Book Review: Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006)

“It’s really a very interesting time.”

So a geophysicist from the University of Alaska tells Elizabeth Kolbert as she visits his study of the permafrost in Alaska. That “interesting time” is the global warming taking place on the planet.

Kolbert expanded a three-part series she wrote for New Yorker magazine into Field Notes from a Catastrophe, a highly readable and informative account of the causes of global warming, its implications and the problems in dealing with it. Field notes is an appropriate description. Kolbert isn’t an author who sits at her desk, searching for information on the internet and doing telephone interviews. She takes the reader with her not only to the Alaska permafrost studies but to the ice pack in Greenland, glaciers in Iceland, butterfly studies near Yorkshire, England, and canals in the Netherlands built to reclaim land, as well as conferences on global warming and political offices.

Along the way, Kolbert translates what could be some difficult ideas for those of us who are science-impaired into understandable yet disconcerting prose. She examines not only the science but the practicalities of the science. For example, she notes that if significant portions of the Alaskan permafrost melt, as it appears it may, it will be the first time in more than 120,000 years. Similarly, she notes that a few years ago Canadian Inuits living about 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle saw robins. The rarity of the experience is reflected in the fact that there is no word for the bird in the language of the Inuits in that region.

Yet what is perhaps most frightening about Field Notes is its discussion of the delayed effects of global warming. In 1981, a leading earth scientist predicted that “carbon dioxide warming should emerge from the noise of natural climate variability” around the year 2000. If anything, that prediction came true earlier. What we now see in terms of the impact of global warning stems from actions and events some 20 years ago. More important, Kolbert notes, “This means that even if carbon dioxide were to remain stable at today’s levels, temperatures would still continue to rise, glaciers to melt, and weather patterns to change for decades to come.” The synergistic interplay among the various effects further compound the potential ramifications.

The fact is, though, that carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases are not going to be stable, let alone drop significantly. Even conservative, midrange estimates predict global carbon dioxide emissions will grow from 7 million metric tons in 2005 to 10.5 billion metric tons by 2029. In fact, as Kolbert details in examining the debate surrounding the Kyoto Protocol to reduce those emissions, even that effort does not prevent increases in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

While it seems that virtually all scientists agree that global warming is occurring, the battleground, at least as framed by the United States and various corporations, is whether it is just a natural cyclic effect or the result of man’s activities. The frustration of those possessing the latter view is seen in Kolbert’s interview with a U.S. undersecretary of state responsible for explaining the Bush Administration’s position on global warming.

At one point, I asked the undersecretary if there were any circumstances under which the administration would accede to mandatory caps on emissions. “Our approach has been predicated on: we act, we learn, we act again,” she said. In response to a question about how urgent the problem of stabilizing emissions was, she replied, “We act, we learn, we act again,” and in response to a question about what would constitute a “dangerous” level of [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere, she said, “Forgive me, I’m going to repeat myself: we act, we learn, we act again.”

Thus, if mankind is in fact causing or accelerating climate change, current policy appears to ignore the fact that results lag far behind our actions. Thus, continued inaction compounds and extends the ramifications.

Admittedly, the long-range effects of global warming are merely predictions based on climate models dependent upon innumerable variables. Still, Kolbert provides us with excellent field notes from her exploration of a potential catastrophe. While we can hope the models and predictions are wrong, neither she nor anyone else can assure us that a catastrophe can be averted.

People are always imagining new ways to live, and then figuring out ways to remake the world to suit what they’ve imagined.

Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe

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