Field Notes From A Catastrophe: Elizabeth Kolbert

Here's my initial "review", written in response to an email from Joe Palm, which includes a fair number of the highlighted passages I consider the most crucial: scientists' statements about their fears for the future. Joe gave one of the greatest "short reviews" (we should probably just call them tweets, now) of a book that I've seen: "[I]n the process [of reading the book], I get to learn about the Keeling Curve, the Stefan-Boltzmann Law, Black Carbon, the declining permafrost's release of methane, DAI, moulins, Tyndall's spectrophotometer, and how the Inuit Eskimos need to create a word for a type of bird they have never seen before: the robin. You will certainly enjoy the book, Andy!"

From the Preface:

  1. 3: Humans aren't the first species to alter the atmosphere; that distinction belongs to early bacteria, which, some two billion years ago, invented photosynthesis.
  2. 3: this book offers "what is essential without oversimplifying."

Shishmaref, Alaska

  1. 8: In the early 1990s, the hunters began to notice that the sea ice was changing.
  2. 8: The ice was starting to form later in the fall, and also to break up earlier in the spring.
  3. 10: The National Academy of Sciences undertook its first major study of global warming in 1979.
  4. 10: President Jimmy Carter called on the academy to investigate.
  5. 11: The Charney report: "We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable."
  6. 12: The American Geophysical Union…decided in 2003 that "Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures."
  7. 13: In the same way that global warming has gradually ceased to be merely a theory, so, too, its impacts are no longer just hypothetical.
  8. 17: permafrost: …if it thaws, it will be doing so for the first time in more than a hundred and twenty thousand years. "It's really a very interesting time," Romanovsky told me.
  9. 33: Perovich took me to meet a colleague of his named John Weatherly. Posted on Weatherly's office door was a bumper sticker designed to be pasted — illicitly — on SUVs. It said, I'M CHANGING THE CLIMATE! ASK ME HOW!

A Warmer Sky

  1. 37: [Tyndall] likened their impact to that of a dam built across a river: just as a dam "causes a local deepening of the stream, so our atmosphere, thrown as a barrier across the terrestriial rays, produces a local heightening of the temperature at the earth's surface.
  2. 38: …if the heat-trapping gases were removed from the earth's atmosphere, "the warmth of our fields and gardens would pour itself unrequited into space, and the sun would rise upon an island held fast in the iron grip of frost."

Under the glacier

  1. 49: More than 80 percent of Greenland is covered by ice. Locked into this enormous glacier is 8 percent of the world's fresh water supply.
  2. 51: In Greenland, average annual temperatures shot up by nearly twenty degrees in a single decade.
  3. 52: the Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels worldwide by twenty-three feet.
  4. 54: At one point, about fourteen thousand years ago, they were melting so fast that sea levels were rising at the rate of more than a foot a decade.
  5. 62: Almost wherever you looked, conditions in the Arctic were changing, and at a a rate that surprised even those who had expected to find clear signs of warming.
  6. 63: Particularly alarming, Coress said, were the most recent data from Greenland, which showed the ice sheet melting much faster "than we thought possible even a decade ago."
  7. 64: The policy document remained unfinished because American negotiators had rejected much of the language proposed by the seven other Arctic nations.
  8. 64: an Inuit hunter named John Keogak…. He told me that he and his fellow hunters had started to notice that the climate was changing in the mid-eighties. Then, a few years ago, for the first time, people began to see robins, a bird for which the Inuit in his region have no word.

The Butterfly and the Toad

  1. 68: The rate of the Comma's expansion — some fifty miles per decade — was described by the authors of the most recent butterfly atlas as "remarkable."
  2. 71: Darwin describes the vast migrations that he supposes the advance and retreat of the glaciers must have necessitated.
  3. 86: …this will just give a lot of advantage to the micro-organisms of the world, because of their ability to evolve more quickly. To the extent the climate is putting organisms as well as ecosystems under stress, it's opening the opportunities for invasive species on the one hand and disease on the other. I guess I start thinking: Think death.
  4. 87: G. Russell Coope… has shown that, under the pressure of climate change, insects have migrated tremendous distances.

The Curse of Akkad

  1. 103: The fortran code is all screwed up.
  2. 107: The delay that is built into the system is, in a certain sense, fortunate. It enables us, with the help of climate models, to foresee what is coming and therefore to prepare for it. But in another sense it is clearly disastrous, because it allows us to keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere while fobbing the impacts off on our children and grandchildren.
  3. 111: "We may say that we're more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it's potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we're not only more technologically able; we're more technologically able destructively as well. I think it's impossible to predict what will happen. I guess — though I won't be around to see it — I wouldn't be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed." He paused. "That's sort of an extreme view." [But what strikes me is that it's not!]
  4. 112: Around two and a half million years ago, the earth, which had been warm and relatively ice-free, started to cool down until it entered an era — the Pleistocene — of recurring glaciations.
  5. 113: …every fifteen hundred years or so, water temperatures would drop for a few centuries before climbing back up again. (The most recent cool period corresponds to the Little Ice Aga, which ended about a century and a half ago.)
  6. 114: …northern Africa appears to have switched from wet to dry all of a sudden…. a function of feedbacks — the less rain the continent got, the less vegetation there was to retain water, and so on until, finally, the system just flipped.
  7. 117: "The thing they couldn't prepare for was the same thing that we won't prepare for, because in their case they didn't know about it and because in our case the political system can't listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think."
  8. 119: You can argue that man through culture creates stability, or you can argue, just as plausibly, that stability is for culture an essential precondition.
  9. 120: "Nothing allows you to go beyond the third or fourth year of a drought, and by the fifth or sixth year you're probably gone."

Floating Houses

  1. 125: As water warms, it expands. In a small body of water, the effect is small; in a big body, it's commensurately larger. Most of the sea level rise predicted for the next hundred years — a total of up to three feet — is purely a function of thermal expansion.
  2. 128: The West Antarctic ice sheet is, at this point, the world's only marine ice sheet, meaning that it rests on land that is below sea level…. Were the West Antarctic or the Greenland ice sheet to be destroyed, sea levels around the world would rise by at least fifteen feet.
  3. 129: What the Vostok record shows is that the planet is already nearly as warm as it has been at any point in the last 420,000 years…. even a four- or five-degree temperature rise … is that the world will enter a completely new climate regime, one with which modern humans have no prior experience.
  4. 130: … the last time carbon dioxide levels were comparable to today's was three and a half million years ago, during what is known as the mid-Pliocene warm period, and it is likely that they have not been much higher since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago. In the Eocene, crocodiles roamed Colorado and the sea levels were nearly three hundred feet higher than they are today.

Business as Usual

  1. 133: "I've been involved in a number of fields where there's a lay opinion and a scientific opinion….in most of the cases, it's the lay community that is more exercised, more anxious…. But, in the climate case, the experts — the people who work with the climate models every day, the people who do the ice cores — they are more concerned. They're going out of their way to say, 'Wake up! This is not a good thing to be doing.'"
  2. 135: On average, every single person in America generates twelve thousand pounds of carbon per year.
  3. 139: A large [wind] turbine can generate two megawatts of power.
  4. 141: In a world like today's, where there is, for the most part, no direct cost to emitting CO2, none of Socolow's wedges are apt to be implemented…. Socolow estimates that the cost of emitting carbon would have to rise to around a hundred dollars a ton to provide a sufficient incentive to adopt many of the options he has proposed.
  5. 142: Carbon dioxide is a persistent gas; it lasts for about a century.
  6. 144: "Right now, we're going to just burn everything up; we're going to heat the atmosphere to the temperature it was in the Cretaceous, when there were crocodiles at the poles. And then everything will collapse."
  7. 145: "There's an argument that our civilization can continue to exist with the present number of people and the present kind of high technology through conservation. I see that argument as similar to a man being locked in a sealed room with a limited amount of oxygen. And if he breathes more slowly, he'll be able to live longer, but what he really needs is to get out of the room."…. Hoffert published an influential paper in Science in which he argued that holding CO2 levels below 500 parts per million would require a "Herculean" effort and probably could be accomplished only through "revolutionary" changes in energy production.
  8. 147: 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. [It did so in 2008, according to the afterword — "nearly two decades ahead of schedule…."]
  9. 148: "…it may be that we're not going to solve global warming, the earth is going to become an ecological disaster, and, you know, somebody will visit in a few hundred million years and find there were some intelligent beings who lived here for a while, but they just couldn't handle the transition from being hunter-gatherers to high technology."

The Day After Kyoto

  1. 153: The objective of the Framework Convention: "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."
  2. 155: …five greenhouse gases in addition to CO2 — methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.
  3. 157: In a year, the average American produces the same greenhouse-gas emissions as four and a half Mexicans, or eighteen Indians, or ninety-nine Bangladeshis.
  4. 157: "We do not believe that the ethos of democracy can support any norm other than equal per capita rights to global environmental resources."
  5. 158: Earth Day 2000, Clinton: "The greatest environmental challenge of the new century is global warming. The scientists tell us the 1990s were the hottest decade of the entire millennium. If we fail to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, deadly heat waves and droughts will become more frequent, coastal areas will flood, and economies will be disrupted.
  6. 159: Bush…promised that, if elected, he would impose federal regulations limiting CO2 emissions.
  7. 160: Bush asserted that he no longer thought CO2 limits were justified, owing to the "state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change," which he labeled "incomplete." (Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who backed the president's original position, has speculated publicly that the reversal was engineered by Vice President Dick Cheney.)
  8. 168: 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. "The blunt reality is that, unless America comes back into some form of international consensus, it is very hard to make progress" is how Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, recently put it. Astonishingly, standing in the way of this progress seems to be Bush's goal.
  9. 170: It's plain, Blair said in an address devoted to climate change, that "the emission of greenhouse gases… is causing global warming at a rate that began as signifcant, has become alarmingly, and is simply unsustainable in the long-term. And by 'long-term' I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly with my own. And by 'unsustainable,' I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.
  10. 171: When I asked McCain to characterize Bush's position on global warming, he responded "MIA."

Burlington, Vermont

  1. 180: Despair might seem theh logical response to such figures.
  2. 181: Added cost of CCS: 40%. — This is an imprecise figure, since CCS has never actually been tried at a commercial power plant.

Man in the Anthropocene

  1. 185: American chemical manufacturers, who supplied more than a third of the world's CFCs, continued to resist regulation, arguing on the one hand that more study of the problem was needed and on the other that only unified global action could address it. At one point, President Reagan's interior secretary, Donald Hodel, suggested that if CFCs were indeed destroying the ozone layer, then people should simply wear sunglasses and buy hats. "People who don't stand out in the sun — it doesn't affect them," he asserted.
  2. 188: Kolbert's conclusion: Perhaps the most unpredictable feedback of all is the human one. With six billion people on the planet [now seven!], the risks are everywhere apparent. A disruption in monsoon patterns, a shift in ocean currents, a major drought — any one of these could easily produce streams of refugees [why not say corpses?] numbering in the millions. As the effects of global warming become more and more difficult to ignore, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

Comment:

That's one hell of a final statement.

Afterword

  1. 191: This shift is encouraging, and I would like to be able to write that, as a result, I now feel more optimistic about our situation. Sadly, the opposite is the case.
  2. 192: …in September, 2007…for the first time in human memory, a navigable Northwest Passage was open.
  3. 194: "We're now one hundred years ahead of schedule," Richard Alley….Steffen spoke to me about the latest Greenland data. He said that changes on the ice sheet were occurring an order of magnitude faster than he had been taught to expect. If the trends are not sustained, "then we have a problem," he told me. If they are sustained, "then we have a deep problem."
  4. 194: When I was writing this book, sea levels were expected to rise by a maximum of three feet by the end of the century. That figure has now doubled — the maximum is currently estimated to be close to six feet.
  5. 195: When CO2 dissolves, it produces carbonic acid — H2CO3.
  6. 197: Global emissions [of CO2] grew from six gigatons of carbon per year in 1990 to eight and a half gigatons in 2007, an increase of nearly 40 percent. This growth rate exceeded the most carbon-intensive projections used by the IPCC, making current trends in emissions higher than the IPCC's worst-case scenario.
  7. 199: The pace at which change is occurring, combined with increasingly sophisticated analyses of the paleoclimatic record, have prompted many experts to argue not just that we are racing toward the threshold of "dangerous anthropogenic interference," but that we have already passed it.
  8. 199: despair is rarely helpful.
  9. 199: In the end, however, how we feel about climate change is irrelevant. Global warming will have a profound effect on us, on our children, and on life on this planet for generations to come. We may be capable of dealing with this problem, or we may not. In either case, we are still responsible.

Dark musings….

  • Who will indict the leaders like Bush who actively thwarted action in the world to fight climate change?

More than anything, however, I was enthralled by the scientists' candid thoughts on what we're doing to ourselves (to echo Kolbert's equally dark musings at the end of the book):

  1. 145: "There's an argument that our civilization can continue to exist with the present number of people and the present kind of high technology through conservation. I see that argument as similar to a man being locked in a sealed room with a limited amount of oxygen. And if he breathes more slowly, he'll be able to live longer, but what he really needs is to get out of the room."…. Hoffert published an influential paper in Science in which he argued that holding CO2 levels below 500 parts per million would require a "Herculean" effort and probably could be accomplished only through "revolutionary" changes in energy production.
  2. Marty Hoffert, p. 144: "Right now, we're going to just burn everything up; we're going to heat the atmosphere to the temperature it was in the Cretaceous, when there were crocodiles at the poles. And then everything will collapse."
  3. Robert Socolow, p. 133: "I've been involved in a number of fields where there's a lay opinion and a scientific opinion….in most of the cases, it's the lay community that is more exercised, more anxious…. But, in the climate case, the experts — the people who work with the climate models every day, the people who do the ice cores — they are more concerned. They're going out of their way to say, 'Wake up! This is not a good thing to be doing.'"
  4. Peter deMenocal, p. 117: "The thing they couldn't prepare for was the same thing that we won't prepare for, because in their case they didn't know about it and because in our case the political system can't listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think."
  5. David Rind, p. 111: "We may say that we're more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it's potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we're not only more technologically able; we're more technologically able destructively as well. I think it's impossible to predict what will happen. I guess — though I won't be around to see it — I wouldn't be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed." He paused. "That's sort of an extreme view." [But what strikes me is that it's not!]
  6. Thompson Webb, p. 86: "And yet you could argue that this will give a lot of advantage to the microorganisms of the world, because of their ability to evolve more quickly. To the extent the climate is putting organisms as well as ecosystems under stress, it's opening the opportunities for invasive species on the one hand and disease on the other. I guess I start thinking: Think death."

They all pretty well reflect my own impressions of what's going to happen. I have a very dark perspective, which is the primary reason for buying into northern Ontario.

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