Review of Fire and Flood

A Review of Eugene Linden, Fire and Flood:  A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present (New York:  Penguin Press, 2022)

     Eugene Linden’s Fire and Flood is a history of the problem of climate change over the last forty-odd years– must reading for members of CCL.  Linden captures the essence of developments decade by decade, the eighties, the nineties, and so forth, from four standpoints:  the reality of climate changes in the period, the scientists’ increasing understanding of them, public opinion of the changing situation, and finally the reactions of business and finance.  For example, Linden summarizes the status of business and finance vis-à-vis climate change in the 2010s this way:  “The 2010s saw the business community begin a momentous shift toward weighting the costs of climate change over the costs of efforts to moderate its effects.  It also saw the moneyed interests increase their investments in clean tech and other opportunities climate change might offer.  In this sense, the clock of business and finance, which used to lag the public, the scientific community, and reality, is now running ahead of the public and just behind the scientific community” (p. 242).

     Linden’s historical perspective enables him to explain things that we may well have missed at the time.  His judgment is icily cool.  He can now see that the battle “was lost in the 1990s . . . when the big emerging nations [China and India most notably] chose a path to industrialization that locked in massive future emissions” (p. 89).  Such is not necessarily the common wisdom on the subject.  Some blame the time lost batting the fog of denial that business and finance once created about climate change.  But it is compelling to recall the negative impact of the decision of the great developing nations not to “leapfrog” (p. 94) the old technologies of economic development used by the great nations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but instead to sell their futures to coal.  That decision , he says, “has to rank as the most self-destructive choice in the history of modern civilization” (p. 97).

     The result, just to look at the case of China alone, was that China throughout “the 1990s and 2000s . . . steadily increased its production and consumption of coal with consumption peaking in 2018 at about 4.6 billion tons.”  By contrast “the coal consumption of the world’s biggest economy, the United States, in 1990 was 896 million tons of coal.”  At the time, it must be noted, the U. S. economy had a GDP sixteen times China’s (p. 96).  U.S. coal consumption was 688 million tons by 2018, only 15 percent of China’s consumption.   

     Linden by no means lets the United States off the hook.  He relies on a comparison of the U.S. record with Germany’s.  “The dramatic gap between the United States and Germany was the result of an enormous surge in renewables in Germany, principally wind and solar.  Between 2000 and 2020, German power production from nonhydro renewables has grown more than tenfold and now accounts for roughly 40 percent of power generation.  United States reliance on renewables has also grown, but nonhydro electrical production is still only 11 percent of power generation” (pp. 169-170).  The American problem was the twelve years of “coal-friendly” presidential administrations in the period from 2000 to 2020 (p. 169).

     Linden offers memorable pieces of intelligent analysis on other fronts, especially science.  With Linden’s help, we can now see that the most significant development in climate science of those 40 years was the rise of what I call neo-catastrophism, or in Linden’s terms, the discovery of the possibility of rapid changes in climate.  That came especially from studies of ice shelfs and cores.

     In sum, this is a fine book with no exact counterpart in climate change literature that I know of.  But the author made a mistake when he failed to make his history pivot on the single greatest political/scientific development of the period:  the appearance on the world stage in 1988 of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Instead, he consistently belittles that body’s famous reports. He introduces the agency into his history in Chapter VIII describing the state of climate science in the 1990s:  “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emerged as a new institution, formed to gather, interpret, and find consensus on major issues involving climate change . . . This massive undertaking became the primary, authoritative source that the media and policymakers turned to for the state of the science. . . . [W]hat it actually did throughout the 1990s and well into the first decade of the new millennium was to understate the problem and provide ammunition to those who would delay action on climate change” (pp. 75-76).  “Had this filter not existed between the public and the scientists,” he adds, “it’s possible that there might have been a better chance for meaningful action on climate change in the 1990s” (p. 76)

     But just imagine what a fix we would be in now had there been no IPCC.  Indeed, Linden undermines his own negative judgment by pointing out later in the book that the “German climate modeler” Stefan Rahmstorf found some 20,000 “peer-reviewed papers published on climate change” in 2018 alone, 55 papers a day (pp. 206, 211).  Without the IPCC “filter,” science would be speaking to us with 20,000 different voices each year, and we would be hearing only cacophony.

     With the marked exception of his characterization of the IPCC, most of Linden’s points are convincing, and yet his final recommendation of “democratic socialism” as the political solution for climate change by no means flowed from all the previous astute analysis.  If it is true, as he stated earlier in the book, that the 2020s saw opinion and action in the business and finance communities “running ahead of the public and just behind the scientific community” (p. 242), then why should we make the radical transition to socialism?  Readers will need to decide for themselves whether Linden’s persuasive description of modern climate history really leads inexorably to such a political conclusion.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.

Member, State College Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby      

Review of Vaclav Smil book by Mark Neely

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