Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, provides a brief and popular account of the science and politics of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, is the best popular account of the greenhouse effect I have seen (and far better than any unpopular account I am aware of). It is also very well written. (Kolbert has, for example, written extensively for the New Yorker, which has high standards; Field Notes are in fact based upon pieces once written for it.) An excerpt I enjoyed in particular demonstrates the point:

KolbertFieldNotesNo nation takes a keener interest in climate change, at least on a per-capita basis, than Iceland. More than 10 percent of the country is covered by glaciers, the largest of which, Vatnajökull, streches over thirty-two hundred square miles. Dureing the so-called Little Ice Age, which began in Europe some five hundred years ago and ended some three hundred and fifty years later, the advance of the glaciers caused widespread misery. Contemporary records tell of farms being buried under the ice-“Frost and cold torment people,” a pastor in eastern Iceland named Olafur Einarsson wrote-and in particularly severe years, shipping, too, seems to have ceased, because the island remained icebound even in summer. In the mid-eighteenth century, it has been estimated, nearly a third of the country’s population died of starvation or associated cold-related ills. For Icelanders, many of whom can trace their geneaology back a thousand years, this is considered to be almost recent history [p. 59, paperback edition, 2009].

An interesting strain of the science on climate change that I am not much familiar with, but which Kolbert emphasizes, is the study of how ancient civilizations were disturbed by climatic changes (or long-term variations in weather patterns). Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist Kolbert interviews put it like this:

The thing they [the ancient civilizations] couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think [p. 117].

Kolbert’s discussion of the politics of climate change is interesting, but centers mostly around the inability of the US to step forward on the global policy scene, and how the conservative forces are to blame. While the rest of Kolbert’s book certainly can serve to educate the public on the danger of climate change, I am not convinced that her treatment of the politics can be perceived as neutral enough (in the lack of a better phrase) to have much political influence. (But then, the book has been out for years already, and someone more on top of things than I probably knows already.)

Another thing I find interesting is that Kolbert cites science which suggest that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (400 parts per million) represent danger. Forget about the two degrees target, in other words. On the other hand, Kolbert cites research that conclude that we already possess technologies and knowledge to solve the climate problem. The catch, of course, is that involved costs makes it practically (politically) impossible to solve the climate problem with the existing technologies. Kolbert concludes:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing [p. 189].

I guess, and hope, Kolbert is already on the reading list of all and any politician (interested in climate change or not), of all concerned citizens, of all social scientists that work on related issues, well, as many as possible should read Field Notes. Its brevity, accessibility, and sharp focus makes it a potential game changer.


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