Eugene Linden’s “Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present ”and Thane Gustafson’s“ Klimat: Russia in the Age of Climate Change ”explore the political and economic perspectives on climate change in the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia. Placing the two books side by side displays an arching concordance. The rival nations evolved on the climate front to share much in common, as foes often do. Both governments subsidize oil production to the tune of billions of dollars. Both countries fall on the shabby side in responding to climate change, all while vying with each other for shares of the world’s oil and gas markets. And both countries have forceful lobbies and lawmakers resistant to setting limits on emissions of greenhouse gases. Political sentiments line up, too. The Russian and American right agree that climate change is the “scam of the century,” an excuse by the left to bridle industry. US President Donald Trump’s administration infamously erased climate change from government websites. Vladimir Putin celebrated a warming climate as good for frosty Russia. Russians, he quipped, won’t have to spend so much on fur coats.
Fur costs aside, in “Klimat,” Gustafson points out that temperatures will increase in Russia more than in other parts of the globe and that 70 percent of Russian territory is permafrost, which is thawing at accelerating rates, leaving behind large craters of sunken earth , cracked buildings and crumbling bridges.
The biggest problem, however, for Russia is economic. In the past two decades, Russia has thrived on the export of fossil fuels. The Russian leadership has been having trouble recognizing that the days of pumping oil and gas will soon end. Putin remarked in 2019 on the coming decline of oil exports: “I simply do not see any threats to us, they do not exist.” Presently, Russia is using its gas and oil supply to wage war. In April, it shut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria in retaliation for aiding Ukraine.
The US economy, similarly propped up by oil and gas revenue, is also in danger. The European Union is threatening to impose tariffs on countries that do not meet EU carbon emission standards as a way to level the playing field for those who are cutting emissions. That move would cut into US and Russian business prospects, especially as both are late in developing renewables and in preparing for a net-zero future.
In fascinating detail, Linden’s “Fire and Flood” tours 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 in respect to a warming globe that a “wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.” Yet that’s exactly what happened.
Linden’s narrative swerves between scientists are reluctant to spell out the problem in anything but the densest prose and lobbyists paying to make climate change science go away. Moneyed interests, especially the Koch brothers, derailed political leaders who broached the subject. These leaders were usually Democrats – from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama.
Even Al Gore, who was a vocal advocate for action on climate change, succumbed to pressure. Running for president, he did not mention greenhouse gas emissions as he courted the Rust Belt and 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 did well at the polls. We are just waking up to the impact of climate change denial as an invisible yet powerful undercurrent guiding US politics.
Linden is also critical of insurers who should have been keenly aware of the risks of the properties they were covering. He finds fault, too, with business leaders outside the fossil fuel industry who were taken in by economists who greatly underestimated the costs of climate change. The economist William Nordhaus calculated that with a three-degree Celsius rise in temperatures, America would only lose 1 percent of national income. We now know that the damage from such an increase would be incalculable: The country’s entire infrastructure would shut down. How did Nordhaus miscalculate so wildly? He assumed that because most of the US economy occurs indoors, it was immune to the impact of climate change. For that faulty logic, he won a Nobel Prize in 2018.
During this period, uncontrolled greenhouse gases mounted. Once in the atmosphere, carbon takes centuries to dissipate. In many ways, Linden’s book reads as a requiem to the power of scientific research and pragmatic, political action.
Hindsight gives the historian 20/20 vision. Linden acknowledges that 50 years ago, scientists believed climates changed slowly over long periods. They speculated that permafrost would remain stable for hundreds of years and that sea levels would rise at a “stately pace.” Then they learned more, grasping from Paleolithic data that past climate shifts were violent and extremely rapid. With floods, fires and storms multiplying, Earth itself has refuted the claim of a long, slow pace of change.
In the last decade, most of the political players in the United States are no longer denying the effects of carbon dioxide buildup. That is good news. Twenty percent of US power now comes from renewables – more than coal and nuclear. The United States is on track to meet the Paris climate agreement goals for 2025, thanks to the 20 percent drop in emissions during the coronavirus pandemic. The bad news is that the Paris targets will only slow warming. Under the Paris targets, the temperatures will increase to a disaster-making 2.7 to 3.7 degrees Celsius.
Linden points to business ventures emerging to profit from disaster and the tendency to reassign climate risks to the poor and vulnerable. “Our society is so good at monetizing discontents (think MAGA hats) and finding profit opportunities that its very adaptability has become maladaptive. We are so gifted at finding the profit to harvest at every risk and at pushing off the day of reckoning that, as a society, we have lost the ability to recognize and adjust to true danger. ”
The Russian government published its first climate change plan in 2020. It did so after realizing that investment money is flowing away from fossil fuels. Now that missiles are darkening the sky over Ukrainian cities, we learn that a significant consequence of Russian denial is panic. Russia has less than a decade left to profit on the export of its coal and oil. After that, customers will no longer be buying. Russia relies heavily on the export of grain, a commodity that in the climate change future will become more expensive as yields decline. Capturing the Ukrainian breadbasket would help maintain Russia’s oligarchs in yachts, art and London townhouses. In waging war on Ukraine, Putin miscalculated, believing that Europe’s reliance 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 world’s largest nitrogen fertilizer factories. The war in Ukraine, arguably a large-scale climate war, points to 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 Distinguished Professor in the History of Science at MIT. Her latest book is “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. ”
A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present
Penguin Press. 291 pp. $ 28
Russia in the Age of Climate Change