Sci 9, 397–408 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-019-00566-9

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Keywords

  • Climate history
  • Climate deniers
  • Little Ice Age
  • Political education
  • Witch-hunt