Matthew Hannaford recently completed his PhD in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. His PhD project ‘The consequences of past climate change for state formation and security in southern Africa’, investigated the nature of and societal responses to climate variability in southeast Africa between 1500-1830.

From May to July 2015 he travelled to South Africa to begin on new research directions linking climate, history, society and policy. The visit was made possible as a result of a successful application for research enhancement funding awarded by SIID.

Climate, history, society and policy

As an interdisciplinary geographer with a historical slant, I am interested in how the past can inform current challenges around climate change. For palaeo- and historical climatologists, this is nothing new. The recovery of climate information from natural and manmade archives has long played a key role in shedding light on long-term variability in the climate system, and only last week the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project formalised its position as a core project within Future Earth – the newly operational international research platform for sustainability.

Making use of the historical record to inform policy challenges relating to climate change adaptation, however, runs into murkier waters. Societies have always adapted, yet be it because the societies of the past were vastly different from those of the present, the lack of precedence of today’s climate trends in recorded human history, or simply due to entrenched disciplinary or epistemological divisions, historical climate-society research that speaks to current concerns or policy remains a marginal endeavour for those working under the banner of environmental history or historical geography.

This space has instead been occupied by the IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth) community. IHOPE – also a core Future Earth project – seeks to guide sustainable and desirable futures by building integrated models of past societies (e.g. the Maya) and their interactions with environments over long timescales; the aim being to reveal the complex and non-linear processes that govern social-ecological system dynamics. Despite IHOPE’s forward-looking perspective, its positivist approach has led to criticisms that it ignores culture and downplays human agency, both of which are highly context-sensitive, while along with conventional historical climatology approaches it remains detached from the mainstream climate change adaptation literature emerging from development studies and related fields.

In the absence of a unifying framework that is able to connect climate research across the physical sciences, social sciences and the humanities, then, how can historical climate-society research engage more prominently with current climate change research and policy? And how, practically, does one go about this task? These are precisely the questions my research is beginning to address: both theoretically through a new collaboration with colleagues Dr George Adamson (King’s College London) and Dr Eleonora Rohland (Universität Bielefeld) who are working on similar themes, and empirically as a result of my SIID-funded visit to South Africa.

Our independent research across three continents has led us to similar conclusions as to how historical research around past adaptation decision-making and its consequences can – in some areas uniquely – inform contemporary debates. For example, where detailed institutional records of decision-making and community-level sources are available, historical adaptation research can uncover unintended consequences (or ‘catastrophic trajectories’) and path dependencies arising from past decisions, in particular those that unfolded over long timeframes and may not be evident by examining a current time slice alone. Moreover, it can allow for deeper understanding the role of values, worldviews and cultural practices in adaptation in different contexts, as well as how past climate extremes feature in the cultural memory. As a prerequisite, however, robust climate records – preferably at seasonal resolution – are needed, which is problematic in many areas of the tropics and subtropics with relatively short and/or unreliable instrumental records.

With this in mind, my recent visit to South Africa aimed primarily to identify rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa with high potential for the application of this approach and, crucially, the sources (climatic, institutional and community-level) with which to address these questions.

South Africa visit

My stay in South Africa began at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein – the judicial capital of the nation – and specifically the Centre for Africa Studies, where I am a research fellow, and the International Studies Group. While in Bloemfontein I met with Professor Ian Phimister and colleagues, together with archivists at National Archives of Zimbabwe, to discuss areas and sources. We identified Matabeleland (Zimbabwe), the Zambezi valley (Zimbabwe/Zambia) and the former Transvaal province of South Africa as ideal case areas, not only due to their relatively long historical and oral records at both the institutional and community levels, but also because of the abundance of documentary sources with which to produce detailed long-duration records of climatic variability and change. These areas also have histories of social engineering, land alienation and large-scale population movements during the colonial era which had long-term effects on rural development, and thus reinforce the value of research with a deeper temporal dimension to current challenges.

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Bloemfontein, South Africa. Left: Downtown from Naval Hill; Right: ‘Long March to Freedom’ sculptures at Oliewenhuis Art Museum.
Key archival collections identified include the National Archives of South Africa in Pretoria and Cape Town, the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Harare and Bulawayo, the National Archives and British Library in the UK, and manuscript collections in special libraries at the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Cape Town, the University of Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Durham University. Within these archives there exists a vast range of documentary materials in the form of national and provincial governmental records (e.g. agricultural departments and rural administrative institutions), missionary records, newspapers, proceedings of local scientific associations, diaries and private papers of individuals with which to address my research questions.

Importantly, oral histories (eyewitness accounts) and traditions (accounts passed down through one or more generations) are also available to supplement community-level documentary information in these regions. Such sources play a vital part in historical research as they can reveal narratives of how climate extremes and policy responses were perceived locally and how these perceptions changed (or stayed the same) alongside shifts in societal organisation. They also provide an independent and often underused source against which to evaluate the reliability of sources of European or colonial origin.

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Left: Main building, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein; Right: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
I spent the majority of the rest of my visit in Johannesburg, where amongst other appointments I met with Professor Stefan Grab and Professor Coleen Vogel at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Dr Clare Kelso at the University of Johannesburg. Two major themes of our discussions were documentary sources of climate information with which to reconstruct rainfall variability, and the practical challenges and opportunities of linking adaptation research and policy. Specific areas for new collaborations – including the use of farm diaries as sources of climate information and utilising German-speaking missionary materials within the former Transvaal province – were identified, and developing links with policymakers and practitioners across the Southern African Development Community were discussed.

The remainder of my visit was taken up by exploratory archival work at the National Archives in Pretoria and Cape Town, and tying up parts of my PhD research prior to turning chapters into publications. My experiences of archival work in southern Africa are varied, but if anything have taught me that advanced planning and factoring in ample time is key. This proved especially so in Pretoria, where after eventually finding the archive using the hand-drawn map (which details streets that have since been renamed) provided on their website, several documents I requested were reported as missing or lost. Thanks to the friendly and helpful staff many of these were located at a later stage, but acted as a timely reminder of the value of planning for unavoidable delays when writing up research proposals and budgets. With key source material identified and methods at an advanced stage of development, the SIID research enhancement funding has thus far supported two grant applications: an AXA Research Fund fellowship for a southern Africa-focussed research project, and contribution to an Independent Social Research Foundation small research grant application to develop collaboration on historical climate adaptation research and policy. The latter of these will support writing on a research direction paper and a policy-facing document.

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Table Mountain and Cape Town from Bloubergstran

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