Fire and Flood: a People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present, by Eugene Linden (Allen Lane, £20)
Humankind has triggered global heating. Potentially catastrophic climate change is on the way. After 40 years of intense study this is as near certain as scientific research on a global scale can establish.
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But an alarming number of people still don’t seem to understand yet, and the chance that the world’s governments will respond in time, and in the right way, still seems less than likely. For those who want to know why we are in this mess—we have settled the facts, we know the solutions, but we still don’t have the action—this book is a pretty good place to start.
First, a caveat. Fire and Flood: a People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present, by Eugene Linden (Allen Lane, £20) is really an American people’s history, and a time-limited and gender-blind one at that. In Linden’s version, climate change as an issue starts in 1979 with President Jimmy Carter and U.S. forward thinking—not with Eunice Newton Foote, the U.S. natural scientist and suffragist who first described global warming in 1856 and finally got some of the recognition she deserved, 200 years after her birth. Ireland’s John Tyndall, who first published three years after Foote, and Britain’s G.S. Callendar in the mid-20th century, don’t rate a mention. Nor does Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish Nobel laureate who in 1896 first modeled the physical consequences of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That said, this focus on one nation might also be a strength: almost none of the richest nations that fuelled what promises to be a calamitous 3°C rise in temperature this century has acted swiftly enough, but the factions that willfully perverted straightforward science into shameless political posturing have been so visible in the last four decades in the U.S. as to provide a rueful lesson for any polity.
Eugene Linden tells a sorry story of good intentions backed by serious research, blocked, muddied, diluted or simply rejected by a procession of U.S. presidencies, and subverted by the very forces directly responsible for the present crisis: among them big money, and big fossil fuel lobbies.
It’s a tale of good guys and bad hats. Climate researchers and fossil fuel scientists alike understood the problem only too clearly. The climate scientists tried to warn the people and the people failed to see the urgency, and went on regardless. The scientists who worked for Big Oil warned their boardrooms of the coming crisis and the corporate world calculatedly tried to find a way of delaying, slowing or weakening any public response, most conspicuously by pretending that the evidence was not to be trusted.
Carter’s administration listened to the scientists; Ronald Reagan’s cadres and their successors in the 1980s did not. Bill Clinton in the 1990s inclined one way, but George W. Bush in the new century gratefully seized on the argument that the science wasn’t settled, and hoped the issue would go away.
Somehow, corporate wealth, commercial cynicism, and conservative cussedness persuaded the media that climate change was an issue with valid arguments on either side, or at least one in which not all questions had been resolved: either way, society could go on pumping petrol into the tank, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The Obama administration after 2008 took decisive but hardly conclusive actions, and Donald Trump and his hirelings in 2016 brazenly undid them again. An America that could have eased itself into a new way of life three decades ago is now left with vast steps to take with almost no safe time, and with seemingly no great political will, to take them.
It’s not a becoming story, and while some rich-world nations have tried to confront the challenge a little more directly, it is not a unique story. Climate change remains a catastrophe in the making, and no society anywhere in the wealthy world has great reason to feel virtuous.
In 1988, not many climate scientists were as confident as James Hansen of NASA, who at the time told a U.S. Senate committee that he was “99% certain” that the warming observed in that year was not natural, but the result of human-sourced greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, a study of scientific literature found that 99.9% of all peer-reviewed climate research papers now accepted that climate change is real, and that humans have caused it.
And, demonstrably, with just a 1°C rise in average global temperatures, climate change has already imposed a terrible financial toll and will become even more costly. Linden—not just a sometime reporter for Time Magazine, but also for years a hedge fund strategist—quotes one insurance broker’s assessment that weather-related disasters cost the world US$1.8 trillion between 2000 and 2010, and $3 trillion between 2010 and 2019. In 2021, according to the insurance giant Swiss Re, natural disasters around the world cost insurers $111 billion, on overall economic losses of $270 billion. That’s more than a quarter of a trillion dollars in just one year.
Linden is helpful on the role of money; he’s strong on the ways ever-higher temperatures play into more ferocious extremes of climate; he’s good on the all-too-sluggish shifts in public and political opinion over the decades. And he’s very good at reminding us that the very rich call the tune while the world’s poorest pay the price, in ever-deepening inequity.
In Linden’s telling, it becomes all too clear that unfettered market forces, neoliberal ideologies, and small government instincts are quite incapable of confronting the challenge the world now faces.
Refreshingly, he speaks of “unfettered capitalism” and suggests that, when U.S. voters have finally had enough of it, “they might choose candidates advocating for the democratic socialist model that characterizes most of the Scandinavian countries of Europe as well as Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom…”
And that of course, highlights the other weakness of a climate narrative that makes the U.S. an object lesson for the world: it might just leave his readers thinking that at least European voters are now more concerned about climate change, and their governments more determined to act. Both of these things may be true, but not true enough to make a dramatic difference. With voters in France at the polls as these words are written, we may be about to learn that issues of economic insecurity or deep cultural frustration still outweigh concerns for climate action.
All the political challenges visible in the U.S. exist, and have existed, everywhere in the consumer-oriented world. To change the future, people worldwide must care enough, and governments must cooperate in a consistent response on a global scale. Meanwhile, the world continues on its unsustainable path. Change must happen, and it will inevitably be political.
“There is no guarantee that it will be something better that replaces the collapse of an unsustainable system,” but “there is a guarantee that an unsustainable system will collapse,” Linden concludes. “The threats facing society are of such scale that they will require well-functioning government and the support of the people if they are to be addressed.”
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