The Little Ice Age energy transition

Nya Fest Session 2: Sustainability and energy transitions in economic and business history organized by Mattias Näsman and Josef Taalbi


John brolin


Climate warming and other consequences of fossil fuel emissions has recently elevated the industrial revolution to the status of a geological event or epoch as the anthropocene. Looking for causes rather than consequences, this article proposes to see the fossil energy transition as a homeostatic response to climate cooling. Historical interest in the energy transition is commonly derivative from attempts to interpret the industrial revolution, but the fact remains that the English energy transition to coal was driven by domestic heating. Leading interpretations see it as arising from a population-resource crisis or from rapid commercialisation starting in the late 16th century that led to the introduction of chimneys (the characteristic feature proposed for the coal-burning house). However, chimneys had been a feature of urban life for centuries, and since population pressure and urbanisation were as great around 1300 as in 1550–1600, some additional factor must be at work. Estimating and comparing the heating degree days and growing degree days between these dates, based on historical temperature measurements and recent climate reconstructions for the British Isles, I propose that this factor was climate cooling. Climate affected both the demand and supply blades of the degree-day scissors. The estimated rise in heating degree days is comparable to replacing one month of summer (with no heating) with one month of winter (with maximal heating), while the decline in growing degree days similarly shortened the growing season for London’s supply area, weather only of fuel (Allen) or energy in general including food and feed (Malanima). Thus, while the immediate causes prompting the transition in the late 16th century may have been a general or, more likely, local population-resource crisis and/or rapid commercialisation, the long-term temperature decline between 1300 and 1600 meant that more domestic heating was needed to maintain thermal comfort at the later date, indeed, occasioning the very ‘invention of comfort’ (Crowley) itself. Over the even longer run, the combination of settled agriculture and waning interglacial temperatures made this invention almost inevitable at some time and place – historically it happened with the fossil energy transition in early modern England.


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