THIS is a big book.

Hollowed out, it would serve as a mausoleum for Ronnie Corbett, though hopefully not for some time. Its acknowledgements, notes and index stretch to 200 pages with the narrative spanning 700 pages. There are, dear reader, maps, charts and graphs. Its author, too, has a grand history of teaching at St Andrews, Yale and Ohio State universities. Its subject is huge, sprawling, all-encompassing and there is an almost reckless ambition about its purpose. It is a big book.

It is also a brilliant one, but it requires attention, time and thought. At first, Parker seems to be auditioning for the slightly wild-eyed academic who addresses one with a deeply-held theory over a glass of awful red and a plate of 17th century cheese at the vice-chancellor's Christmas party. "Listen," he says – and here I am paraphrasing – "the period from 1618 to 1680 was simply awful. There were droughts, famines, invasions, regicides, dreadful disease and an extraordinary loss of life. We've never had it so bad. An intense period of global cooling coincided with an unparalleled spate of revolutions and state breakdowns around the world."

One would be inclined to mutter something soothing before moving the subject on to the inability of Arsenal to defend a set-piece, if Parker was not so downright insistent – and, frankly, captivating. The format of this book dictates that it is best taken in small sips. It is ultimately intoxicating, however. The period known as the Little Ice Age and the General Crisis has found an articulate, learned and assiduous chronicler.

It is neatly cut into five parts, with the first using human and natural archives to tell the story of severe weather and extraordinary uprisings; the second travels across Eurasia to chart the scale and impact of those events; the third looks at the areas that emerged relatively unscathed; the fourth gathers the human stories. The fifth gives the tale of the survivor and the aftermath of a period of unprecedented upheaval that may have cost the lives of more than a third of people throughout the world.

The link between weather conditions and revolutions is gently teased out but, bluntly, it can be explained thus: the fall of the Ming dynasty was because of banditry. The rise of banditry was because of famine. The famine was caused by bad weather, whether extreme cold or heavy rain or no rain at all. These are my words. Parker is never this inelegant. Rather, he is patient, deliberate and scientific. One realises one is warming to him when a graph detailing wheat prices (florins per coupe, obviously) and the annual total of conceptions and burials in Geneva from 1627 to 1632 is greeted as a welcome addition.

The message is that when people are starving, some of them die and most of those who are not dying do not want to have sex. This may be obvious, but Parker then leads the discussion into how people reacted to life-threatening events or, indeed, to restrictions on their spiritual and physical life. This is when the book soars. It had always been big, but now it stretches into something remarkable. The essays on such subjects as the Great Enterprise in China of 1618-84, the Stuart Monarchy and the path of Civil War 1603-42, and the Great Shaking of Russia and Lithuania are edifying, informative and elegant.

But it is the voice of the people that invigorates Global Crisis. These episodes can be awful. Humans revert to cannibalism with a frightening quickness, torture is used extensively and dreadful punishment is imposed for the most minor of infringements. Through these horrors, though, one hears the voices of individuals. Scholar Adam Olearius remarks that Moscow was always a dangerous city. "The Russians, he asserted, were drunken, sex-crazed sodomites whose lust spared neither horse, man nor boy," reports Parker.

There is the more famous Shabbatai Zvi, once hailed as the messiah, who had a weakness for destroying synagogue doors with an axe and marrying the Torah. He faced something of a dilemma. He was told by the viziers of the Ottoman empire to prove he was the messiah or he would be executed. Alternatively, he could just convert to Islam. Shabbatai eschewed the miracles and embraced Mohammed.

Then there was the influential adviser to the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula, one Don Gaspar de Guzman, count of Olivares. He was a workaholic, with much of his time expended on the forgivable preoccupation of self-preservation. His day began at 5am and ended just before midnight. "He suffered from a chronic lack of sleep," writes Parker, "and this may explain the breathless quality of his state papers." The count's routine killed four private secretaries.

Then there was Secondo Lancellotti, an Italian preacher, who was one of the first positive thinkers but whose views were hardly supported by the experience of his contemporaries. His driven need to be optimistic clashed awfully with other commentators, notably Thomas Hobbes, that ray of sunshine in the Little Ice Age, who stated of mankind: "No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Another statement of Hobbes that is not quoted by Parker but is a motif for Global Crisis is the assertion that mankind is in "a perpetual restless desire of power after power that ceases only in death".

This turbulence of kings and paupers is prompted at times by the matter of weather, as drought or famine or cold or floods produces the elements of unrest in a besieged populace. Basically, there were three factors that could be relied upon to produce popular revolts: a failed harvest, the arrival of troops requiring food and lodging, and the imposition of a new tax. These conspired regularly in the 17th century to provide the perfect storms that took such a severe toll on the world's population.

This history is told with a sustained gusto by Parker but, amid the horror of the torture chamber and the woeful depredations of war and famine, it is the contemporary significance of the book that is truly breathtaking. The world has busied itself with a squabble about what or who causes global warming. Parker states bluntly that it is not whether climate change occurs but when that is the question. He says there can be a legitimate argument over the cause of change, but none over the inevitability that nature will extract a heavy price of mankind.

History – and not just in the 17th century – shows that the weather changes suddenly and catastrophically. It also demonstrates that the human race is never prepared to face the worst.

This is a big book.