Reviewed 1/20/2010

Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert

Man, Nature, and Climate Change
Elizabeth Kolbert
New York: Bloomsbury, 2006




ISBN-13 978-1-59691-125-3
ISBN-10 1-59691-125-5 210p. HC/GSI $22.95

Plenty of books focus on the broad impacts of climate change: Loss of polar ice, prehistoric droughts decimating civilizations, rising seas drowning vast tracts of land. Elizabeth Kolbert covers these events too. But her approach is totally different. She starts at the local level, recounting her visits to Alaska, Iceland, the Netherlands, and her interactions with the local people at those places — not only scientists but everyday people like farmers and shop owners. This is what makes her account so compelling to a wide audience.

I do not mean to imply that Ms. Kolbert ignores the big picture. She has a good grasp of it, covers the prehistory, and eloquently imparts the long-term implications of warming clearly and accurately — especially as regards the tension between the Bush administration and the rest of the world over their differing policies on climate change.

"Without substantive commitments from countries like India and China, there is no realistic way to avoid DAI [dangerous anthropogenic interference]. But why should China and India accept the costs of controlling emissions when America has refused to do so? In this way, the United States, having failed to defeat Kyoto, may be in the process of doing something even more damaging: ruining the chances of reaching a post-Kyoto agreement.

– Page 174

The book has some defects. Ms. Kolbert doesn't understand computers well, and her description of climate modeling in Chapter 5 leaves something to be desired. She doesn't do justice to the concept of grid cells, and then quotes a snatch of FORTRAN code (from the GISS "ModelE") to little effect. Her analogies are sometimes obscure: Attempting to explain the immense amounts of energy needed to warm the oceans and icecaps, she writes on page 105: "(Imagine trying to thaw a gallon of ice cream or a pot of water using an Easy-Bake oven.)" I would, if I knew what an Easy-Bake oven was.1 Similarly, she omits some definitions and fails to expand some acronyms, trusting the reader to know what they represent. But such mistakes are few, and my mention of them is a mere quibble.

The bottom line is that this is one of the must-read books on climate change. Ms. Kolbert brings home the projected impacts as few other authors manage to do. For me, the highlights were her tours of Iceland and the Netherlands, with descriptions of the Maesland Barrier and the floating homes at Maasbommel in the latter country. Also, as noted above, one of the most meritorious aspects of the book is her coverage of the political angle, especially the improvident behavior of the Bush administration in response to Kyoto and to global warming generally.2 The book provides a chronology of significant events related to climate change, selected bibliography and notes for each of its 10 chapters, and it has a very good index. Finally, it is an easy read; I expect it would take half a day, typically. (It took me thrice that, but other demands competed.)

1 Yes, I know... Google is my friend. And I found the oven; it's a Hasbro toy. But the idea of using analogies is to promote easy understanding. She might, for example, have substituted a candle or a kitchen match for the oven.
2 Much of the author's coverage of the political angle involves an extended and frustrating interaction with Paula Dobriansky, president Bush's Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. In the degree of obtuseness of her answers to Kolbert's questions, Dobriansky is hard to match. In their last encounter, reported on pages 166-7, Kolbert quotes her thus: "It is essential to really implement these programs and approaches now and to take stock of their effectiveness," she said, adding, "we think it is premature to talk about future arrangements." Yes, never talk about the future until it gets here. In fairness, however, the Undersecretary was perforce following Bush's lead — on a path which led nowhere.
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