Temperature Control

A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (Penguin History American Life) BY Patrick Allitt. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 336 pages. $29.

The cover of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism (Penguin History American Life)

LAST SPRING, A THIRTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD COLLEGE DROPOUT–TURNED–ENERGY EXECUTIVE named Billy Parish came to talk to my journalism class at Vanderbilt University. The course focused on climate reporting, and Parish had recently been profiled in Fortune magazine as a young virtuoso in the solar industry. Students wanted to hear his perspective as an innovator: What did he consider the most important untold story on climate change? “Easy,” he said, “it’s the story of our victory in progress, the story that we’re winning—not losing—the climate battle.”

Most progressive journalists hate to talk about actual progress, Parish went on to argue, so they spend their time mewling about what’s not getting done on the climate-legislation front. Science writers, meanwhile, nitpick about important but arcane details of atmospheric warming in parts per million and other mind-numbing measurements. The skeptics, for their part, continue to chant, like skipping records, their groundless but vehement doubts about the problem’s very existence. Little wonder that Americans turn a deaf ear to this issue.

Maybe they wouldn’t, Parish argued, if they could read more climate literature that matters—stories about how America is actually innovating and adapting in response to this crisis, even as global treaties have languished and climate legislation collects dust on the shelves of Congress.

Parish waxed technophilic, telling stories about new carbon-cutting innovations on the horizon: wind turbines designed like jet engines, not propellers; fuels made from algae and batteries made from viruses; nanotech solar cells that are smaller than gnats and can be integrated into paints, shingles, and glass. He explained that the cost of solar energy has come down 80 percent in the last five years, and solar production has grown more than 50 percent a year. “We’ve got to stop acting helpless,” he said. “We’ve got to start telling the stories of why we’re winning.”

As a budding entrepreneur, Parish is notably prone to enthusiasm. But his argument stayed with me, and after his visit I began to see climate literature a bit differently, dividing it into two categories: The first, and overwhelmingly the largest, includes stories of conjecture about climate change itself—about whether it’s happening at all; whether humans are to blame; how severe the problem is or isn’t; how catastrophic the impacts may become. The second, and much more intriguing, category focuses on the tangible, practical ways we’re beginning to adapt: stories about innovators who are trying, against vertiginous odds, to get technologies and strategies in place that can make our transition to a low-carbon economy not just possible but seamless.

I’ve become impatient, at best, with books that question the existence of climate change—such arguments, at this late stage of the debate, are hard to read as anything more than red-meat fare for Fox News conservatives. That’s why I found it vexing (if at times unexpectedly entertaining) to slog through Patrick Allitt’s A Climate of Crisis. Allitt makes it clear in his title that he aligns with the skeptics camp: He’s setting out to chronicle not the climate crisis per se, but rather the “climate” of alarmism and doomsaying that he believes has plagued the environmental movement for the better part of a century, and is now finding its fullest expression in the global-warming issue.

Allitt is a British expat who teaches American history at Emory University and has published six other books about conservative politics, on topics ranging from education to religion. He considers himself a historian, but does not pretend to objectivity: “Historians, however much they strive for objectivity, are citizens too, with beliefs and convictions about the world that are likely to shine through their presentation and explanation of the past,” he writes, with a supercilious air that wafts through much of his narration. “I make no secret of the fact that I consider industrial civilization a superb accomplishment, very much worth protecting and improving.”

Allitt establishes a very clear objective for his book: “The best way to understand environmental problems is to study them historically. That is as true with global warming as with everything else.” I’ll address the problem with this premise in a moment, but first let me stress that Allitt devotes only one twenty-page chapter (the ninth of eleven), plus a smattering of pages at the beginning and end of A Climate of Crisis, to the topic of climate change. He spends the remainder of this three-hundred-plus-page book critiquing the principal environmental controversies of the post–World War II era, starting with fears of nuclear catastrophe and marching through issues including ozone, smog, pesticides (and other cancer-linked chemicals), endangered species, energy policy, and GMOs.

On most of these issues, Allitt argues, environmentalists have raised unnecessary alarms: “I argue that the mood of crisis that surrounded a succession of environmental fears was usually disproportionate to the actual danger involved,” he writes, adding that while America has faced real environmental problems, they were manageable problems, and our political system has proved equal to the task of solving them. He applauds American politicians for producing effective environmental solutions between 1969 and 1973: “In a sustained burst of bi-partisan cooperation, [members of Congress] transformed the politics of the environment more drastically than at any time before or since.” In this four-year period, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, and green-lit the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Lawmakers also shored up clean-air and clean-water legislation, and tightened pesticide restrictions and coastal protections.

Allitt lauds these legislative achievements, even though he also goes out of his way to disparage how “overregulation was crushing American business and absorbing a disproportionate part of the nation’s gross domestic product.” (He also bizarrely implies that our landmark environmental laws won passage in spite of the efforts of environmental activists, not because of them.)

Allitt concedes that, “at its best,” the environmental movement of the 1970s inspired Americans to support “a more careful approach to the environment,” but he stresses that, “at its worst, the new environmentalism stimulated a mood of apocalyptic thinking, demonizing business and government, denigrating the human capacity to reform, and creating successive scares about imminent disasters that never materialized.”

To certify environmentalists as bona fide enemies of progress, Allitt quotes a historian who applauds “old conservationists,” including John James Audubon and Frederick Law Olmsted, for being “openly anthropocentric,” while dismissing “new environmentalists” as “intellectual descendants of the Romantics, who had protested against the new power of science and technology.” Allitt crafts portraits of several top environmental activists as anti-industrial zealots who penned histrionic prose. He quotes the famed writer Rachel Carson, author of the classic study of pesticide pollution Silent Spring, as a representative case. “As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life,” Carson argued. “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance.”

In reality, Carson took great care, in the main, to ground her prose in dispassionate scientific research, and only rarely crossed over into apocalyptic prophecy. Even so, if Carson and her allies followed the Romantic tradition closely enough to rally to the ideal of a world in which birds would still sing, trees would still grow, and rivers wouldn’t catch on fire, such reveries, far from obstructing the path of rational progress, produced the very landmark environmental legislation that Allitt holds forth as a model of responsible bipartisan lawmaking. Effective reform politics requires strong empirical foundations and an activist base engaged and impassioned enough to prod the legislative process forward—and to a remarkable degree the American environmental activists of the late 1960s and early ’70s displayed both.

BUT ALLITT MAKES his gravest mistake when he chooses to lump global warming in with his overbroad litany of past environmental issues, from the antinuclear movement to the protection of endangered species. He blithely exhorts readers to consider climate change in light of two trends: “The first is that the Earth has a long history of climate fluctuation and change. . . . The second point is that humanity has a long history of making predictions about the future, nearly all of which have turned out to be wrong.”

In such airy, reassuring chatter, Allitt completely fails to recognize the enormous chasm that sets climate change apart from previous environmental concerns. No other issues even compare in scope. No other environmental question has witnessed a sweeping consensus among global scientists—98 percent of them, to be exact—defining the issue as a near and present crisis. Relatedly, no other environmental development has been backed by such a clear historical trend line—with evidence of the present warming cycle compared against data stretching back nearly half a million years. And the Pentagon hasn’t troubled itself to declare any other environmental issue among the gravest national security threats of our time.

In the twenty-some pages in which Allitt actually addresses the climate issue, he rarely probes into hard scientific facts—and when he does, he leaves us hanging. On page 208, I was exhilarated to see him begin to describe the ice-core data that show how unprecedented climate change really is: “These ice core experiments established that CO2 levels had always been higher during inter-glacial periods and lower during recurrent ice ages, suggesting a close correlation between a CO2-rich atmosphere and global warmth.” Now we’re getting somewhere! I thought, and I drew further encouragement from his follow-on sentence: “Readings from the most recent levels, after the industrial revolution, were highest.”

But Allitt simply lets the matter rest there. He omits the stunning results of ice-core data, which show that the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are nearly 30 percent higher than they have been in four hundred thousand years.

Allitt also trots out the “Climategate” scandal without acknowledging that all the scientists involved in this allegedly damning e-mail trail concerning the coordinated release of climate data were ultimately exculpated by the UK Parliament; he groundlessly shrugs off climate modeling as inaccurate; he fails to mention basic data, such as the fact that thirteen of the hottest years on global record have occurred in the last fifteen years, and that megatyphoons and superstorms, recently considered once-in-a-decade, or -century, events, are now becoming annual ones. Allitt fancies himself a technophile devoted to the genius of “industrial civilization.” But a true technophile would see that American industrial innovation has stalled out for the past hundred years. Most of us are still using the same cars, power plants, power grid, trains, trucks, public transit, airplane engines, appliances, and lightbulbs that we were using a century ago. As the old saw goes,“Necessity is the mother of invention,” and climate change is the necessity that will drive our industrial system to revive and reinvent itself. I agree completely with Allitt’s premise that it was America’s industrial successes—its ingenuity—that got us into this global-warming mess, and most environmentalists I know would also agree that our industrial ingenuity will get us out of it.

PERHAPS NO ONE AGREES more than New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has been credited with building the world’s most ambitious urban climate-preparedness program in response to the staggering impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This is the topic of the new e-book Bloomberg’s Hidden Legacy, by Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci, distributed via Kindle by Amazon. Hidden Legacy was published by InsideClimate News, the breakout online news source that nabbed a Pulitzer last spring for its investigative reports, such as “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Bagley and Gallucci’s book is a short and in some ways rushed treatment of its vital and underreported subject. It clocks in at around twenty-five thousand words, and reads more like a magazine feature than a book in the traditional sense. But for all its weaknesses of format and style, Hidden Legacy represents a vital, paradigm-shifting turn in the sprawling climate literature. It’s a story about innovators tackling the arduous task of employing new technologies and strategies to help us negotiate the critical transition to a low-carbon economy.

Let’s address the flaws first: Bagley and Gallucci bring in few perspectives from sources outside the Bloomberg administration. This means that the book fails to highlight any serious critiques of Bloomberg’s strategy—and on more than a few occasions, veers uncomfortably into hero worship of Gotham’s billionaire leader: “The issue remains whether New York, or any other city for that matter, can persist with such a costly and complex undertaking without a powerful, strong-willed leader guiding the show—a Michael Bloomberg, if you will.” And into the bargain, Hidden Legacy overlooks the efforts of many other cities—London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, just for starters—that have also created seminal strategies for preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Such myopia aside, the writing is spare and swift, and moves us through very complex and technical information about urban planning without getting mired in details. Here, for example, is the authors’ account of how New York looked in the throes of Sandy’s landfall:

People watched from their windows as their streets and neighborhoods crumbled and flooded. Trees collapsed into buildings and onto cars. Inundated with salt water, a transformer erupted into a ball of sparks and left a large swath of lower Manhattan dark. A construction crane atop one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers dangled dangerously above West 57th Street. Water poured down stairs and into subway tunnels, smashing metal gates as it rushed in.

Hidden Legacy is rich with similar vignettes that help readers understand the human side of what it calls a “massive urban rethink” around climate change. It shows real city officials making tough decisions in emergency conditions. It focuses on displaced families struggling with the quest for shelter, financial support, and food assistance as the city dug out from a natural disaster that killed forty-four New Yorkers and wrought $20 billion in damage. And the book follows the efforts of Bloomberg’s emergency team to overcome barriers and resistance to their plans, and barrel ahead into uncharted territory.

Bagley and Gallucci also examine the political risks Bloomberg took in supporting bold action on climate change as early as 2006, when he pushed to implement strict requirements for building efficiency, clean vehicles, wetland restoration, and expanded public transit, among other measures to slash the city’s carbon emissions. This was well before climate change had gained any real traction as a popular political issue, so Bloomberg’s plan earned him few allies, particularly in New York’s business community. He infuriated real estate developers, for instance, when he forced them to adhere to costly efficiency standards during the recession.

By 2012, Bloomberg had become defiant on the climate issue. Days after the hurricane hit, the magazine that bears his name, Bloomberg Businessweek, displayed on its cover in huge black letters the headline “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID!” above an image of a flooded Lower Manhattan.

Hidden Legacy details the exhaustive efforts Bloomberg’s team made developing and promoting their proposal for “congestion pricing”—which would impose a stiff fee on drivers who entered Manhattan during rush hour, thus radically limiting the amount of car traffic in the city—only to have the state legislature summarily shut the plan down. Bloomberg’s advisers forged ahead, post-Sandy, to craft 257 other climate-related initiatives in their $19.5 billion plan, most of which could be implemented without legislative approval.

Bagley and Gallucci also show how Bloomberg’s foresight on the climate issue paid off in unexpected ways: Years before Sandy hit, one member of his climate team, Columbia University geophysicist Klaus Jacob, had investigated the damage that the city’s infrastructure could suffer during a major storm. His report included maps showing how fast storm water would travel and where it would collect. Just before Sandy hit, transit employees used this report’s forecasting data to move subway cars and buses to higher ground, and to navigate vulnerable tunnels and remove costly electronics that would be destroyed by flooding.

A trove of photos and interactive charts, diagrams, and maps accompanies the text of Hidden Legacy. These features give the reader the feeling of observing a story in motion, almost re-creating a real-time account of the Sandy calamity and its aftermath. In part, this you-are-there quality is a simple function of the speed and texture of the book’s narrative, but it also stems from the unique format of Hidden Legacy; as an e-book, it didn’t have to contend with the traditional lag time of print books, and its facts and insights haven’t gone stale. The authors include, for instance, copious material from an interview they conducted with Bloomberg himself in September, just two months before the book’s publication date.

Climate change is a uniquely dynamic topic—a story with evidence that is getting constantly updated—and conventional publishing schedules are unable to keep up. The most recent scientific research Allitt references about climate change is two years old (as is typical of many print books); Hidden Legacy, by contrast, was able to cull together data that appeared just weeks before its publication.

Perhaps above all, Hidden Legacy reminds us why climate literature matters—why telling this story can change the way we relate to the challenge of global warming and improve our ability to solve it. In 2009, Bloomberg said of his ongoing climate efforts: “Planning for climate change today is less expensive than rebuilding an entire network after a catastrophe. We cannot wait until after our infrastructure has been compromised to begin to plan for the effects of climate change.” In a 2007 speech, he exhorted, “This is America! We can’t be afraid to lead, to innovate, to experiment. Cities aren’t afraid.”

It took five years after that last call to arms—until Sandy’s disastrous landfall—for Bloomberg to get widespread support for his multibillion-dollar plan to protect the city from further impacts of climate change. A Bloomberg aide summed up the way that Sandy changed the fundamental debate over climate preparedness in the city: “It brought home to people the very basic feeling that energy, water, climate change, all of these things matter in a very visceral, very real way to the city—not just to the city as a future city in 50 years, but right now. Getting it right now is important.”

This also illuminates why the kinds of stories we’re able to tell about the climate crisis matter so much. Getting this issue right now is important. For all its shortcomings, Hidden Legacy meets that challenge; A Climate of Crisis, sadly, doesn’t begin to get it at all.

Amanda Little is the author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy (Harper Collins, 2009) and a writer-in-residence in the English department at Vanderbilt University.