In his urgent new book, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present, journalist Eugene Linden gravely explains why the world has failed to stop the ongoing catastrophe of climate change. He begins with the 1980s, when climate change first became widely known as “global warming.” As temperatures began to rise around the world, scientists sounded the alarm and made dire predictions of what was to come, yet the public was largely uninterested. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry maintained its outsize stranglehold on our economic and political systems—all in the name of profit.
Next Linden tackles the 1990s, when India and China became more industrialized, multiplying their greenhouse gas emissions exponentially. Following western nations’ lead, they had invested in mostly coal power, sending climate change into overdrive. This was also the decade when the Kyoto Protocol was enacted to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but in the end it did little to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the nations of the world maintained their collective dependence on fossil fuels.
Linden outlines all the ways the fossil fuel industry and the business community as a whole questioned the existence of climate change in bad faith in the 2000s. Despite evidence and numerous warnings, they actively downplayed the severity of climate change, aided by a decadeslong misinformation campaign. In fact, the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest decade on record, but even then the fossil fuel industry and its monied interests continued to dismiss the gravity of climate change.
By 2010, superstorms and massive wildfires were commonplace occurrences, rather than fluke events that happened once every century. Climate change is here, Linden declares, and we can no longer deny it.
Although this is a deeply serious subject, there is still much to be hopeful about, and Linden ends Fire and Flood on a positive note. As coal companies go out of business and electric car companies become the norm, a new light may be shining up ahead. Experts anticipate trillions of dollars of investments in renewable energy, new green industries and new jobs over the next 30 years. The public is demanding change, and that, Linden emphasizes, is where our power lies.
If you’ve ever wondered how we got here, this sobering and accessible history deftly outlines government failures, missed opportunities and the steps we can take to turn the tide.