In 1957 Manley Natland, a geologist working for the California-based Richfield Oil Corporation, was sent to the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada, where he hatched a terrible plan. Extracting crude oil from tar sands is a slow, dirty, and expensive task, requiring the separation of bitumen—a thick oil substance—from the sandy peatland of the Canadian forests. Seeking a more efficient method, Natland figured that setting off nuclear bombs might make the process easier.

His idea, later named Project Oilsand, was in line with the nuclear fever dreams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when scientists and politicians in Canada, Russia, and the United States were considering all variety of ways of “taming the H-bomb.” (Another government initiative, Project Plowshare, championed by Edward Teller—“father of the hydrogen bomb”—was exploring the use of nukes to build canals, dam rivers, and dig for precious metals.) Speaking before the Atomic Energy Research and Development Subcommittee on March 22, 1960, the president of Richfield Oil, W.J. Travers, proposed exploding a nine-kiloton atomic device—just over half the strength of “Little Boy,” the bomb US Air Force pilots dropped on Hiroshima—1,300 feet underground in the Canadian wilderness. “The explosion,” said Travers, “would suddenly liberate 9 trillion calories of heat,” as well as, he hoped, lots of oil.

Setting off radioactive bombs under the earth dangerously contaminates the water and surrounding dirt, but Travers told the committee members that “based on available information, Canadian and United States scientists who have carefully studied the safety problem are convinced that the proposed 9-kiloton test would not result in harmful effects.” The US government not only approved the proposal but agreed to supply the bomb. The plans were eventually set aside without being tried—perhaps owing to fear of Russian espionage rather than safety concerns. Yet given the zeal with which humans in the last three quarters of a century have found other ways to suck vast amounts of petroleum out of the earth, a handful of nukes detonated in the Canadian muskeg would have been just a drop in the barrel of oil’s “harmful effects.”

Few books on climate change have so viscerally captured the destruction we’ve wrought by our reckless addiction to petrochemicals as John Vaillant’s Fire Weather, which takes place mostly in those same boreal tar sands that Natland wanted to detonate. Today the US imports almost four million barrels of oil a day from Canada, about 90 percent of which comes from the tar sands. In May 2016 a wildfire enveloped the boomtown of Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta. It was so powerful that one expert in fire physics, delivering a sort of post-ignis-mortem, said, “The best analogy is the Hamburg firestorm”—the Allied campaign in World War II known as Operation Gomorrah, which dropped 9,000 tons of bombs on the German city, killing around 37,000 people.

Vaillant tells the story of the Fort McMurray fire as a lesson: the myriad comforts of the Petrocene—oil-fueled heating, cooling, transportation, and manufacturing—come at a cost. After an abnormally hot and rainless spring, the forest around the town was bone-dry. Vaillant makes that cost dramatically visible by describing in detail the hellaciously hot towers of flames spawned by a fire tornado that tore through the town; pyrocumulonimbus clouds up to two hundred miles wide that pierced the stratosphere; and spontaneous explosions known as “dragons”:

Godzilla-sized and -shaped eruptions of combusting gas bursting from the crowns of superheated conifer trees can be three hundred feet high and are hot enough to reignite the smoke, soot, and embers above them, driving flames hundreds, even thousands, of feet higher into the smoke column.

The fire burned for fifteen months and spread to nearly a million and a half acres until it was finally extinguished in August 2017. In its first days of life (Vaillant repeatedly attributes organic, almost sentient qualities to fire) it was so hot and destructive that entire houses were rendered into ash heaps in five minutes, “like milk cartons in a bonfire.” In an aside on the 2018 Carr fire in and around Redding, California, Vaillant describes another fire tornado with wind speeds reaching 165 miles per hour and temperatures likely close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit—about three times as hot as the ambient temperature on Venus. Fire-flecked Category 5 hurricane–level winds with “metal-melting heat,” Vaillant writes, “seemed gratuitously biblical.” Even seemingly impermeable enamel toilets and cast-iron pans were practically disintegrated by the flames. “Natural fire never did this,” said one fire expert surveying the damage. “It shouldn’t moonscape.” But it did.

This is all captivating, terrifying stuff, especially through Vaillant’s excellent telling. He has a penchant for finding stories of monomania: his first book, The Golden Spruce (2005), is about a logger turned crusading anti-logger who, in a confused act of ecoterrorism, chops down the titular tree—considered sacred by the indigenous Haida people—in British Columbia. His next, The Tiger (2010), chronicles a vindictive, homicidal Siberian tiger and an expert tracker’s efforts to contain him. Vaillant has also written a novel, The Jaguar’s Children (2015), which similarly captures a superhuman will: a young migrant’s attempt to escape from the almost airless tank of a water truck that he is trapped inside with fourteen other passengers in southern Arizona.


Fire Weather paints a less individual portrait of obsession and doom. Despite being virtually unknown outside of the petroleum industry, over the last fifty years the petro-city of Fort McMurray became one of the largest cities in the subarctic. That’s thanks to bitumen. But harvesting bitumen—a process Vaillant calls “the petrochemical equivalent of squeezing blood from stones”—was only profitable enough to have turned a remote Albertan outpost into a boomtown because of generous government subsidies and voracious oil demand.

Wildfires are a part of life in the boreal forest, and Vaillant writes that for residents of Fort McMurray the smoke clouding the horizon in late April 2016 initially

represented a familiar seasonal awareness, occupying the same mental space as the possibility of a thunderstorm or a blizzard—one among many manageable threats long since factored into the calculus of daily concerns.

But the fire that ultimately consumed the city—the area’s ninth so far that year—quickly proved to be uncontainable.

Vaillant follows its first flickers from the unconcerned tone the mayor and municipal fire chief take at a press conference—the chief admits that the situation has gotten hairy, but hopes that “nature’s done its thing and it’ll leave us alone for a little bit”—to, two days later, the gradual realization that the black clouds billowing increasingly close to densely populated neighborhoods are an urgent threat requiring evacuation. As residents scramble to flee, a traffic jam bottlenecks the roads out of town. Meanwhile local and regional firefighters resort to unorthodox methods and begin using enormous bulldozers and backhoes to rip down houses, razing entire blocks in attempts to starve the fire of fuel.

Vaillant is masterful at dropping the reader into such scenes: barbecue propane tanks exploding like bombs; garages storing sundry combustibles, such as gas cans or welding tanks, becoming giant incendiary devices; a man in shorts and T-shirt using a bulldozer blade as a blast shield as flying gravel and embers swirled around him and “stung like hornets.” You almost feel as if the paroxysmal blazes will burn to the last page.

Amazingly no one died as a direct result of the Fort McMurray fire. Over 90,000 people were displaced, and the fire destroyed about 2,400 homes and buildings. Residents were lucky: large parts of town were spared, many people eventually returned, and—what some count as a success—before the fire was even extinguished, oil production, which had plummeted by about a million barrels a day, resumed. But the townspeople also faced long-simmering consequences: property loss, depression, alcoholism. The climate-wrecking single-industry town turned tinderbox seems a paragon of hubris. Yet Vaillant doesn’t point his finger at the residents, or the workers burning all the gas to extract all that crude. Instead he blames the corporate rapacity, the misguided subsidies, the collective blind eye, and the century of oil-fueled momentum that set the town aflame.

Vaillant traces that hubris back to another Canadian town—Enniskillen, Ontario—in 1858, when the “first productive New World oil wells” were dug. The following year in Titusville, Pennsylvania, “so many wells were dug, so quickly and in such close proximity,” Vaillant writes, “it seemed as if the local fields had suddenly sprouted bumper crops of wooden oil derricks.” The process of safely and efficiently getting the oil from under the shale and into a barrel, however, was then and very much remains inexact. A nearby Titusville creek soon began shimmering with iridescent slicks—some of them catching fire. Even in the initial decades of the oil rush, prescient scientists and some common observers knew that we were, quite literally, playing with fire.

Fire is not necessarily bad, of course. It has kept us warm, fended off predators, set the mood, and helped us digest food for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet our reliance on it has become so ubiquitous, with trillions of fires burning across the world every day, according to Vaillant’s calculations (he includes in his tally fires less visible than the forest kind, such as those burning in gas stoves, pilot lights, incinerators, matches, and the combustions of all sorts of engines), that “humans could easily be mistaken for a global fire cult.” To fuel those many trillions of fires, “on any given day, the human race consumes about 100 million barrels of crude oil, while another 40 million barrels are in transit around the globe via tanker, pipeline, truck, and train.”


In the last section of Fire Weather, Vaillant walks the reader through the rise of early climate science, showing that we well knew the consequences—dangerously rising global temperatures—of all that smoke. It was the pioneering American “artist, inventor, citizen scientist, and early suffragist” Eunice Newton Foote who conducted what became known as the first-ever climate change experiment. In 1856 Foote filled one glass cylinder with carbon dioxide and let another fill with ordinary air, then recorded how quickly they heated up in the sun: the cylinder with what she called “carbonic acid gas” heated up twice as quickly. In other words: watch out.

Eighty-two years later, in 1938, the English engineer and inventor Guy Callendar was proving not only that “the activities of man could have any influence upon phenomena of so vast a scale” as the planet’s climate but that it “is actually occurring at the present time.” That year the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 311. Today it is 421—and rising.

Our use of oil, in many ways, has transformed both the planet and humankind’s place in it. Take one specific scenario Vaillant paints:

Behind the wheel of a Chevy Silverado, a one-hundred-pound woman can generate more than six hundred horsepower as she draws a six-ton trailer at sixty miles an hour while talking on the phone and drinking coffee, in gym clothes on a frigid winter day. Prior to the Petrocene Age, only a king or a pharaoh could have summoned such power.

“Today,” Vaillant concludes, “with cheap and plentiful oil at our disposal, everyone’s an emperor.”

Vaclav Smil, in How the World Really Works (2022), estimates that the average adult now “has at their disposal nearly 700 times more useful energy than their ancestors had at the beginning of the 19th century.” Translating that into physical labor, Smil calculates that the amount of easily accessible energy people in affluent countries often thoughtlessly burn throughout the day—charging a laptop, checking the time on a nightstand clock, relying on a running refrigerator, or being guided by traffic signals—equals the human power of between 200 and 240 people working for you nonstop, day and night. Having that energy at your disposal may appeal, but underlying that opulence is an inherent volatility.

Such multibillion-dollar fires as Fort McMurray, in which whole cities or neighborhoods succumb to flashover—“sudden and total combustion”—will become more frequent in coming decades. And yet, Vaillant reports, they still seem so unlikely from our perches of comfort that even when they do strike, when the fire is already surrounding a neighborhood or home, people remain in denial. Vaillant relays one woman’s experience: as black clouds sparkling with embers began to blot out the sun and swirl ever closer to the neighborhood, she went to drop off clothes at the dry cleaner. After some hesitation, the worker took the woman’s clothes, logged the drop-off, and said, “Tuesday good?” and the woman responded, “Yeah, next Tuesday’s great.”

But next Tuesday there would be no dry cleaner, no laundry machines, no clothes. Following the author and risk analyst Nassim Taleb, Vaillant refers to such denialism as the Lucretius problem, after the Roman philosopher who noted that a fool believes that the tallest mountain he’s seen is the tallest in existence: “the self-protective tendency to favor the status quo over a potentially disruptive scenario one has not witnessed personally.” Such self-protection only goes so far. We can refuse a thought or deny evidence, but the flames will catch up.

Caught up they have. In June 2021 a heat dome formed and hovered over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada. In British Columbia temperatures topped 121 degrees. At one point, in just a twenty-four-hour period, the temperature in downtown Portland jumped from 76 degrees to 114 degrees. It got so hot, Jeff Goodell writes in his latest book, The Heat Will Kill You First, that “if you’d had the right kind of microphone, scientists say, you could have heard the trees screaming.”

Seattle-area doctors, desperate to lower body temperatures as quickly as possible, filled body bags with ice and zipped people inside. Still, about a hundred people died of the heat. Other deaths more than doubled that month. As bad as it was, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver could have seen much worse. Europe suffered deadly heat waves in 2003 and again in 2022, which killed approximately 70,000 and over 61,000 people, respectively, most of them elderly or with some underlying condition. “A heat wave is a predatory event,” Goodell writes, “one that culls out the most vulnerable people”—especially the poor. The difference in temperature between rich and poor parts of Portland during that 2021 heat wave, largely due to the “urban heat island effect”—dense concentrations of unshaded concrete—was 25 degrees. As Goodell shows, it only takes a couple of notches up on the climatic thermostat to make the difference between sweaty and dead.

Goodell, a contributing writer at Rolling Stone, has focused his reporting on climate change for over two decades. His previous books include Big Coal (2006) and The Water Will Come (2017). Like Vaillant, Goodell mixes doomsaying with useful finger-pointing. “At some point in the not-so-distant future,” he writes, “the question of who burned the fossil fuel that caused the heat wave that killed Jane Doe will become the climate version of who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Jane Doe.”

Researchers, activists, and writers such as Vaillant and Goodell are turning climate crises into whodunnits, which is politically and even existentially useful. One of Goodell’s more uplifting chapters, “Anatomy of a Crime Scene,” tells the story of the rise of “extreme event attribution.” Scientists such as Friederike Otto, a German-born climatologist working in Britain, are studying to what extent climate catastrophes are caused by man-made climate change. It’s the “first science ever developed with the court in mind,” Otto tells Goodell. The hope is to pin climate crimes on polluters, clarifying legal liability and beginning to answer the question, “Who is responsible for trashing the climate, and how can they be held responsible?”

The Heat Will Kill You First spans the globe, with Goodell constantly on assignment, jumping from melting icebergs in Antarctica to the scalding streets of Chennai. His stories make heat, and the dangers it incites, visible in new ways: one of his chapter titles is “What You Can’t See Won’t Hurt You,” a dangerous misconception. In a discussion of the history of Parisian architecture, he shows not only why spikes in summer temperatures fry residents under traditional zinc roofs, but how difficult it will be for such a city in coming decades to adapt and keep cool. Heat-proofing Paris is possible but would be a monumental undertaking. “That’s the thing with cities,” Goodell writes. “Unless you have an emperor like Napoléon III or a power broker like Robert Moses, retrofitting takes time.”

What is decidedly not the ultimate answer to being fried in your own city is air-conditioning, Goodell reports. In the summer of 2018, the same season that temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona, crested at 116 degrees—by now this is expected weather—the utility provider Arizona Public Service cut off power to Stephanie Pullman, a seventy-two-year old woman who lived alone with her cat, Cocoa. At the end of August, the company had written her a warning letter, requiring that she pay the $176.84 she owed in the next five days. Pullman, who had been stretching less than a thousand dollars a month in social security payments, paid $125 after receiving the letter, but she was still in arrears. As for many people in Phoenix and the American West, for Pullman air-conditioning was a survival tool. After the utility company turned off her electricity, she died of heat.

Arizona utilities customers are now protected from service shut-offs during extreme weather. Still, Maricopa County, where Phoenix is situated, recorded over six hundred heat-associated deaths in 2023. Most of those who die are poor, often unhoused—a condition Goodell calls “temperature apartheid.”

Goodell interviews Mikhail Chester, a researcher focused on adaptation to climate change who says that Phoenix suffering a major power outage in the summer months—possibly due to a spike in energy usage in reaction to a heat wave, or a wildfire knocking out a power line on a hot day—is inevitable. That could put as many as 1.6 million people into the situation Stephanie Pullman faced: soaring indoor temperatures with no working air conditioners or fans to beat the heat. Chester wondered aloud to Goodell: “What will the Hurricane Katrina of extreme heat look like?”

Using AC to save lives and keep comfortable is a problem not only because it makes us dependent on an undependable fix. Such reliance also keeps us from pursuing more responsible mitigation such as building houses with more shade, more airflow, and less heat-absorbent material. Even more concerningly, it creates a feedback loop: millions of people cooling their homes in high heat requires vast amounts of fossil fuel energy, which increases the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, which further raises temperatures, which requires more cooling, more energy, and then, one day: blackout.

Heat can push human bodies into a similar “lethal feedback loop.” Once your core body temperature rises to 102 or 103 degrees, your heart desperately tries to pump blood toward the surface of your skin to cool it down. But the faster your heart beats, the higher your metabolism rises, which generates more heat, and so the heart pumps faster, creating yet more heat, and then a higher heart rate, and by the time you reach 107 degrees your cells begin to, as Goodell puts it, “denature.”

What is particularly frightening about hyperthermia, the medical term for a body getting just a few degrees warmer than the Goldilocks range—that just-right spot between about 97 and 99 degrees—is that the brain stops working very well. Goodell tells the story of Kelly Watt, an eighteen-year-old track star who went on a too-long run on a too-hot day in Virginia in 2005 and then died. Handprints found on his car suggested that he had likely made it there, but the heat may have so blurred his thinking that he couldn’t figure out how to open the door and turn on the AC, which probably would have saved his life. Reading Goodell and Vaillant you may begin to wonder if civilization itself is getting so hot that we’re no longer thinking straight.

Goodell tracks other troubling effects of heat. Researchers estimate that since the 1990s, extreme heat waves have cost the global economy around $16 trillion. “When people are stressed by heat,” Goodell writes, “racial slurs and hate speech in social media spike. Suicides rise. Gun violence increases. There are more rapes and more violent crime.” One study found that people honk their car horns more. Higher temperatures have been linked to the outbreak of civil war and migration. “For every degree Celsius of increase in global mean temperature,” Goodell writes, “yields are expected to decrease by 7 percent for corn, 6 percent for wheat, and 3 percent for rice.”

Vaillant offers some hope at the end of Fire Weather, musing on the concept of revirescence—a capacious term for regrowth and regeneration that he imbues with a shade of spirituality. Less than a month after the Carr fire ripped through towns in Northern California, Vaillant writes, green tendrils “burst through the scorched hardpan, nourished by the still-vital roots of those flayed and blackened trees.” Goodell, overall, isn’t as sanguine. In the course of his research he discovered not only “how easily and quickly heat can kill you” but also “how deeply connected we are to one another and to all living things.” So we will all cook together—slight comfort as the mercury creeps upward and wildfires continue to kindle.