Shortly after columns of Russian armor and infantry carriers invaded Ukraine from the north, east, and south on February 24, a different sort of battle began raging in the United States. In this conflict, the aggressors were not Russian soldiers, saboteurs or hackers; they were the fossil fuel industries’ frontline skirmishers: rightwing pundits, politicians, and PR professionals.
Sensing an opportunity in the wake of Russia’s invasion, the fossil fuel industry mobilized its operatives to attack the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies. Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt claimed that “environmental jihadists” had weakened America’s defenses. Days later, editors at The Washington Examiner argued that to help Ukraine Biden had to “sacrifice his environmental alarmism.” Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) then called out “climate elitists” and climate idolators. And the social conservative website Townhall, after soliciting donations from readers to help it report “the truth” about “the liberal climate scam,” published a column claiming that Putin “could not have funded [his] ‘special military operation’ without help from [the] climate change lobby.”
Having witnessed the past helps the author see the present and future
Award-winning journalist and author Eugene Linden submitted the manuscript for Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change from 1979 to the Present months before Vladimir Putin made his move on Ukraine, but his account of the past 50 years of climate politics will help readers make sense of these fossil-fueled responses to the war. Because the big oil companies play major roles in his “people’s history of climate change,” Linden is quite familiar with their playbook. Whenever climate change has threatened to capture public attention, oil companies have found ways to distract it. Always included in their schemes was providing financial support, directly or indirectly, to those willing to make their case to the public for them.
Like several authors before (including Ross Gelbspan as early as 2005 and, most recently, Alice Bell), Linden explains that by the 1970s major oil companies had confirmed for themselves the basic science of climate change. They knew that the burning of fossil fuels was changing Earth’s climate – with possibly disastrous consequences. Public discussion of the problem at the time, however, was limited, so there was little public attention to distract.
To be clear, Linden has not written another account of the fossil fuel interests’ climate disinformation campaigns. Rather he has written about the five-decades-long interplay between the changing climate, the evolving scientific understanding of that changing climate, public awareness and concern about the problem, and the responses of business and finance to the public’s concerns and to the likely political consequences.
But business and finance, Linden stresses, are not synonymous with the fossil fuel industry. Climate change impacts different sectors of the economy in distinctly different ways. The big oil companies, for example, do not have the same concerns and objectives as the finance and insurance industries. And in that fact he places the limited hope he expresses in Fire and Flood.
Different clocks mean different rates of change
To animate and structure his story about the interplay of climate, science, public opinion, and business over the past five decades, Linden imagines that each factor is represented by a separate clock, ticking at its own rate and volume. He then tracks their operation decade by decade, noting which clocks were synchronized and which were running behind or ahead of the others.
The 1970s, often called “the decade of the environment” for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the enactment of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, among other landmark bills, set the stage for what followed. Reports commissioned by President Johnson and President Carter laid out the basic science of climate change but, according to Linden, each was equivocal about when its effects would be felt. The governing assumption was that those impacts would increase steadily, but only slowly. Abrupt or rapid climate change, occurring over years instead of centuries, was purely hypothetical at that point.
In the 1980s, however, compelling evidence for abrupt climate change in the past was emerging from research on ice and lake-bed cores. And record high global average temperatures early in the decade suggested that the rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the steady uptick clearly visible in the more than 20 years of data collected by that point, were already having an effect. The clock representing real-world manifestations of climate change was speeding up.
The clock representing scientific understanding of climate change was also running, but behind the climate itself. Much of that lag was attributable to the scientific process and to the time needed to analyze and interpret new data. But some resulted from the reluctance of some scientists to accept the idea of abrupt climate change.
With the first public hearings coming late in the 80s, the clock for public opinion was still being wound. And with little substantial public concern to counter, and no imminent climate threat to their own interests, the clock for business and finance also was mostly quiet.
Did early IPCC reports boost or impede support for climate action?
It was in the 90s, Linden writes, that science narrowed the gap with the changing climate. A consensus emerged, albeit still slowly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, formed in 1988, issued its first assessment report in 1990 and its second in 1996 – that second one was the first to cite definitive evidence for human-caused climate change – and the third in 2001.
But Linden posits that these early IPCC reports may actually have slowed the momentum in public concern about climate change. Linden backs up this surprising claim by marking the differences among 1) the best science at the time of each report, 2) the section summaries within the larger reports, and 3) the correlated passages in the summaries for policymakers.
Part of the problem was structural. IPCC reports are syntheses of previously published studies: Therefore, the multi-year process for producing each report meant that all of the studies synthesized were two to three years out of date by the time they were evaluated in the next IPCC report.
But the conclusions of the much shorter (and, importantly, more widely read) summaries for policymakers (SPMs) produced along with the full IPCC reports, each thousands of pages long, were further watered down by the political committees that oversaw the drafting of these documents, committees that included representatives from oil-producing countries and also representatives of the oil companies.
The scientific community, it should be emphasized, recognized all along that the SPMs were overly conservative and cautious but accepted that they were preconditions for getting the IPCC member countries’ support to proceed with publishing the larger reports.
Linden, however, questions that tradeoff. “The IPCC’s very structure offered innumerable opportunities for mischief. … The corporate lobbyists who wanted to thwart any momentum to act on global warming may well have thought the IPCC was a gift from God. … Had this filter not existed between the public and the scientists,” Linden speculates, “it’s possible that there might have been a better chance for meaningful action on climate change in the 1990s.”
Industries push to slow or reverse support for climate action
Further slowing or even reversing public concern over climate change were the concerted goals of different business groups, most notably the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Formed in 1989 by the American Petroleum Institute, Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and the biggest oil and car companies, the GCC spearheaded efforts to rebut climate science and block climate policy. It was joined in these efforts by so-called “think tanks” like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute, and Western Fuels Association, recipients of significant funding from fossil fuel companies.
As a result, Linden writes, the 1990s were “a lost decade.” “The IPCC, the natural reticence of scientists to go beyond the data, the emergence of a well-funded disinformation campaign, lack of charismatic political leadership – all deflated any sense of urgency that might have been felt about the issue.”
In the 2000s, in Linden’s reckoning, the climate clock accelerated, offering increasingly clear evidence that the climate was changing. Public concern initially ticked upward but then stalled, Linden argues, in response to yet another round of muted IPCC summaries, the presence of “a climate denier in the White House,” and the “hockey-stick,” “global-warming-pause” and climategate scandals propagated by fossil-fuel funded climate deniers.
And then came the fires and floods
On the plus side, dramatic improvements in solar and wind technologies, fueled vigorous discussions of climate solutions, discussions joined by some members of the business and finance communities.
In the 2010s, the rapidly falling costs of renewable energy and the mounting costs of natural disasters created splits within these communities. For fossil fuel companies, serious action on climate change remained the major threat to their business models. But for investors and especially for insurers, the companies on the line for more frequent and furious fires and floods, the greater threat was the failure to act.
As a result, the clock representing this subgroup of the business community is now more closely synched with the clock of climate science, in Linden’s view, than is the clock of public concern. Linden concedes, however, that the American public has lately been preoccupied by concerns over COVID-19, the pandemic recession, and, one must now add, the war in Ukraine, which further spurred inflation, most painfully in prices paid at the gas pump.
Linden’s Fire and Flood covers much more material than can be summarized here. While always engaging, it is not a comforting read. For example, Linden rejects the optimistic stories told about the Montreal Protocol on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It took more than 13 years for governments and industry to address CFCs’ impacts on the ozone layer, a comparatively simple problem. If governments and industries operate at the same pace on climate change, an exponentially more difficult problem to solve, then effective action could easily be delayed until 2100 or well beyond.
Troublesome effects … and yet an ‘odd’ form of optimism?
Linden also traces the possible consequences of already observed changes – to truly disturbing conclusions. The warm blobs that now form in the northeastern Pacific, for instance, influence the direction and intensity of trade winds, which in turn affect the water cycles of coastal ecosystems. As a result, northern California’s groves of Giant Redwoods, which are thousands of years old, may not survive the century.
Linden’s new book does, in the end, justify an odd sort of optimism. The finance and insurance industries now see the need to reduce their exposure to climate risks, which they accept as real, growing, and not fully calculable. If they act, the rest of the business world must also act. In his final chapter, Linden offers some policy suggestions for “our narrow path forward” from this new development within the business community. *
To get to these solutions, however, Americans must not be fooled by the new distractions offered by the fossil fuel industry. Supporting Ukraine need not require Americans to choose between security and sustainability.
*Editor’s note: Curiously, the cover story for the April 25th issue of Time magazine, where Linden spent much of his career, describes “how business took on the climate fight.” Another story in the same issue, which hit newsstands on April 15th, reports that an analysis of public filings reveal[s] what business leaders really think about climate.”