Climate change - 1816: The year without a Summer



Climate change

1816: The year without a Summer


You know the figures. By 2100, the average temperature will have increased by up to four degrees. The polar ice caps are melting, the sea level is rising and coasts are flooded. It is a horror scenario that leaves us cold. The year 2100 is still very far way.

But what would happen, if Armageddon would happen today? You think, that is impossible? Then listen to the story of the year without a summer.


There is a volcano called Tambora sleeping on the other side of the world, on the island of Sumbawa. It has an elevation of 2,850 m. Before its last eruption on 5th April 1815, it had been 4,300 m. It was an unimaginable disaster. The explosion was still audible on the Moluccas, roughly 1,400 km away. Within a radius of 600 km, day became night, because ash clouds were covering the sun. The volcano blew 150 cubic kilometres of material into the stratosphere.


The winds carried the fine particles around the world. In London, Greifswald, New York and probably also in Beijing and Bombay, promenading people were delighted by the gorgeous sunsets, glowing orange, red, purple and violet. No one was aware that they were announcing a climate catastrophe.


Disaster struck in 1816. In India, monsoon fell out. China suffered tremendous floods and biting cold. In the US, temperatures in August changed from heat during the day to frost at night. Cold and heavy rainfalls troubled the farmers of Great Britain and Ireland. Floods, cold and darkness covered Germany. In Switzerland, it snowed in summer, even in the valleys. Glaciers were expanding. In North Italy, red snow fell from the sky. In short, almost all nations were affected by the bad weather and had to expect crop failures. Everyone knew that a famine was coming. What was to be done?


Many governments were asking that question as their situation was indeed unpleasant. Napoleon had completely reshaped Europe. Württemberg for example had doubled its population due to the Napoleonic land consolidation. And the new citizens were not loyal! They were mourning after the old days. Government first had to earn their trust. But it was not only like that in Württemberg. Authorities were put on the spot everywhere. Their new subjects were judging them according to their reactions to the new crisis.   


Their prior problem was to feed the hungry masses. This was difficult, as poor relief had been a church matter before Napoleon. These structures didn’t exist any more, which is why the governments were challenged and financially overwhelmed. Thus they looked for support in civil society. The Queen of Württemberg urged wealthy men and women to found welfare committees. Such committees were formed all over Europe and North America. The hungry were given a bowl of Rumford’s soup at the rich’s charge every day. Rumford’s soup was a mixture of pearl barley and yellow lentils, which only cost 3 pennies per serving but still filled people.


People needed cereal. Thus the grain trade had to be financially supported. To this cause, many governments got rid of their internal custom barriers and made export into other territories more difficult. The experience of how much custom barriers influenced trade caused politicians to consciously organize their custom policies and form custom unions during the following decades.


But in 1816, this measures was not enough. Only Russia had a significant surplus of cereal. Russian grains had to be imported and this could not be done by single individuals. Consequently, rich citizens consolidated and formed corn unions, in order to buy cereal in Russia and transport it home.


Of course, such activities had an impact on civil society. The hungry were fed. And the people who helped them could feel like responsible, and therefore influential citizens.


While the direst need was still fought, people were already planning how to get the uprooted back into employment. They needed simple work, which did not require any prior knowledge. Governments and middle-class businesses counted on renewing the infrastructure.


Canals were built. The Kingdom of Bavaria and the Margraviate of Baden agreed upon the regulation of the Rhine. Near Heilbronn, the Wilhelmskanal was built and in the vicinity of New York, they built the Erie-Canal.


And streets were built as well. In Bavaria, all cities were connected by roads. In Switzerland, the driveway over San Bernardino and the Julian was formed. And these are only a few examples. Once people noticed, how the new streets and canals were improving the situation, they almost did not want to stop building.


The starvation year ended in the summer of 1817. No harvest had ever been celebrated so solemnly. The authorities created a ceremony to greet the first harvest wagon and thus let the public know, that better times were coming.


For better times to come, farming had to be reformed. Modern methods for cultivation and livestock breeding should increase effectivity and prevent another famine. In order to achieve this, the state employed well-payed scientists. Many agricultural institutes were founded after 1817 and developed ideas to make their findings palatable to the public. They organized competitions and agricultural fairs that attracted people from all over the country. The Cannstatter Wasen was founded in 1818. It was modeled after the Munich Oktoberfest, where an agricultural fair lured people since 1819.


Soon, harvests became more plentiful even though people were putting in less work. Workers were free to find new tasks in the emerging factories. Thus mastering the hunger crisis paved the way for the structural change of the industrialisation.


And governments had learned something else in addition. Even the poor have to save up during times of prosperity in order to help themselves in bad times. But they had to be given the chance to do so. Many insurance companies and especially saving banks were founded after 1817, often with public support. This allowed everyone to invest their money safely until they needed it.


The climate change that had been caused by the eruption of Tambora, changed the world – in many ways. The decisive factor though, was perhaps that the hunger crisis newly defined, what it means to be a good government: A good government takes responsibility for its citizens, even and especially for the weakest ones. 

Signet Sunflower Foundation