Is the decline of the Roman empire partially attributable to climate change? A new study published in the journal Science suggests it might be, and the researchers behind the study are quick to hint that their findings could prove a fitting cautionary tale for today’s empire-equivalents.
Scientists affiliated with various institutions throughout Europe and America used tree rings to catalog the climate’s history — trees grow more during fertile years, causing thick rings. But during dry years, the trees’ rings grow more closely together. The team compiled wood samples from sites throughout Europe — including ancient Roman ruins — and found that the Romans’ decline was correlated with a period of unusually thin rings.
“Wet and warm summers occurred during periods of Roman and medieval prosperity. Increased climate variability from 250 to 600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,” the team wrote.
“Distinct drying in the 3rd Century paralleled a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic dislocation in several provinces of Gaul.”
Many Internet news sites across the political spectrum have interpreted the study in different ways, either reporting that the study claims that climate change was solely responsible for the decline of the Roman empire or inverting the conclusions to imply that the (very) pre-industrial Roman empire somehow caused a period of climate change.
The conclusions drawn by researchers point to the theory that climate variability, with other factors, brought about a period of agricultural instability that affected both the Romans and militant migrant populations to the northeast — the “barbarians.” These migrants then fought their way south, toward the warmer Mediterranean weather — and toward an already weakened Rome.
Climate shifts that affected farm output were factors in “amplifying political, social and economic crises,” Ulf Buentgen, the report’s lead author, told Reuters.
Historically sound conclusions aside, the researchers did have a political agenda which they laid out upfront: “Historical circumstances may challenge recent political and fiscal reluctance to mitigate projected climate change,” they wrote in the article’s abstract.
Though less vulnerable, modern societies “are certainly not immune” to climate change, especially because migration “will not be an option in an increasingly crowded world.”
In other words: if natural climate change brought about the downfall of one of history’s most powerful empires, imagine where a few centuries of manmade climate change might lead us.