Op-Ed: Two irrational responses to climate change: Witch hunts and denial


In late August 1589, a dozen of the fittest ships in the Danish fleet set across a tempestuous North Sea to carry a 14-year-old princess bride to her new husband and new home. King James VI of Scotland had seen Anna of Denmark only in a miniature portrait before arranging a marriage by proxy in her country. Following her wedding-sans-groom in a palace by the sea, Anna boarded the ship of Danish Admiral Peter Munch to travel to her Scottish kingdom.

They met typical storms until close to Scotland, when an extraordinary gale flew at them from the coast. Twice they came within sight of the cliffs of home, and twice a phalanx of rain and winds pushed them back, ultimately all the way to Norway. Munch found the conditions uncommonly fierce, even for the North Sea. So much so, he thought, “there must be more in the matter than the common perversity of winds and weather.” Munch blamed witches for conjuring the storms.

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As he attempted his third approach, a yet-worse squall roiled up, battering the ship that carried Anna. They limped to a Norwegian sound to await King James’s rescue mission. James had been skeptical of the witch hysteria sweeping Europe. But as he tried to reach his bride, his ships, too, were tossed in freak storms. Once united, he and Anna had to wait out icy conditions for half a year before they could attempt a return journey, on which they faced more “unnatural weather.” By the time they arrived in Edinburgh in May 1590, James was as convinced as Munch that witches had brewed the worst weather in memory to keep his queen from ascending her throne.

The resounding consensus is that human activities since the Industrial Revolution ... are responsible for rising global temperature.

An aging midwife would burn for the squalls. She was among thousands of accused witches executed for conjuring storms during the climate havoc known as the Little Ice Age. Between 1300 and 1850, deadly winters and alternating acute rains and droughts ruined crops for season upon season, contributing to famines and many other miseries. The extremes evoke our own time, as severe weather rises with global warming. But there’s a cruelly poignant difference. Our irrational ancestors blamed innocent people for the crisis. Our irrational contemporaries pretend that people are blameless, our work on climate change futile. The two are equally dangerous.

Many assume that witch hunts were caused by religious and socio-political turmoil. German historian Wolfgang Behringer argues that they were born of climate turmoil too. He has tracked the rise of witchcraft prosecutions in the 14th century to the rise of the Little Ice Age, with criminal proceedings reaching their peak during the worst years of the climate extremes, in the decades before and after 1600.

Frequently suffering misfortune themselves, accused witches — around 80% women, and often poor and elderly — were scapegoated for the ills of the age, from infertility to the deaths of children. That they were also blamed for frightening weather is clear in artwork and news bulletins. A German woodcut from 1486 shows a sorceress conjuring enormous chunks of hail; a frontispiece from a 1489 pamphlet called Weather Magic depicts two hags at a tall caldron, as a storm bursts overhead; a German pamphlet from 1580 details 114 executions of witches who had mainly confessed to instigating crop-destroying thunderstorms.

Paranoia often rumbled from hungry stomachs: Villagers harangued reluctant local courts and prince-bishops to do something about the foul weather by rounding up storm-makers. But the events in Scotland debunk the notion that witch mania rose from the desperate and uneducated. There, the zeal for witch-hunting came straight from the top — from the same King James who gave us the King James Bible.


In the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections, a 1591 pamphlet called Newes from Scotland tells the story, at least from James’s point of view: The tract depicts a storm ravaging the King’s ship, with women huddled around a boiling caldron on shore. It describes the torture of a maidservant, who endured graphic agonies before she finally named a ringleader, Agnes Sampson, a renowned midwife and healer.

What we have that King James lacked is the science to help us understand our changing climate and take action to protect all life.

After unspeakable tortures, Sampson finally confessed to conjuring the storms that had hindered the union of James and Anna. She told James that Satan considered him “the greatest enemie hee hath in the world” and wanted to see him drowned by storm. No words could have rung so true to the self-important king. Sampson was only one of many innocents who paid the price. Seventy people were implicated in the case; not all their fates are known. She was among several burned at the stake.

Europe’s witch hunts and trials did not trail off entirely until the 18th-century Enlightenment, which also gave rise to the notion of evidence — in both the courts and the pursuit of science.

Today, scientific evidence makes clear that Earth’s current warming cannot be explained by a decrease in solar activity or other natural causes thought to have triggered the Little Ice Age. The resounding consensus is that human activities since the Industrial Revolution adding C02 and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere are responsible for rising global temperature. Climate models predict extreme weather events will surge with the thermostat. Super El Nino events like the one sending lashing rains to California could double. Meteorological research has found certain tropical cyclones, along with droughts and heat waves, substantially more likely in a warming world.

Yet many American leaders reject these predictions. The deniers include not only several of the presidential candidates now in the news, but governors of coastal Gulf states with the most to lose from tropical storms; governors of Great Plains states most vulnerable to drought; the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; and many others in Congress and state capitols.

A study this month in the journal Global Environmental Change reveals not only that climate denial remains robust, but the extent to which our leaders are systematically influenced by a small number of think tanks that have upped their anti-science messaging — from policy papers to speeches to press releases — exponentially. The 19 industry-funded groups produced 16,028 of these contrarian documents between 1998 and 2013. (A content analysis found that in addition to disputing the science, they frequently questioned the integrity of specific climate scientists – modern-day witch hunts alleging mathematical and other “tricks.”)

While we no longer burn people at the stake for outlier weather, there is little question that sowing scientific denial with the intent to halt progress on warming will condemn the most vulnerable. A new World Bank report predicts that climate change will push more than 100 million people in the poorest regions of the world back into poverty over the next 15 years. The poor will suffer the most from natural disasters and the health impacts of climate change, from famine to floods to Dengue Fever.


What we have that King James lacked is the science to help us understand our changing climate and take action to protect all life. If we fail to act on what we know, our descendants will one day look back at us with the same head-shaking disbelief we express for King James and his imaginary witches.

Cynthia Barnett is the author of three books on water. She tells the King James story in her latest, “Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.”

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