11 April 2022
The United States should learn from its mistakes on decarbonization.
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In 1979, US president Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof.Credit: Bettmann/Getty
Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, from 1979 to the Present Eugene Linden Penguin (2022)Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine has sent shock waves through the world’s energy markets, causing oil prices to swing wildly and nations to redraw allegiances over gas supplies. The war could drive the world towards a more decarbonized economy — or further entrench dependence on fossil fuels.Given the global nature of the current events, it seems an odd time to explore a US-centric perspective on the failure to confront climate change. But journalist Eugene Linden’s Fire and Flood could hold lessons for the energy emergency. Although the book veers at times into parochialism in its US focus, it reminds us of the many forces that have held society back from developing effective solutions to the climate crisis. It describes missed opportunities in the past and highlights strategies, particularly in business and finance, for the future.Having covered environmental affairs for Time magazine for many years, Linden is efficient at summarizing scientific knowledge. His tale begins in 1979, when meteorologist Jule Charney chaired a US National Academy of Sciences committee that explored the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate. The background is well known: in the 1850s, with the industrial revolution under way, scientists such as Eunice Newton Foote and John Tyndall observed that CO2 gas heated up faster than air did. In the 1890s, physical chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated how extra CO2 could warm the planet. By the 1950s, the oceanographer Roger Revelle was tracking how much human-produced CO2 must be going into the atmosphere and Charles David Keeling was beginning his iconic measurements of CO2 levels above Mauna Loa, Hawaii.By 1979, Charney and his colleagues were well aware that humanity was pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, with potentially huge societal consequences. Linden introduces a useful framework for thinking about what came next: four clocks. The first tracks climate change in real time; the clock’s hands advance with every climate-driven storm, drought, flood and other extreme event. Each of the three other clocks lags behind the first at different speeds. One represents research, which tries to explain climate change as quickly as possible but is slowed by the pace of investigation and publication. Another is public awareness, which lags behind discovery. The final clock, the slowest, is the business world.Linden steps through the years after 1979 in terms of opportunities missed. In the 1980s, the business clock was set back in the United States, when president Ronald Reagan slashed federal support for developing renewable energies, especially solar power. The country ceded technological leadership in these fields to Germany, Japan and others. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel companies such as Exxon began developing their highly effective tactics in the United States for delaying action to curb emissions …