“Let’s start at the very beginning / A very good place to start,” sings Julie Andrews as she instructs the von Trapp children in the 1965 film The sound of music. Two new books on climate change answer that call in a powerful and useful way, providing “big picture” information not often drawn from the wealth of current writing on the subject.
Eugene Linden is an author and journalist who has written on climate issues for over three decades. His new book, Fires and Floods: A People’s History of Climate Changefrom 1979 to the present, dives deep into the story of how we got here and where we might go from there.
He notes that the issue of rising carbon dioxide causing rising global temperatures was first brought to the attention of the US government under President Jimmy Carter in 1979, with the release of the Charney Report of a ad hoc committee of the National Academy of Sciences. “Now, a true dawn of climate action finally seems within reach,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “[T]Things change quickly. Not as fast, alas, as the climate itself.
“While technology must play a role in how we tackle climate change, it is not enough to integrate new technologies and new regulations into existing economic models based on the plunder of the planet’s resources.”
Linden views the climate crisis with four parallel clocks, all starting in 1979 but each running at different speeds, and sometimes even in reverse. These clocks represent “the interaction of four different domains: reality, the scientific world, public opinion and the world of business and finance”. He notes that the latter three are “all lagging behind the reality of climate change, but to varying degrees.”
Using this lens, Linden walks us through the decades to the present day, pointing out the many times “nations wavered in every action to avert the threat.” While some of these failures relate to science needing to develop tools to measure, monitor, and model systems, some of them have been malicious. It recalls chemical company DuPont’s efforts to delay regulation of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, the refrigerant chemicals that holed the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It turned out,” Linden recalls, “a threat to life on Earth was less of a concern to DuPont’s C-suite than a threat to quarterly earnings.” Corporate efforts to block or delay the regulation of these chemicals in the 1980s were instrumental in the 1990s and early 2000s in building tools and tactics to block action against change climatic.
Linden, speaking of the years under President George W. Bush, said, “Untold damage has been done as the administration of the world’s largest economy and greenhouse gas emitter has spent eight years sabotaging actively in efforts to combat global warming.
His most scathing criticism relates to the years under Donald Trump, characterized by “the mockery of expertise, a childish tendency to ‘own the libs,’ and a general trivialization of political discourse.” He says the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic on Trump’s watch “has propelled the climate change story in unexpected ways.”
On the one hand, it “has given citizens of the world’s most polluted megacities a glimpse of what life might be like” in a world with clean skies, as the economic shutdown has given the atmosphere a dwindling temporary pollutants.
Linden is open about the underlying causes of our current climate crisis, that it is “deeply entrenched in capitalism to disregard any action that might interrupt the existing flow of money.” He remains cautiously hopeful: “We know where we are going, we know what the likely consequences are, and we have the tools to temper or even avoid an impending catastrophe.
The existential question: will we do it?
Most of Aviva Chomsky’s writing has focused on Latin America and on immigration and labor issues. But in his new book, Is science enough? : Forty critical questions about climate justiceprofessor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latin American and Caribbean studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts – and daughter of world-renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky – practices her analytical skills on what is quite possibly the key issue of our time.
“Literature on climate change has proliferated over the past decade,” Chomsky writes in the book’s introduction. “Yet there is no single, short, accessible book that breaks down the complexities, terminology, disagreements, and issues in the debates for activists, students, and the interested general public.”
That’s what she sets out to do Is science enough?. The book delves into “some of the biggest questions that the climate debate frequently sidesteps” – including population growth, immigration and, of course, capitalism itself. “Dealing with climate change,” she explains, “means understanding how we got here and questioning some of the fundamental ways in which our society and our economy are organised.”
In each highly readable section, Chomsky dissects the fundamental questions behind current conversations. She wonders if technology can save us. His answer: “Here, I join the critics who adopt a more radical, ecological and systemic vision. While technology must play a role in how we tackle climate change, it is not enough to integrate new technologies and new regulations into existing economic models based on plundering the planet’s resources.
Many readers will be drawn to the chapter on individual actions. “Given the paralysis of our institutions in the face of the climate emergency,” Chomsky writes, “it is natural to think about the kinds of actions we can take individually to make a difference.” But, as she notes, “for our individual actions to have political meaning, we must go beyond simply viewing our actions as adjustments to personal lifestyle and consumption. We cannot extricate ourselves from the problems that our economic system has created. It is through organized social movements and political action that we can create the kind of pressure needed for real structural change.
Chomsky deftly navigates questions that cloud people’s thinking on the matter, such as those relating to food, air travel and whether or not to buy a Prius. (His answer: no.)
“We need to change our economy and our politics if we want to transition to a new low-emissions society,” she writes. “[T]To make this change, we must regain control of a corporate system that has every interest in becoming sustainable.
Chomsky also devotes part of the book to climate justice, examining “expressions of climate-related racism and inequality and calling for changes in the structures that cause these problems.” She asks “how the social and economic divisions that characterize our world relate to the causes of climate change and its impacts”.
In conclusion, Chomsky, like Linden, remains cautiously hopeful. “Despite this rather bleak history and structural national and global obstacles, there are reasons for optimism,” she writes. “[T]Today, people recognize the urgency and show the will to act.
This book will give them ideas on what to do and how to do it.