Joseph GiacomelliApr 5, 2023
Debating Climate Change in Gilded Age America
University of Chicago Press 2023
Even people who still refuse to accept the reality of human-induced climate change would have to agree that the topic has become inescapable in the United States in recent decades. But as Joseph Giacomelli shows in Uncertain Climes: Debating Climate Change in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2023), this is actually nothing new: as far back as Gilded Age America, climate uncertainty has infused major debates on economic growth and national development.
In this ambitious examination of late-nineteenth-century understandings of climate, Giacomelli draws on the work of scientists, foresters, surveyors, and settlers to demonstrate how central the subject was to the emergence of American modernity. Amid constant concerns about volatile weather patterns and the use of natural resources, nineteenth-century Americans developed a multilayered discourse on climate and what it might mean for the nation’s future. Although climate science was still in its nascent stages during the Gilded Age, fears and hopes about climate change animated the overarching political struggles of the time, including expansion into the American West. Giacomelli makes clear that uncertainty was the common theme linking concerns about human-induced climate change with cultural worries about the sustainability of capitalist expansionism in an era remarkably similar to the United States’ unsettled present.
Joseph Giacomelli is Assistant Professor of Environmental History at Duke Kunshan University.