In 1979 US President Jimmy Carter was presented with a report by scientists showing how human activity might be adversely affecting the climate. ‘A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late,’ the report said. They were right, but no one was listening. Four decades later, we are haunted by the consequences of this inattention, and the staggering scale of what we have done to the planet has become impossible to ignore.
In April 2022 veteran environmental journalist Eugene Linden came to Intelligence Squared to talk about the themes of his new book Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change from 1979 to the Present. He laid out how successive US governments managed to delay action on climate change when they should have been raising the alarm. And why China and India, which could have taken a lead on renewables, double downed on coal to fuel their industrialisation in the 1990s. And perhaps most critically, he explained the role of the insurance industry in creating our climate predicament in the first place. He outlined how the industry continues to insure infrastructure in areas at high risk from extreme weather events and how, as the real costs of insurance in these places becomes clear, a financial meltdown greater than that of 2008 could be triggered.
Linden laid out the story of the complacency, obfuscation and denial that define the modern climate change era and gave his vision of how a radically new relationship between business and society could avert a climate catastrophe.