Sins or Nature? Seventeenth and Twenty-First Century Responses to Climate Change

by Nicholas Cunigan.
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1608, Rijksmuseum

The past year has borne witness to deadly hurricanes, unseasonable temperatures, record flooding, and uncontrollable wildfires. The natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on Houston, Puerto Rico, and millions of acres in the West have left thousands of those directly affected homeless, destitute, and heartbroken. Many more are left looking for explanations.

As a climate historian whose work focuses on the seventeenth century, I can’t resist comparing today’s unfolding climate crisis with the Little Ice Age, a period of unusual climate that lasted roughly from 1350 to 1800. The seventeenth century was a particularly turbulent time during the Little Ice Age. In Europe, average temperatures dropped .5º to 1.5º Celsius. As a result, crops never ripened, people starved, disease raged, and wars erupted. According to historian Geoffrey Parker, the mid-seventeenth century saw more wars than in any era until the 1940s.

Those affected by the seventeenth century’s extreme weather and climate variability, just like those affected today, sought out explanations. Europe’s Christians looked to the heavens and judged extreme weather to be God’s punishment for sin. “The principal cause of the calamities that afflict this kingdom are the public sins and injustices committed,” explained one of Philip IV of Spain’s leading advisors. A Jesuit in the Philippines exclaimed, “Divine Providence wishes to show us something, perhaps to warn us of some approaching catastrophe, which our sins so deserve…because God is angry.” (Parker 2013, 8)

These explanations bear striking resemblance to comments made in the wake of this past year’s natural disasters. InsideClimate News reported that Kathy Glover, a resident of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, also pointed to the heavens to explain the heavy rains and flooding that killed 23 people in West Virginia. “I’m a firm believer that God tells us in the Bible that he will warn us through signs in the sky.” Jake Dowdy, one of Kathy’s neighbors, echoed her sentiments: “I don’t know if these are signs of the ending coming or if this is climate change. I’m as puzzled as everybody is.”

Today, climate scientists using tree rings, ice core samples, and pollen records argue that the leading cause of the seventeenth century’s extreme weather was natural. The century experienced unusually high numbers of volcanic eruptions whose ash clouds entered the atmosphere and created a veil that diminished the sun’s heat-providing rays. Contemporaries described the clouded skies and painters including Hendrick Avercamp depicted the frozen European landscape in some of the period’s most well-known works of art.

In contrast, today’s climate crisis is anthropogenic in origin. Carbon dioxide levels have steadily risen since the Industrial Revolution from 270ppm to over 400ppm. This rise has resulted in a warming trend that has only accelerated in recent years. Sixteen of the seventeen warmest years on record have occurred since 2000. This warming has been linked to an increased likelihood and severity of extreme weather.

Climate historians like myself are interested in a variety of questions including what caused periods of extreme weather and how people understood climate, but we are most interested in whether and how humans responded to these events. Historically, peoples and institutions have responded in ways both destructive and constructive. Spain instituted an oppressive tax during the early seventeenth century that led to more starvation and more death. Those in the Dutch Republic, however, went to work building and repairing dykes and canals to guard themselves against the deadly effects of extreme weather.

The Little Ice Age, as a natural phenomenon that cannot be ascribed to the actions of human beings, falls into what theologians refer to as “natural evil.” Today’s climate crisis, in contrast, is directly linked to human activities and might better be understood as a “moral evil.” The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report puts it bluntly: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” We are living in a crisis of our own making and in the consequences of our sin against the creation.

Anthropogenic climate change that leads to destitution, displacement, and death is surely a manifestation of the fall. But as such, it also beckons a Reformed response – one rooted in the firm belief that Christians are not only capable but tasked with pulling back the effects of the fall. Doing so requires a firm biblical as well as scientific grounding.


Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (Yale University Press, 2013)

Nicholas Cunigan is an adjunct professor of history at Calvin College, and a Calvin history alum (’07). He recently completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. His research interests lie at the intersection of environmental, indigenous peoples, and Atlantic World history. His dissertation investigates the impact of 17th-century climate change on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Dutch West India Company.

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