HOEY — Responding in faith to climate change: The 17th-century Dutch example


Every era faces challenges adapting to the vagaries of weather and climate change.

Today, the challenge is global warming, but in the 17th century, the challenge was a global cool-down, a period known as the Little Ice Age, which was punctuated by stormy seas, plummeting temperatures and shorter growing seasons.

But, braced in their faith in God’s providence, some people in Northern Europe found ways to respond to the new climatic conditions.

The God-fearing people of the newly minted Dutch Republic rose to the occasion, strengthening coastal defenses, building seaworthy ships and developing a robust network of trade to feed its citizens.

They managed this feat despite wars with Spain and later England and occasional bloody eruptions of religious strife that undermined the civil peace.

Historian Dagomar Degroot tells this story in The Frigid Golden Age, a period he defines as running from 1560 to 17200.

Unlike today’s global warming, in which the burning of fossil fuels has led to a greenhouse effect overlaying natural climatic changes, the Little Ice Age involved natural phenomena including cycles of sun spot activity, a complex interplay of oceanic and atmospheric circulations, such as the Artic Oscillation, and massive earthquakes that reduced sunlight, leading to cooler temperatures.

Degroot uses the logbooks of sailing ships to determine that in colder periods of the Little Ice Age, winds blowing across land from east to west, sometimes coming out of Siberia, prevailed over the warmer ocean-produced westerlies.

The colder weather fluctuated with periods of warming, but overall a colder world prevailed, presenting daunting challenges to a pre-industrialized people, especially in Northern Europe.

Degroot states that “in Europe, changes in prevailing weather contributed to ruined harvests, food shortages, commodity price increases, human and animal epidemics, social unrest, and ultimately outbreaks of violence that destabilized one society after another.”

Yet, the Dutch were uniquely positioned to face climate change challenges. Even before the onset of the Little Ice Age, they had radically altered their landscape, digging up peat and draining bogs to add more farmland.

The land sank in consequence, and then the Dutch began construction of an elaborate system of dikes and drainage canals designed to protect their Lowlands.

During the Little Ice Age, the Dutch strengthened these coastal defenses, improved the seaworthiness of their sailing ships so they could travel through ice-clogged seas and expanded trade along the Baltic coast in order to purchase grain from the breadbasket of central Europe.

Domestically, the Dutch established a “turn-ferry” network to take advantage of their watery world, so smaller sailing ships could connect cities such as Amsterdam to the interior of the country.

When the streams and rivers iced over in winter, the Dutch continued to move merchandise and people using sled boats.

It is one of the ironies of history that a people steeped in the Reform Church of the Protestant Reformation, a tradition that insists that faith not works is the key to salvation, should busy themselves so intensely in assuring their temporal salvation in the Dutch Lowlands.

Degroot does not focus too much on the religious beliefs of the Dutch, but it is surely true that the courage and resiliency of these early modern Europeans owed much to their steadfast faith in God.

Will people of faith today respond like the Dutch of early modern Europe, combining trust in God’s providence with vigorous and practical steps to address the challenges of climate change?

The answer will write the history of the 21st century.

Mr. Hoey, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City, is a lifelong examiner of history and public policy.