Review

Humanity’s Unhappy Experiment

Understanding how the climate crisis unfolded can help us reverse course.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A firefighter sprays water on a propane tank as a home burns due to the Dixie fire in Plumas County, California, on July 24.
A firefighter sprays water on a propane tank as a home burns due to the Dixie fire in Plumas County, California, on July 24. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Long before anyone understood how the climate worked, a little—yet devastating—ice age enveloped the Earth beginning around the 14th century and reaching its chilly nadir in the mid-17th century. Expanding glaciers demolished entire villages while people starved and shivered to death. Frozen birds fell from the sky; empires collapsed.

As terrible as the little ice age was, it was just a harbinger for how humans would radically transform the climate in the years to come, Alice Bell writes in her new book, Our Biggest Experiment. Just as human forces are fueling unprecedented levels of warming today, they may have also helped usher in earlier freezing temperatures. (While aided by a decline in solar radiation, the little ice age also had roots in colonization, which took the lives of 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas. That loss of life likely sent atmospheric carbon dioxide levels—and temperatures—plummeting.)

Centuries later, we still haven’t learned our lesson. As people continue to tamper with the environment, the world is heating up—with dangerous results. In recent months, countries have been buckling under extreme droughts, torrential rain, and searing heat waves, all clear indicators of our changing climate. Humans are the unequivocal perpetrators, particularly by burning fossil fuels that release copious quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Long before anyone understood how the climate worked, a little—yet devastating—ice age enveloped the Earth beginning around the 14th century and reaching its chilly nadir in the mid-17th century. Expanding glaciers demolished entire villages while people starved and shivered to death. Frozen birds fell from the sky; empires collapsed.

Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis, Alice Bell, Counterpoint, 384 pp., , September 2021

Our Biggest Experiment: An Epic History of the Climate Crisis, Alice Bell, Counterpoint, 384 pp., $27, September 2021

As terrible as the little ice age was, it was just a harbinger for how humans would radically transform the climate in the years to come, Alice Bell writes in her new book, Our Biggest Experiment. Just as human forces are fueling unprecedented levels of warming today, they may have also helped usher in earlier freezing temperatures. (While aided by a decline in solar radiation, the little ice age also had roots in colonization, which took the lives of 50 million Indigenous people in the Americas. That loss of life likely sent atmospheric carbon dioxide levels—and temperatures—plummeting.)

Centuries later, we still haven’t learned our lesson. As people continue to tamper with the environment, the world is heating up—with dangerous results. In recent months, countries have been buckling under extreme droughts, torrential rain, and searing heat waves, all clear indicators of our changing climate. Humans are the unequivocal perpetrators, particularly by burning fossil fuels that release copious quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

How did we find ourselves in this mess? Our Biggest Experiment charts the history of the climate crisis, highlighting the people who began connecting the dots—and those who stymied their efforts. Bell, a climate campaigner and writer, takes us back to the 18th century, when the little ice age was winding down and the quest for industrialization began. 

Bell traces those critical centuries in astonishing—almost exhausting—detail. She shows how the world got hooked on fossil fuels, how scientists began to grapple with the weather and understand the climate, how Big Oil undermined climate science, and, perhaps most importantly, what we can learn from the past. 

Bell dashes through centuries of science with vivid, fluid writing, enlisting a sprawling cast of characters to shed light on topics including the creation of the world’s modern energy mix and the birth of atmospheric understanding. The realization that filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide could send temperatures soaring came surprisingly early, in the mid-19th century. By the dawn of the next century, there was little doubt what ever-growing emissions would do. What was missing was much concern.

The climate crisis “doesn’t hit people with a clearly identifiable thud,” nor does it arrive in a “single ‘eureka’ moment,” Bell writes. There were other factors in play. Scientists for decades feared global cooling more than warming. In the early 1900s, gently rising temperatures were welcomed as a boon to agriculture. And then some powerful corporations actively cast doubt on climate change to protect their businesses. The oil industry led the charge for climate change skepticism, pushing a position that emphasized “uncertainty” despite all evidence to the contrary.

A recurring theme in Our Biggest Experiment is that climate issues have always been inextricably tied to class, race, and gender. Progress was made off the backs of suffering communities, whether through the slave trade or workers operating in squalid conditions—and they also bore the brunt of the environmental impacts. When pollution became unbearable, Bell writes, the “rich could move, or simply found it was never built near them in the first place.” The poor weren’t as lucky. They still aren’t. The global south, responsible for only around 10 percent of cumulative global emissions, are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Richer countries such as Britain, where Bell lives, have merely outsourced their use of coal and other dirty fuels, and by so doing, such a nation is “able to dress itself up as a climate leader for quitting the stuff in ways other countries simply don’t have the means to,” Bell writes. 

Our Biggest Experiment is not a quick read. Meticulously researched, the book covers so much ground, and so many people, that at times the story can feel tangled and convoluted. In covering the entirety of the climate crisis—a laudable feat—Bell risks losing sight of the larger picture. But she makes up for it with a wealth of nuggets of environmental history. Ever curious about the history behind the phrase “tree huggers”? They were real—and dedicated. In 1730, when villagers in Khejarli, in northwestern India, learned that their culturally important khejri trees were set to be chopped down for a new palace, they defended them to the death, literally: In exchange for one villager’s life, one tree would be spared. One by one, villagers wrapped their arms around the trees and lost their heads. After hundreds of people were killed in the effort, the palace’s ruler finally promised to leave them—and their trees—alone.

In Our Biggest Experiment, Bell paints a dark picture of the world but not one without hope. “The story of the climate crisis has always been a choose your own adventure,” she writes. “We’ve inherited an almighty mess, but we’ve also inherited a lot of tools that could, if we choose wisely and make the most of them, help us and others survive.” Some people already are: On Tuesday, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their work in understanding how human behavior drives climate change. And as almost 200 world leaders prepare to meet in Glasgow, Scotland, this fall for international climate talks, it’s imperative for policymakers to prioritize the same issues.

Bell acknowledges that the task seems daunting. “Most of us are pretty clueless about how we built this world in the first place, and so struggle to work out where to start rebuilding it,” she writes. For curious readers, this book is a great place to start.

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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