by Eugene Linden “Fires and Floods: A People’s History of Climate Change, 1979 to the Present” and “Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change” explore political and economic perspectives on climate change in the United States, Soviet Union, and Russia. Placing the two books side by side displays an arcuate concordance. Rival nations have moved on the climate front to share many things in common, as their enemies often do. Both governments subsidize oil production to the tune of billions of dollars. Both countries are falling on the wrong side in their response to climate change, while vying for share of the world’s oil and gas markets. And both countries have powerful lobbies and lawmakers resistant to setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Political sentiments also align. The Russian and American right agree that climate change is “the scam of the century”, an excuse from the left to rein in industry. The administration of US President Donald Trump has infamously erased climate change from government websites. Vladimir Putin celebrated such good global warming for freezing Russia. Russians, he joked, won’t have to spend so much on fur coats.
Fur costs aside, in “Klimat” Gustafson points out that temperatures will rise in Russia more than in other parts of the globe and that 70% of Russian territory is made up of permafrost, which is thawing at an accelerated rate, leaving behind large craters of sunken earth. , cracked buildings and crumbling bridges.
The biggest problem, however, for Russia is economic. For the past two decades, Russia has prospered from the export of fossil fuels. Russian leaders find it hard to recognize that the era of oil and gas pumping will soon be over. Putin remarked in 2019 of the coming drop in oil exports: “I just don’t see any threat to us, they don’t exist.” Currently, Russia is using its gas and oil supplies to wage war. In April, he cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria in retaliation for helping Ukraine.
The US economy, also buoyed by oil and gas revenues, is also in jeopardy. The European Union is threatening to impose tariffs on countries that fail to meet EU carbon emission standards to level the playing field for those who reduce their emissions. The move would reduce the business prospects of the United States and Russia, especially since both lag behind in developing renewables and preparing for a net-zero future.
In fascinating detail, Linden’s “Fire and Flood” surveys the American scientific and political landscape that first grasped the fact of climate change and then forgot about it. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the roof of the White House. A 1979 report commissioned by the Carter White House and led by MIT atmospheric scientist Jule Charney warned of global warming that “a wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it’s too late”. Yet that is exactly what happened.
Linden’s narrative oscillates between scientists reluctant to state the problem in anything other than the densest prose and lobbyists paying to make climate change science disappear. Financial interests, particularly the Koch brothers, have derailed political leaders who have broached the subject. These leaders were usually Democrats – from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
Even Al Gore, who was a strong advocate for climate change action, succumbed to the pressure. A presidential candidate, he failed to mention greenhouse gas emissions as he courted the Rust Belt and the union vote on the campaign trail. Oil and coal presidents – Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump – raised money easily and performed well at the polls. We are just becoming aware of the impact of climate change denial as an invisible but powerful undercurrent guiding American policy.
Linden also criticizes insurers who should have been fully aware of the risks of the properties they covered. He also criticizes business leaders outside the fossil fuel industry who have been duped by economists who grossly underestimated the costs of climate change. Yale economist William Nordhaus calculated that with a temperature increase of three degrees Celsius, America would lose only 1% of its national income. We now know that the damage of such an increase would be incalculable: the entire infrastructure of the country would be shut down. How did Nordhaus make such a crazy miscalculation? He surmised that because most of the US economy takes place indoors, it was immune to the impact of climate change. For this flawed logic, he won a Nobel Prize in 2018.
During this period, uncontrolled greenhouse gases have increased. Once in the atmosphere, carbon takes centuries to dissipate. In many ways, Linden’s book reads like a requiem to the power of scientific inquiry and pragmatic political action.
Hindsight gives the historian 20/20 vision. Linden acknowledges that 50 years ago, scientists thought climates changed slowly over long periods of time. They hypothesized that permafrost would remain stable for hundreds of years and sea levels would rise at a “majestic pace”. Then they learned more, grasping Paleolithic data that past climate change was violent and extremely rapid. With floods, fires, and storms on the rise, Earth itself has refuted the claim of a long, slow pace of change.
Over the past decade, most politicians in the United States no longer deny the effects of carbon dioxide buildup. This is good news. Twenty percent of US electricity now comes from renewables – more than coal and nuclear. The United States is on track to meet the Paris climate agreement targets for 2025, thanks to a 20% drop in emissions during the coronavirus pandemic. The bad news is that the Paris targets will only slow warming. According to the Paris targets, temperatures will rise to a disaster of 2.7 to 3.7 degrees Celsius.
Linden points to emerging business ventures to profit from disasters and the tendency to reallocate climate risks to the poor and vulnerable. “Our society is so good at monetizing discontent (think MAGA hats) and finding opportunities for profit that its very adaptability has become maladaptive. We are so good at finding the profit to be reaped in every risk and pushing back the day judgment that, as a society, we have lost the ability to recognize and adapt to real danger.
The Russian government released its first climate change plan in 2020. It did so after realizing investment money was draining away from fossil fuels. Now as missiles darken the skies over Ukrainian cities, we learn that a significant consequence of Russian denial is panic. Russia has less than a decade to profit from the export of its coal and oil. After that, customers won’t buy anymore. Russia relies heavily on the export of grain, a commodity which, in the future of climate change, will become more expensive as yields fall. Capturing the Ukrainian breadbasket would help keep Russian oligarchs in London’s yachts, art and townhouses. In waging war on Ukraine, Putin miscalculated, believing that Europe’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels was unshakable. But he fights on anyway, shifting the target to eastern Ukraine, home to wheat fields and some of the largest nitrogen fertilizer plants in the world. The war in Ukraine, arguably a full-scale climate war, underscores the immediacy of climate change and its power to uproot, inflame, explode and violently reorganize human life on this planet.
Kate Brown is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor Emeritus of History of Science at MIT. His latest book is “Survival Handbook: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.”
A People’s History of Climate Change, 1979 to the Present
Penguin Press. 291 pages. $28
Russia in the Age of Climate Change