Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present by Eugene Linden; Penguin Press, 336 pp., $28
Since 2010, emissions of carbon dioxide have flattened in the United States and slowed worldwide to about 35 to 40 gigatons per year, half of which has been absorbed by land and sea. To keep the global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius, a flattening curve must become a steep reduction. This necessity is forcefully presented by Eugene Linden, a veteran writer for Time, but his distinctive contribution is to ask why Americans have not paid enough attention to all the warnings. His answer is that powerful economic interests in the United States have blocked the public’s ears. “The business world has been the master puppeteer. … Warnings go unheeded because it is deeply ingrained in capitalism to disregard any action that might interrupt the existing flow of money, until a crisis can no longer be ignored.” True enough, but history has been more complicated and multicausal, and perhaps hopeful, than that.
Although oil and coal companies are his main culprits, Linden also criticizes the insurance industry, which has not responded adequately by raising its rates. If he is right, then the only way to avoid global disaster is an economic revolution in the United States. Near his book’s end he suggests that adopting the “democratic socialist model” of Europe is the only remedy. He is right to this extent: American capitalism has caused plenty of environmental disasters—the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, the sprawling growth of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles, lethal water and air pollution. But can we blame the whole problem of climate change on American business and finance? Don’t all humans everywhere bear some responsibility? Can any of us be safe unless everyone adapts better to Earth and its vulnerabilities?
Linden’s book is structured around a dialogue that should have happened but did not: in the 1970s and ’80s, the natural sciences began advancing our knowledge of climate, but business and finance refused to heed those warnings. Decades of failure flew by until, in the 2010s, Americans finally awoke to the threat and “a momentous shift” began, but by then, lasting damage had already been done. The pattern brings to mind both world wars, but those conflicts, despite our entering them belatedly, ended in victory.
One of capitalism’s outstanding triumphs has been the fossil fuel economy, which tapped a rich and reliable source of energy that has changed, largely for the better, every part of the planet. Capitalism’s achievement, however, came with a new social ideology of getting rich by whatever means possible. Under that ideology, neither petroleum nor coal was ever necessary. Any capitalist who could come up with a new and better source of energy could expect to become rich.
We are learning, however, that there are limits to what any form of energy can offer. Fossil fuels were an extraordinary discovery because they embodied millions of years of stored sunshine. The world may never find a safe energy source that is comparably abundant. We are all going to have to learn to do more with less. That truth should have become obvious with the debacle of nuclear power, which at one time promised “power too cheap to meter.”
For some reason, the story of the failed nuclear energy revolution is missing from Linden’s book. Driven by governments rather than American business, the revolution began in the 1950s and ended with the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. Wherever it flourished, nuclear power depended on a quasi-socialistic approach to energy, for it was the state that provided scientific research, immense capital, and a guaranteed indemnity against possible lawsuits, all of which induced businesses to go nuclear. The would-be revolution collapsed nonetheless: the biggest failure in industrial history, as radioactivity escaped and spread over the world, turning public opinion against it. Ironically, a nuclear economy would have emitted no greenhouse gases, avoiding the dangers of climate change. Whether for good reasons or bad, most people rejected it. What cautions should we learn from that experience as we look for another revolution?
There is more missing from this book, including a deeper analysis of the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to reduce emissions that create global warming. The Clinton administration withdrew it from Senate ratification, for not a single senator would support it, contending that the treaty was unfair and ineffective because the People’s Republic of China, along with the rest of Asia, plus Africa and Latin America, rejected emissions targets for themselves.
Right or wrong, that decision revealed something more than the power of business—call it national self-interest. We must conclude, therefore, that more than business and finance are responsible for our planetary ills. Almost all nation-states have failed to take climate change seriously enough, while their populations remain ignorant, skeptical toward grand schemes, or preoccupied with more immediate priorities.
At this point in the story, Linden’s charge of epic failure seems too selective and overwrought. Failures are common in history, to be sure, but it’s too early to say whether Americans have failed on any scale. How can we be sure before we get to the next decade or century? At this still-early point, we cannot know what the United States may achieve in the years to come; our institutions may be working better than we realize, despite facing a change unprecedented in the evolutionary history of the species. And then there is the possibility that the workings of nature may hold a few surprises for us. For all we know, the United States and the world are already on a path to success.
Nations that excel in innovation, like the United States, surely are better equipped for making a transition than those that are not. Climate change reversal depends on technological innovation as much as on political action. Maybe Elon Musk and others will figure out not only how to make electric automobiles but also how to generate an abundance of energy without endangering humans and the web of life. Americans want to see that happen. Hedging their bets, however, they also have come to accept that government must take a hand in this transition while exercising caution to avoid new Chernobyls and Fukushimas.
Linden understands the scale of the challenge before us, but he lacks grounding in a more complex knowledge of history. To write that history in fullness, we will need many trained scholars who can tell us what has happened to our planet and how we have responded at all levels and in all ways. They will need to carry on that work for decades to come, for this story is by no means over. To conclude at this point that it has been a failure is premature and pessimistic.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.