Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Field Notes from A Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes from A Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change
by Elizabeth Kolbert

Published: Bloomsbury
Format: paperback
Copyright: 2006
Pages: 225
Genre: Nonfiction - Environmental
Source: personal copy  

From the back cover ...
"Long known for her insightful and thought-provoking political journalism, author Elizabeth Kolbert now tackles the controversial and increasingly urgent subject of global warming. In what began as a groundbreaking three-part series in the New Yorker, for which she won a National Magazine Award in 2006, Kolbert cuts through the competing rhetoric and political agendas to elucidate what is really going on with the global environment and asks what, if anything, can be done to save our planet. Now updated and with a new afterward Field Notes from A Catastrophe is the book to read on the greatest challenge facing the world today."

I had planned to read this book ages ago, as I was looking for a good laypersons introduction to global warming to use in one of my classes. Then other events captured the headlines, we ended up focusing on water issues (which are even more pressing and are being increasingly impacted by global warming) and the environmental damage associated with extraction and transportation of fossil fuels. So now that I have finally gotten back to this book I have found that a) it really is a very good introduction to the effects of climate change and b) it is already sadly dated as events have moved on at a rapid pace with no discernible improvements in policy.

For example, in the first chapter, the author visits Shishmaref, Alaska and talks about the melting of the Arctic ice. Well, Shishmaref is still looking for help. In January 2014, five residents from the eroding village traveled to Washington, D.C. addressed lawmakers. They reported that "Hunters have died falling through weak ice, a disappearing beach no longer supports subsistence digging for clams, and houses must be set on skids for periodic moves to higher ground. They told of warm weather that spoils food, of winter fishing that starts weeks behind schedule when the lagoon isn’t frozen for travel, and of storm-tossed waves that batter the village with increasing ferocity because the ice that once armored the coast forms late. The challenges have made it difficult to retain quality teachers and to receive support for things such as school improvements, because organizations are reluctant to spend money in a community with a short shelf life, residents said."

And the Arctic Ice ... this is where we are now ...

The pink line is located at 2006 - when the book was published. You can see how things have changed since then.

You can see how things have changed in this NOAA animation too.

I know that in the eastern side of North America, we have been having a really cold winter, but if you look at conditions globally, we are a small anomaly in a world that experienced the 8th warmest.

The point of this book was to address climate change at human scale - looking at things that people have been experiencing in their day to day lives around the world - like changes in blooming cycles and the first appearance of robins - then put them into the broader context of global changes. The good news is that the book does a good job of that, the bad news is that the changes have occurred much faster than was believed possible when the book was written.

On page 147, the author states "China, which is adding new coal-fired generating capacity at the rate of more than a gigawatt a month is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest carbon emitter around 2025."  That actually happened roughly in 2006/7 (there is a time delay in compiling this information so it took a little while to figure out.)

The US still holds the record for total emissions over time and we are still No. 2 in yearly emissions. Things are also more complicated when you look at emissions per capita, since China has about a billion more people than the US. It is a bit hypocritical to tell the developing world - 'well, you can't do what we did to grow our economy.'

The book makes me want to update all of the facts and figures. It is scary how much things have altered since the book was published. This book is still an excellent starting point to a complex problem, but it would need to be paired with something more recent to show climate conditions now.


  1. This is an issue we badly need to address, but you're right, there has been so much change in the last 6 or 7 years that any book written then will already be somewhat dated.

  2. I have been looking forward to this review since your previous post about the book. I am an environmental scientist, so I know all too well about the climate change situation (convincing my friends that the crazy winter we've had is actually a symptom of climate change has been near impossible). While I had high hopes, it is an unfortunate reality that any information published on the topic will rapidly become outdated. I do want to throw one thing out there, which was hard to glean from your review; does the author make a point to discuss the difference between "global warming" and "climate change"? I hope she does, as they aren't the same thing, despite the general populus often thinking they are. Global warming is actually a product of climate change, but climate change isn't just about global warming, there are a lot of other factors to it (tsunamis, extreme storms, etc), if that make sense.

    1. Good point. The author concentrates on climate change and the discussion doesn't get too technical. She doesn't confuse the two - she talks about how carbon dioxide levels have been going up and the resulting changes in global temperature, but she concentrates on the effects of the increasing temperatures. In short, she uses the terms correctly but does not go into detail delineating the distinction. It is more implicit in her treatment - climate change as a product of global warming. The author was really concentrating on making the material accessible and one benefit is that the book does not come off as a lecture (at least until the very,very end).

      One of the reasons that I was interested in this book is that the author was not partisan - books written by researchers in the field were automatically being treated as biased.

      I know what you mean about convincing people - I was teaching the global warming section of class during this cool snap. Trying to explain that the instability in the Arctic polar vortex is related to the increasing temperature gradient due to global warming is an uphill battle when you have a room full of shivering students.

      Well - I still have a stack of books to go through. If I know that there might be couple of people out there interested in my musings about should inspire me to get though them and post something. I am working on Silent Spring right now.


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