Elizabeth Kolbert has written the book I always wanted to write. Not so much because I wanted to write it, as because it needed written. And I’m really happy that she’s succeeded, on the cusp of evangelical in fact. Finally, a book I can recommend to all those people who ask for more information, but not one that’ll be too much work, or too long, but that’s factual and interesting, and will tell them some stuff they don’t know, but want to. A book for the interested, intelligent, concerned, but busy, individual.
More than once, back-cover praise for the book draws parallels with Silent Spring, with which, forty years ago, Rachel Carson alerted the world to the dangers of introducing synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides, to the earth system. More than once, people have told me they want a “Silent Spring for Climate Change’. Well, the book may well have arrived now.. but with the critical difference that it should have been published ten or twenty years ago for a true parallel. Alas. At least it has arrived.
Firstly, and most importantly, Field Notes from Catastrophe is a surprisingly enjoyable read. Not just surprising because I was expecting to have to wade through inherently boring facts that I either already know or have successfully avoided thus far, but surprising because it is really enjoyable, digestible, and interesting.
The chapters dance between science, scientists, politics, and society, and cover the central aspects of climate change, both scientific and political. To illustrate these, we are taken to a frozen research station in Greenland, butterfly hunting in Yorkshire, to the Costa Rican mountains in search of a golden toad, and back in time to the world’s first empire established about 40,000 years ago.
One day, the Akkadian empire just stopped. Archaeological records line up with those taken by paleontologists. Life stopped. No more people, no more earthworms, just dust. The apparent end of a civilisation due to climate. (This isn’t a rare event,- there is an excellent book devoted to this by Brian M Fagan called The Long Summer, How Climate Changed Civilisation.)
We are not only taken on journeys into recent academic discoveries, be it biology, chemistry, or anthropology, related to climate change. Kolbert takes the brave step that most scientists attempting similar might not dare. She explains, using equally interesting and readable stories, the politics of climate change. And the book is recent: it includes the July 2005 G8 summit in Edinburgh and Hurricane Katrina.
She also describes the evolution of climate change policy from the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro, through to recent ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The stance of the current US Administration, while clearly explained, is nicely balanced by description of the, notably more proactive, ‘US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement’.
I was, however, surprised that she doesn’t spend more, or any, time explaining the reports and process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This compilation of results is, for me, one of the most convincing cases for the reality of climate change as it is extraordinarily written: collaboratively and by consensual agreement of world-renowned, interdisciplinary, scientists.
To her credit though, she does describe the scientific debate occurring during one study that she attends. It unfortunately is not made clear that all scientific conferences on this topic debate on a similar basis, one that focuses on
“the uncertainties that remain about global warming and its effects – on the thermohaline circulation, on the distribution of vegetation, on the survival of cold-loving species, on the frequency of forest fires. But this sort of questioning, which is so basic to scientific discourse, never extended to the relationship between carbon dioxide and rising tempeatures. The study’s executive summary stated, unequivocally, that human beings had become the ‘dominant factor’ influencing climate.”
Refreshingly, Kolbert even goes beyond explaining the science and politics of global change. She dares to delve into the realm of the future, the “what now?”‘s that we all really want to know. Is this thing too big for us? Is it too late? Is there any point in doing anything if America isn’t on board? Is there any hope?
She talks with experts in climate prediction, technology, development, and policy change, and documents a variety of responses. There are options for carbon reduction, and we do already have the technological ability to tackle this problem, if we choose to recognise it. But none of the solutions are easy. They’re not impossible either. She thankfully also explains some of the options, and their costs, and explains how many need to be implemented in tandem to make a difference.
As for a prognosis, one energy expert reminds us of previous issues we have faced, like child-labour and slavery. “..asking whether it’s practical or not is really not going to help very much. Whether it’s practical depends on how much we give a damn.”
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change is a good book: informative, readable, enjoyable, and interesting. I will recommend it to the skeptic, the scientist, and anyone who wants to know a bit more, without much more effort, in a short space of time, without getting depressed. (Some readers may disagree with me on the final point; it could just be that I am already more aware of the issues and so less upset.) Kolbert paints an accurrate and clear picture: the situation is not good, but the solutions are available. The conclusion, therefore, is optimistic. If we dare.