Climate and society in long-term perspective: Opportunities and pitfalls in the use of historical datasets

Bas J. P. van Bavel*, Daniel R. Curtis, Matthew J. Hannaford, Michail Moatsos, Joris Roosen, Tim Soens

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal(Systematic) Review article peer-review


Recent advances in paleoclimatology and the growing digital availability of large historical datasets on human activity have created new opportunities to investigate long-term interactions between climate and society. However, noncritical use of historical datasets can create pitfalls, resulting in misleading findings that may become entrenched as accepted knowledge. We demonstrate pitfalls in the content, use and interpretation of historical datasets in research into climate and society interaction through a systematic review of recent studies on the link between climate and (a) conflict incidence, (b) plague outbreaks and (c) agricultural productivity changes. We propose three sets of interventions to overcome these pitfalls, which involve a more critical and multidisciplinary collection and construction of historical datasets, increased specificity and transparency about uncertainty or biases, and replacing inductive with deductive approaches to causality. This will improve the validity and robustness of interpretations on the long-term relationship between climate and society. This article is categorized under: Climate, History, Society, Culture > Disciplinary Perspectives
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews-Climate Change
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • Climate and society
  • Conflict
  • Historical datasets
  • Long-term
  • Plague


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