Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe—Man, Nature and Climate Change is more than ten years old, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading this brisk, concise overview about the complexities of global warming and all the reasons we should be worried.
Kolbert zooms in and zooms out, from details to big-picture analysis. She visits the Alaskan village of Shismaref five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. She heads to Swiss Camp, a research station on a platform drilled into the Greenland ice sheet. And, among other locations, she takes a look at the Monteverde Cloud Forest in north-central Costa Rica. Everywhere she goes are clear-eyed scientists doing their thing—observing, monitoring, measuring. And watching the world change under the pressures of global warming.
Everywhere Kolbert stops, the signs of change are abundant, unequivocal, unambiguous—all without being sensational. We are sloppy drunk on fossil fuels and show no interest in sobering up. Kolbert’s writing is matter-of-fact, understated, and calm. Published the same year as Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth was released (based on Al Gore’s talks on climate change), Kolbert’s narrative sounds the alarm in no uncertain terms, but it’s hardly a diatribe. Bitterness is buried in the brutal facts.
What is worrisome is to read this and know the data have only grown worse over the last decade, particularly with deniers backed by the billionaires who crowd the Oval Office, the backwards-thinking head of the EPA who scrubbed the agency’s website of any mention of climate change, and many of their collective backers, enablers and political supporters. The cautionary mention in Field Notes about increasing hurricane strength—the book was finishing up around the time of Hurricane Katrina—comes across as tame (and prescient) in the wake of Harvey, Irma and Maria during 2017.
Recently (Nov. 2, 2017), 13 federal agencies unveiled an exhaustive scientific report that blamed humans as the dominant cause for creating the warmest period in the history of civilization. This “finding” is in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s position on climate change, but should we be encouraged by its publication? What will it take to provoke our leaders to put some urgency behind the many steps that could be implemented to entice a new pattern of behavior and energy use?
It has been “business as usual,” for the most part, since Field Notes was published and Kolbert’s most devastating chapter underscores that even the introduction of various “stabilization wedges” won’t be easy to adopt. And they might be too late even if they were fully adopted now, given the momentum that climate change has gained.
The “wedges” are things like solar power, wind power, nuclear power, cutting energy use in residential and commercial buildings by a quarter, or slashing automobile use in half and simultaneously doubling fuel efficiency. The “wedges” were developed by Robert Socolow, a professor of engineering at Princeton.
“All of Socolow’s calculations,” Kolbert writes, “are based on the notion—clearly hypothetical—that steps to stabilize emissions will be taken immediately, or at least within the next few years … The overriding message of Socolow’s wedges is that the longer we wait—and the more infrastructure we build without regard to its impact on emissions—the more daunting the task of keeping CO2 levels below 500 parts per million will become.”
(We sailed right past 400 PPM last in March 2017).
Will we heat the atmosphere to the point where there are crocodiles at the poles, as there were in the Cretaceous? Seems like we’re headed there.
Maybe, if we can make Field Notes required reading in every high school today, we could begin to turn the trend around. Maybe. It’s clear that public will, ultimately, will play a role in the solution. But will it be too late?
Right now, as Kolbert concludes, we are destroying ourselves. And doing precious little about it.