Book Club

The Chair read for you Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present, by Eugene Linden

Published on 25 October 2022

In Fire and Flood (2022) [1], Eugene Linden draws the reader into a people’s history of climate change from 1979 to the present by following the progress of four different realms: reality, the scientific world, public opinion, and the world of business and finance. The interaction between these four realms reflects our current situation. The author invites the reader to imagine four clocks that tick at different speeds – each clock representing a distinct realm. One of the major challenges in the fight against climate change which is highlighted in this book is the fact that the three last clocks are lagging behind the first clock, which reflects the reality of our situation.

Eugene Linden is an award-winning environmental journalist, whose previous book, The Winds of Change, received the Grantham Prize Special Award of Merit. Eugene Linden began the project of retelling the story of modern era climate change in Fire and Flood after having followed its development since the 1970s. He notably wrote essays and articles for the Time magazine in the 1980s and 1990s. He has covered the issue of our changing climate on numerous occasions, including through documentaries and conferences.

Firstly, Fire and Flood reminds us that discussions amongst the global community on the risks related to rising greenhouse gas emissions started at the end of the 1970s. In 1979, pioneering climate scientists presented results from their paper entitled The Carbon Dioxide Problem to Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States. This paper warned of the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming by the end of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, in the 1980s, the effects of climate change could already be felt. The hottest years ever experienced began in the mid-1980s, and each decade that followed set new records of high temperatures. The year 1988, notably, set a historical record for planetary warmth. The clock of reality had begun ticking at an intensified speed.

At the same time, the clock representing the scientific world was lagging behind the reality of climate change. Despite scientists’ warnings at the end of the 1970s, until the mid-1990s, it was assumed that global warming resulting from greenhouse gas emissions would only arrive the following century and would evolve slowly. Moreover, Eugene Linden highlights that much of the lag in the scientific understanding of climate change can be attributed to the scientific process and to the time needed to analyze and interpret new data.

As for the third clock, which marks the public’s awareness of global warming, Eugene Linden demonstrates how the latter has, at certain times, advanced rapidly, and at other times run backward. For instance, there were periods during the 1980s and the 1990s where the public’s concern over the threat of a changing climate shot up. Although public opinion is swiftly changing, until very recently, a large share of the population in the United States resisted the idea that human activity was causing our climate to change – although this has been a scientific consensus for more than twenty-five years.

Finally, the last clock which represents the world of business and finance has, most of the time, lagged behind the public in recognizing the threat of climate change. Eugene Linden presents some of the recent progress that has taken place within this realm, while also reminding the reader that, just a few years ago, business and finance were mostly concerned about how efforts to limit fossil fuel emissions might diminish profits.  According to the author, this last clock is the most important in the fight against climate change. Indeed, if markets had the incentives to price in the future costs likely generated by climate change, action would have been taken several decades ago, and we might have prevented the dysfunctions experienced today.

Eugene Linden then turns to our current situation. According to him, although the world has started to decarbonize, it is essential to accelerate this process in order to avoid a climate disaster. For instance, he mentions the “European Green Deal” that aims at achieving carbon neutrality for Europe by 2050. Although it is a goal that the journalist qualifies as aggressive, he underlines that the far-off date of this objective means that, for another thirty years, additional greenhouse gases will be added to an already overburdened atmosphere. He reminds the reader that a rise in planetary temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius, or more, would render Earth hostile to a number of life forms.

For the author of Fire and Flood, the solution lies in the adoption of a tool that would create, for all countries, a strong incentive to reduce net carbon emissions. Eugene Linden considers that establishing a universal climate tariff is the key, with one set level for every nation. Thanks to the progress that has been made in renewables, which compete with or beat any fossil fuel in terms of costs, and in upcoming carbon capture technologies, reducing greenhouse gas emissions is easier than it has ever been according to the journalist. Each country could choose its own path to compliance.

However, Eugene Linden notes that there exists a deeper problem: the biased incentives of our consumer society. Indeed, at a time when we are in need of an economic system that recognizes and adapts to hazards, the author states that today’s economy is driven by the sole objective of maximizing profits. Nonetheless, as the shift away from fossil fuels accelerates, we might be getting closer to the day when the profit potential of this transition will exceed interests in the status quo.

By drawing together elements of history, economics, and science, Fire and Flood sheds light on the decisions and missed opportunities that have led us to our current impasse regarding climate change. Additionally, by focusing on the nature of markets and of our consumer society, the book evokes possible solutions to reorient our economy toward a more sustainable path.

Jessica Meyer, PhD Candidate Forests, weather shocks, and nutrition in developing countries.

[1] Linden, Eugene. (2022). Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present. Penguin Publishing Group.