Under Fire and Under Water

Wildfire, Flooding, and the Fight for Climate Resilience in the American West

Cover of Under Fire and Under Water by Bruce Cain

Epic wildfire. Devastating drought. Cataclysmic flooding. Extreme weather in the wake of climate change threatens to turn the American West into a region hostile to human habitation—a “Great American Desert,” as early US explorers once mislabeled it. As Bruce E. Cain suggests in this timely book, the unique complex of politics, technology, and logistics that once won the West must be rethought and reconfigured to win it anew in the face of a widespread accelerating threat.

The challenges posed by increasingly extreme weather in the West are complicated by the region’s history, the deliberate fractiousness of the American political system, and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior—all of which Cain considers, separately and together, in Under Fire and Under Water. He analyzes how, in spite of coastal flooding and spreading wildfires, people continue to move into, and even rebuild in, risky areas; how local communities are slow to take protective measures; and how individual beliefs, past adaptation practices and infrastructure, and complex governing arrangements across jurisdictions combine to flout real progress. Driving Cain’s analysis is the conviction that understanding the habits and politics that lead to procrastination and obstruction is critical to finding solutions and making necessary adaptations to the changing climate.

As a detailed look at the rising stakes and urgency of the various interconnected issues, this book is an important first step toward that understanding—and consequently toward the rethinking and reengineering that will allow people to live sustainably in the American West under the conditions of future global warming.


Bruce E. Cain is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. He is the author of Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary and coauthor of Ethnic Context, Race Relations, and California Politics.