Monday, March 31, 2014

Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert: A review

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate ChangeField Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars



“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
― Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
That famous quote from Upton Sinclair seems highly appropriate to any discussion of climate change in this country. Entrenched, very powerful economic interests control our political system and, to a great extent, our media, and those interests are determined that business as usual shall prevail in the production and distribution of energy. In other words, petrochemical companies should be allowed to operate unchecked and unregulated. That this is a recipe for worldwide catastrophe is made quite clear in this slim book by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert.  

Kolbert organizes her narrative as a series of travelogues to various parts of the world where the effects of global warming are made most evident. And so we visit the Alaskan interior, Iceland, and the Greenland ice sheet, as well as the mountains and meadows of Britain and Europe and the jungles of Costa Rica. We also get to meet the researchers in all these places who are working hard to understand the effects of a warming climate.

Kolbert also takes us back to the beginning of the study of climate and climate change in the 19th century where we meet Irish physicist John Tyndall who studied the absorptive properties of various gases and came up with the first accurate account of how the atmosphere functions.

We also meet Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who picked up where Tyndall left off and who later would win the Nobel Prize for his work on electrolytic dissociation. Arrhenius became curious about the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures. He was apparently interested in whether falling levels of carbon dioxide might have caused the ice ages. He calculated how the earth's temperature would be affected by changing carbon dioxide levels. He was able to declare that rising levels of carbon dioxide would allow future generations "to live under a warmer sky."

Kolbert reviews some of the cultures that have suffered from or been destroyed by climate change in the past - for example, the classical Mayan civilization of the Yucatan and, even earlier, that of Akkad between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

This is all fascinating stuff for those of us who are interested in this issue, an audience which should include the entire human race. The information is presented in a comprehensive and succinct manner and in highly readable form. Kolbert has a knack for making complicated topics understandable.

The book was first published in 2006 in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency and one of the saddest chapters of the book is entitled "The Day After Kyoto" which begins with a conversation with Bush's Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky. Dobriansky attempts to explain and defend the adminstration's policy on climate change. What she actually does is repeat the same talking point over and over again.

Indeed, the history of the United States' handling of the problem of global warming has been mostly downhill since President George H.W. Bush acknowledged the problem and signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It has mostly been a history of denial of basic science and a refusal to act or to lead, as perhaps best exemplified by climate change denialist Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

In an afterword written in January 2009, Kolbert makes clear that business as usual continues and without U.S. leadership the problem of climate change cannot be solved. It seems unlikely that that will happen in the foreseeable future. The warnings of scientists like James Hansen continue to go unheeded and Earth continues to heat up. I finished this book feeling very depressed about the future prospects for survival of the human race.      


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