Eugene Linden wrote his first story on climate change, for Time magazine, in 1988; it was just the beginning of his investigative work, exploring all ramifications of this impending disaster. Fire and Flood represents his definitive case for the prosecution as to how and why we have arrived at our current dire pass, closing with his argument that the same forces that have confused the public’s mind and slowed the policy response are poised to pivot with astonishing speed, as long-term risks have become present-day realities and the cliff’s edge is now within view.
Starting with the 1980s, Linden tells the story, decade by decade, by looking at four clocks that move at different speeds: the reality of climate change itself; the scientific consensus about it, which always lags reality; public opinion and political will, which lag further still; and, perhaps most important, business and finance. Reality marches on at its own pace, but the public will and even the science are downstream from the money, and Fire and Flood shows how devilishly effective moneyed climate-change deniers have been at slowing and even reversing the progress of our collective awakening. When a threat means certain but future disaster, but addressing it means losing present-tense profit, capitalism’s response has been sadly predictable.
Now, however, the seasons of fire and flood have crossed the threshold into plain view. Linden focuses on the insurance industry as one loud canary in the coal mine: fire and flood zones in Florida and California, among other regions, are now seeing what many call “climate redlining.” The whole system is teetering on the brink, and the odds of another housing collapse, for starters, are much higher than most people understand. There is a path back from the cliff, but we must pick up the pace. Fire and Flood shows us why, and how.