BookReview: Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Climate Change Book by Elizabeth Kolbert
My first job out of university, as a fresh-faced, idealistic engineer, was in the energy industry, for a sort of international think-tank made up of eight of the biggest electric companies in the world from G7 countries. I got there in 1998 (a year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed), and climate change obviously was high on the agenda, so I got to know what many in the energy industry thought of it (it was a big problem, and these companies were generally worried about how to address it in the most efficient, and least-costly way. That is, they were concerned, but wanted to avoid losing lots of money as a result). From the E7 (now E8) I went on, in the summer of 2000, to a financial brokerage called Prebon in New York, which was setting up an investment banking team to build financial products tailored for Kyoto Mechanisms – financial mechanisms aimed at getting funding into projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I was the policy guy, mainly, looking at national and international frameworks, as well as doing marketing of our insurance-based products to big energy companies around the world; and negotiating with potential sellers of emission reductions. I attended the COP conference in the Hague and talked to government officials all over the place. (Those were my jetset days of flying around the world, when I thought I might just be able to save the human race and become a multibillionaire at the same time). I worked at Prebon for a year and a half until the election of George Bush (and US abandonment of Kyoto, going back on a GOP campaign promise to regulate CO2 in the US); and then September 11 forced Prebon to shut down our group. Also a factor in shutting us down: we hadn’t made a nickle, despite having a $350 million deal in the works, though I don’t think we would have made the sale even without Bush and September 11. After I came back from NYC to Montreal, I spent some time working with a small alternative energy company here in Montreal, with toes still in CO2 waters … tho since 2004 I have been just an observer.
But I have been following Climate Change more or less closely for ten years or so, and have watched as the science matured (and Canada, incidently, did absolutely nothing except sign papers year after year). I am, you could say, a Climate believer…though I have an open mind to new research: if it were to turn out that everyone was mistaken about the climate, I would be happy to recant my former beliefs. But, the opposite has happened. Since 1998 when I started paying attention, various predictions from the models (then very uncertain) have started to come to pass: plants and animals are changing their breeding habits, the Arctic and Antarctic are melting, glaciers around the globe are receding, and the temperature keeps going up. Closer to home, the ski hill I grew up on no longer operates (they never made snow, and the natural snow isn’t enough to guarantee a viable season any more), and it regularaly rains in January and February.
And so when I first read Elizabeth Kolbert’s series of articles on climate change in the “New Yorker” in 2005 I was captivated. Field Notes on a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a compilation and expansion of those articles. It is the only climate book I have ever been inspired to buy — all the others seemed to rehash things I knew already, but there was something about the way Kolbert writes on climate — at once scientifically compelling and personal. And frightening. Of the many hundreds of articles I have read about climate change, Kolbert’s are the best.
In this book, Kolbert weaves a compelling tale, focusing on a handful of active scientists, their work on climate, and an underlying sense of terror that seems to infect all of them. They are at the front lines of climate research — out in the field and building the models. She visits the melting permafrost in Alaska, NASA climate modellers in New York, biologists studying butterflies in northern England, and Columbia paleoclimateologista with the world’s biggest collection of ocean core samples. She also talks to some historians who argue that massive civilization collapse in human history can often be attributed to climate changes destroying the agricultural systems those civilizations depend upon; and some of the people trying to do something about all this worrying problem that so many seem to ignore. The impressive thing about these scientists is not their much-trumpeted alarmism, though, but the opposite: the caution with which they make their claims. Scientists tend to be a thoughtful bunch, they are used to weighing massive amounts of data, inputs, and research from across many fields to make their conclusions. You make your hypothesis, you do your experiments, you publish your results in peer-reviewed journals, and others do their best to poke holes in your argument. More experiments are done, in various disciplines; in the case that other results consistently conflict with a hypothesis, it is rejected. When more data backs a hypothesis, from many different areas, it becomes accepted. Climate science is no different, and what’s happened over the past ten years, since I first started following the climate debate, is a hardening of certainty, as more and more evidence, more studies, and more data are backing up the theory that the climate is changing (not in doubt) and that we are forcing the change. But the real test of a theory is its predictive power: if a theory says such and such should happen, and such and such happens, it is worth paying attention to.
And this is why the much-maligned climate models are so powerful: they have been tweaked and improved over the past ten years, and have become more powerful. They back-check well against the past records, and have done a good job of predicting what is happening now. What’s scary is their predictions of what will happen in the future. It ain’t pretty.
Kolbert manages an impressive feat in this book: she presents the latest climate science clearly, and in enough detail that one gets a powerful sense of where most scientists think we are and where we are going. There are graphs and data sets, and evidence. But what emerges most powerfully is the sense of quiet, measured … panic (there is no other word for it) from the scientists working in the field. They are watching as our climate changes, and they know where we are likely to go. And most think we are pushing climate fast to that frightening place. In this slim volume, Kolbert has encapsulated the panic, and shown exactly where it comes from – scientifically and historically. And she shares this panic. As arctic researcher, Donald Petrovich relates to Kolbert:
The way I’ve been thinking about it, riding my bike around here, is, You ride by all these pastures and they’ve got these big granite boulders in the middle of them. You’ve got a big boulder sitting there on this rolling hill. You can’t just go by this boulder. You’ve got to push it. So you start rocking it, and you get a bunch of friends, and they start rocking it, and finally it starts moving. And then you realize, Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. That’s what we’re doing as a society. This climate, if it starts rolling, we don’t really know where it will stop.
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