by Elizabeth Kolbert
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.