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Conference Notes & Letters

Call for Papers: Climate, Food & Famine in History

By Robert Naylor and Eleanor Shaw

Open to a range of time periods and disciplinary backgrounds, this workshop is concerned with the history of climate-orientated narratives in relation to food and famine. At a time of rebounding climate discourse, the use of climate-orientated narratives as explanatory devices for food shortages and famine has come under increased scrutiny. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attracted criticism in 2007 when he attributed the Dafur conflict to climate change-induced food insecurity. More recently, in 2015, Barack Obama controversially used the Syrian civil war as an example to frame climate change as a security problem: ‘It’s now believed that drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in the heart of the Middle East. So, increasingly, our military and our combatant commands, our services […] will need to factor climate change into plans and operations.’ In 2021 the World Food Programme website claimed that families ‘are stuck in a cycle of conflict, climate shocks and rising levels of hunger’ in relation to the ongoing famine in South Sudan. This workshop aims to bring academics together to provide historical context for such claims.

Relevant work includes Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts, which argues, for example, that research into hypothetical sunspot-driven climatic changes was utilised to help excuse British authorities who oversaw the Great Famine in India. Philip Slavin (2019) has presented a complex picture of the British famine of 1314-17, where agriculturalists had to face unrelenting taxes and forced food sales alongside an inclement climate. Critiques of climate attribution theses have a long history, with meteorologist Rolando Garcia’s 1981 work Nature Pleads Not Guilty disputing the climate attribution thesis of food insecurity in the 1970s. More recent work by Jan Selby, Omar Dahi, Christiane Fröhlich, and Mike Hulme has interrogated the climate attribution thesis of the Syrian conflict, arguing that policymakers should exercise greater caution when drawing such links. Even more recently, Myanna Lahsen and Jesse Ribot (2022) argued that ‘climate-centric disaster framing can erase from view—and, thus, from policy agendas—the very socio-economic and political factors that most centrally cause vulnerability and suffering in weather extremes and disasters.’

Such discussions are rich, but often suffer from being siloed in isolated academic subjects and institutions. This workshop aims to bring together scholars across disciplines to critically examine powerful and controversial climate-based narratives around food insecurity that have long permeated public discourse.

This is an intimate 1-day event that seeks to assemble individuals with various research backgrounds (e.g. environmental history, HSTM, social sciences, atmospheric science) in an effort to generate critical transdisciplinary engagement around the intersection between climate, food, and famine in history.


April 14, 2023, 9:00-16:00 BST

Room 2.57 Simon Building, University of Manchester, UK

Deadline for abstracts (300 words): December 15, 2022



Registration information for non-presenting participants will be circulated at a later date.

Format: 20-minute presentation followed by 10-minutes of discussion at the end of each panel. 50-minute roundtable to finish proceedings.

Please send your submissions and any queries to Robert Naylor and Eleanor Shaw (conference organisers): climate.food.famine@gmail.com

A limited number of travel bursaries are available (with priority for early career researchers). Please email the above address for details. In the first instance this is an in-person event. However, if you wish to contribute but cannot travel please email the above address.

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Notes & Letters Seminar

14.7: Inquiry into Earth Atmospheres

By Emery Jenson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

We’re excited to announce the launch of “14.7: Inquiry into Earth Atmospheres,” a new Borghesi-Mellon Public Humanities Workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Our workshop provides a forum for scientists, social scientists, and humanists to develop new methods, terms, and analytical frames for inquiry into Earth’s atmosphere(s).

As a collective, we hope to deepen our investigation of Earth atmospheres to shed light on problems that no one of our disciplines can engage alone. We will investigate the practices by which corporate energy giants like Enron use climate data to commodify atmosphere and weather patterns. We will bring together insights of postcolonial and area studies with those of meteorology. We will engage meteorological research showing that basic atmospheric mechanisms like heating and cooling occur via different dynamics in the tropics and the poles. We will explore multiple intersecting planetary atmospheres that challenge what Kristen Simmons has called “settler atmospherics,” a monologic account of atmosphere manifest as monoculturalism. We hope you will join us.

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Notes & Letters

The 5th Meteorological Science & Technology History Conference in China

By Zhenghong Chen, ICHM Vice-President and China Regional Representative

From December 7 to 8, 2021, the China Meteorological Administration Training Centre held the 5th National Conference on the History of Meteorological Science and Technology, by onsite and online methods in Beijing. Dr. Alexander Hall, President of ICHM in 2021, wrote to the China Representative to support the conference and extend his best wishes.

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Notes & Letters

The weather enterprise – a concept in need of historical analysis

By Robert Naylor, Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester

In the summer of 2019, when the idea of doing a PhD during a global pandemic was furthest from my mind, I had the pleasure of attending the Meteorological Technology World Expo in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a dynamic, somewhat chaotic event that reflected a rapidly growing market for weather products. There were companies that manufactured weather balloons, rain gauges, anemometers, aluminium masts, instrument shelters, radars, lidars, and all other kinds of gadgets. Other companies sold services, offering solutions in, for example, instrument installation, environmental measuring, data management, and calibration. Some simply sold information, often drawing from their existing monitoring networks; ‘only well-informed decision makers can face these challenges [climate change, environmental protection, conscious management of natural resources] and form adequate strategies to overcome them’ claimed one advertisement.[i] With around 150 companies attending in its eighth year, the expo was a showcase of a relatively young industry that was on the up.

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Notes & Letters

Introducing ‘Notes & Letters’

One of the first things Fiona and I wanted do as new Co-Presidents was to develop a channel of communication between members that was less fleeting than an email announcement, but not as formal as a journal article.

Through conversations with past Presidents we learned that when History of Meteorology was first launched, there was an intention that it would carry not just fully-fledged research articles, but also shorter pieces from members documenting things like new archival finds, conference reports, and short responses to recently published articles.