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Uncertain Climes

Debating Climate Change in Gilded Age America

Uncertain Climes looks to the late nineteenth century to reveal how climate anxiety was a crucial element in the emergence of American modernity.

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, 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.

248 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

History: American History

History of Science


“What did nineteenth-century Americans mean when they insisted that planting farms would bring more rain? How do we make sense of the heated but head-spinning debates over all the things that human beings might do to alter their climate? Clamorous but conflicting assertions insisted that Plains tribes or industrious Mormons, artificial canals or the advance of western settlement might change temperature, weather patterns, and nature itself. In this deeply-researched book, Giacomelli demonstrates that substantial public conversation in the Gilded Age was devoted to human role in climate change. He also shows the central presence of uncertainty in those debates. Probabilistic thinking, statistics, maps, data: all were part of climatic contention by elite thinkers and small-town boosters. Our modern worries over climate are crucial in our present crisis, but not unique. Uncertainty and public debate, Giacomelli shows us, have long been how Americans have grappled with the challenges of human influence on the natural world.”

Conevery Bolton Valencius, author of The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land

"Uncertain Climes offers a necessary corrective and a significant historiographical contribution that will change how we think about Gilded Age science and environmental history. The genius of Giacomelli’s book is that it embraces the complexity and messiness of the past, challenging the conventional stories historians tell about late-nineteenth-century environmental thought and science.”

Adam Wesley Dean, author of An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era

“Here is a history of climate, science, and culture that is fully a study of morality, caution, and uncertainty. Giacomelli does readers a great service by disrupting our twenty-first-century perception that ‘questions of irreducible uncertainty’ are new. Uncertain Climes is big history, making the past feel closer all the time.”

Benjamin Cohen, author of Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food

Table of Contents

Introduction: Questions “Forever Remain”

1 A Climate Fit for Civilization

2 Climate and Capitalism in the Great West and Beyond

3 In the Middle Border: Gustavus Hinrichs and His Network of Volunteer Observers

4 Fluid Geographies: Mapping Climate Change

Interlude: Rainmakers and Other “Paradoxers”

5 Mysterious Ecologies

6 Technocracy and the Mastery of Uncertainty

Conclusion: The Meanings of Uncertainty





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