In a significant achievement for climate-related literature, John Vaillant, the Canadian-American author, has been awarded the esteemed £50,000 Baillie Gifford prize for his latest book, "Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World." The book, lauded as both “exceptional” and “terrifying” by judges, provides a compelling narrative on the devastating Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta, Canada in 2016, while intricately connecting it to the broader context of the oil industry and climate science. This is the first time a book focusing on the climate crisis has secured the UK's most prestigious non-fiction award since its inception in 1999.
Described as “thoroughly researched and meticulously presented,” Frederick Studemann, the chair of the judging panel and literary editor at the Financial Times, praised "Fire Weather" for its relevance and literary excellence. He emphasized how the book compels readers to introspect and question their perspectives.
On winning the award, Vaillant expressed his gratitude and emphasized the importance of addressing the stark reality of the connection between human consumption patterns, fossil fuel exploitation, and their catastrophic impact on the environment. He aims to inspire actionable awareness through his book, rather than disillusionment.
The awarding of the prize to Vaillant comes amidst scrutiny of Baillie Gifford’s investments in the fossil fuel sector. Earlier in the year, over 150 literary figures urged the company to divest from fossil fuel projects. This criticism also extended to calls for the Edinburgh book festival to reconsider Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship.
Studemann addressed these concerns by clarifying the independence of the judging process from the firm's business practices. He stated that the decision to award a book on climate change was made purely on literary merit without influence from Baillie Gifford’s business activities.
Baillie Gifford's partner, Nick Thomas, addressed the criticism at the award ceremony, acknowledging the company’s reflection on these issues. He defended the firm against allegations of “greenwashing,” noting that their investment in fossil fuels is comparatively low.
Vaillant, in response to queries about Baillie Gifford’s fossil fuel investments, called for a more nuanced understanding and open discussion about our deep entanglement with the petroleum industry.
"Fire Weather" was chosen over five other shortlisted works, including titles by authors Hannah Barnes, Tania Branigan, Christopher Clark, Jeremy Eichler, and Jennifer Homans, who each received £5,000 in recognition of their work.
Judge and journalist Tanjil Rashid commended Vaillant for his investigative narrative and profound insights into human nature and the elemental force of fire.
The judging panel also included writer and historian Ruth Scurr, Royal Society of Arts CEO Andrew Haldane, historian Andrea Wulf, and the Guardian’s theatre critic Arifa Akbar.
Notable past winners of the award include Antony Beevor, Jonathan Coe, and Hallie Rubenhold, with Katherine Rundell winning the previous year for her book on John Donne, "Super-Infinite."