134 of 150 people found the following review helpful
One never ceases to marvel at the consistent way in which we humans seem to be lunging headlong into the ecological abyss. In this wonderful new book by former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, the reader is whisked away into a series of field trips into the myriad of places across the globe where the increasing evidence of approaching disaster is being observed, discussed, and reacted to in ways that has to give the reader pause. Eskimos are abandoning a small island in the Artic Ocean even as the surrounding ice cap that once protected from wind and storm damage melts into oblivion as a direct result of the Greenhouse Effect.
Kolbert offer us poignant glimpses at humans forced to confront ugly truths about the nature of the Anthropocene era, that is, that so-far limited expanse of time that humans have inhabited the earth. Presented with the bulk of the evidence, it is hard for an objective intellect to escape the distinct possibility that as a species we seem to be hell-bent on self-destruction. Indeed, the breadth and scope of the manifest effects of climate change on human habitation is breath-taking, affecting societies as far-flung as Netherlands to Siberia, from South Africa to the Great Barrier Reef. She writes wryly about stepping through the looking glass in a conversation with a Washington wonk who attempted to justify the Bush administration's active opposition to both the Kyoto Treaty and any attempt to rework it into a manageable tool to effectively combat the effects of global warming.
It is in such encounters that she discovers her voice and her poignant sense of urgency; if the best educated among us choose to stand in active opposition, what chance is thereto turn this catastrophic change in climate around? Furthermore, in interviewing climate specialists, we discover that the environment is moving rapidly toward disaster, and while there are reasons to hope, there is also reason to view our inaction and our opposition to meaningful global action with alarm. As the former Third World countries like India and China become both more industrial and more consumptive societies, the environment's ability to overcome the cumulative injuries to the earth's biosphere becomes even more difficult to imagine. This book is an easy read, is quite informative, delivered in a reporter's style of succinct and yet comprehensive prose. It does yeoman's service in informing citizens of just how dangerous and calamitous this developing ecological, social, and economic catastrophe truly is. This is a great book, and one I can heartily recommend. Enjoy!
48 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2007
Earlier this year I read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. It was an excellent book full of scientific explanations to nearly all the questions I had about the issue of climate change. Now I have just finished Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. It also is an excellent book. In fact, I wish I had read it first - not because it is the better of the two books, but because it is a better introduction to the subject.
Field Notes From A Catastrophe details the author's experiences as she traveled, met, and conversed with several leading authorities of the climate change issue. The first chapters explain some of the negative effects of climate change on nature, while the later chapters deal with how climate change has affected man and civilization in the past, how it will likely affect us in the future, and how political leaders are squandering the last few years we have left to make much of difference - all in order to appease their big-time cash contributors.
The author excels in letting experts in the field tell the story for her. For example, in explaining the devastating consequence of modest, but prolonged, local climate change to an ancient middle-eastern civilization the leading paleo-climatologist to study the case says, "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."
I highly recommend this book. For more advanced scientific information about climate change many other good books are available (including The Weather Makers), but for an introduction to the subject this one is nearly perfect.
76 of 100 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2006
Discussing global climate patterns which are exacerbating weather changes worldwide, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how human-induced global will likely have dire consequences. In the Netherlands, Kolbert explains, construction is under way on buoyant roads and amphibious homes resembling toasters. In Alaska, as myopic politicans insist on drilling for more the last drop of oil, climate change is forcing people to leave their homes and, as Kolbert explains, their ways of life.
This will affect us all, as conflict over basic needs could soon turn the United States into a fully guarded zones, with security personnel staving off millions of migrants from flooded regions. Yet, as Kolbert also notes, the United States is the largest emitter of carbon in the world. Thus, the U.S. population has substantial responsibility for the migrations to come.
This book deserves serious attention, not only as a handbook of facts about climate and geography, but also for its keen interest in what real people are experiencing, right now.
Kolbert foresees widespread and dire consequences, yet interviews an expert who retains some hope that we could still avert utter disaster. In that sense, there's an element of activism to this book -- although Kolbert's sense of doom is quite clear by the book's conclusion. We're selfish, says this book, and it's killing us.
So what should our response be? Carbon emissions are more dangerous due to the increasing lack of forests, which we tear down for cities and rangeland. Methane is second to carbon dioxide in its warming potential; it accounts for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with more than twenty times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. It's generated during cows' digestion processes, as well as by the consumption of oil and gas in animal processing.
As agribusiness is the prime culprit behind the loss of the forests needed to absorb greenhouse gas, we can do something today, literally, by changing to a plant-based cooking style. (I've co-authored a recent book, available elsewhere on this site, which can be of benefit in this way -- I derive no personal benefit from this non-profit project -- called Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine.) Truly, if its message is taken to heart, Kolbert's book should be sold together with a vegetarian cookbook.
Kolbert's work also suggests that China will overtake the U.S. as the carbon-emitting leader in just two decades. Yes, China should ensure future reliance on low-emission technology. But again, a big part of this is lifestyle. Ironically, the case of China presents a situation where ideas of western affluence are resulting in the heavy promotion of more and more animal products.
Readers are advised to put two and two together, and not wait for the commander-in-chief to see the light from a Texas ranch. As for global disaster, that would definitely "bring it on."
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2006
While many people want to argue if the present Global Warming is being caused by our fossil fuel emissions, the simple fact is that things are changing in the global climate. When one reviews past histories of various civilizations, it turns out that drought and lack of rainfall really killed some expanding human habitation systems. Then the survivors shrink back to more primitive times, and leave their ruins behind. All this before the petroleum culture and Henry Ford. What I like about this book, is the reporter's exchanges with true scientists, who spend all their professional lives documenting SOMETHING on the face of this earth. Our concern with the environment has been all too much to do with leisure instead of heavy natural science knowlege. Those immersed in such serious work seldom get the attention that this author gave to them; more of that should occur!
I am buying this book as a graduation present for my nephew who possibly could be spending the next fifty years of his life on these issues affecting this present USA civilization.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2006
I enjoyed this book. In about the first two-thirds, the author presents quantitative scientific evidence indicating that the earth is warming up and that it is warmer now than ever experienced in human history. In the last third of the book, important political and economic issues are presented. Although everyone agrees that the earth is indeed warming up, some are unsure about the real human contribution to this effect; they point out that over the past hundreds of thousands of years, some sudden climate changes have occurred for unknown reasons - certainly not due to human activity; some of these sudden changes were responsible for destroying prominent cities and, indeed, civilizations. They also point out that even farther back in time, during the Cretaceous, the earth was much warmer than it is today. Hence these people suggest that it may still be too early to take drastic and expensive remedial action. On the other hand, most people appear to be convinced that humans are mainly responsible for global warming - this time around, anyway. Not willing to take the chance that they are not, these people are urging that serious measures be taken immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The book is written in a reasonably objective manner. It is clear, engaging and is difficult to put down. It is not written like an "end-of-the-world-is-near" type of book, but is filled with facts: scientific, political and economical, all backed up with a respectable list of references. I recommend this book to everyone: from those wanting to know the main issues on this important topic to those just looking for a good read.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2006
I read portions of this book in their previous incarnations as NEW YORKER articles, and was vastly impressed by Elizabeth Kolbert's writing style. When one is dealing with the potentially disastrous results of global warming, it would be easy to fall prey to justified hectoring. But Kolbert is too fine a writer to bludgeon us; instead she travels the world, gracefully reports on climate changes, and gently leads us to the conclusion that we BETTER GET OUR HOUSE IN ORDER!
Whew, sorry, that was me. I have a number of relatives who refuse to acknowledge global warming is anything more than the normal fluctuation of global climate change, and it is infuriating to try to persuade them otherwise. But I'm going to insist they read this volume; it's short, it's even-handed, and it's oh-so convincing.
Did I mention that it's beautifully written? It is. Kolbert joins Verlyn Klinkenborg as two of my favorite writers on the natural world.
23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
There are so many different ways Humanity is warned against coming catastrophe that it becomes difficult sometimes to know what to fear first. For most of my lifetime the possiblity of Nuclear War between the United States and the Soviet Union was considered the greatest danger. Since the end of the Cold War that particular danger has passed, though the nuclear proliferation threat especially with Iran pressing for nuclear weapons, has certainly not left us. Other kinds of natural and unnatural disaster are , according to various experts on, or not on, the way. There have been mass -animal dieouts on the planet before and who knows when some surprising visitor from the deep distance may open up a crater larger than Yucatan. Martin Rees has perhaps more than anyone else chronicled in a scientifically credible way the variety of possible candidates for doing away with us. These of course include our own experimental work in nanotechnology and sub- atomic particle investigation.
Elizabeth Kolbert focuses on one of the most credible threats to our future on this planet, global- warming. She makes a kind of global tour of places already effected by the rise in temperature. From Alaska where she speaks with a group of Eskimos who have literally lost their world, to Holland where there is a concern that the great part of the landmass may disappear in the centuries ahead , she collects data and personal stories which highlight the danger. Her own heat however is specially concentrated on U.S. policy in this area, and especially the decision not to ratify the Kyoto accord. Kolbert also is greatly concerned with the growing Chinese and Indian economies which too promise in the decades ahead to vastly increase the amount of carbon dioxide they put in the atmosphere.
She, it seems to me, makes a very strong case for global warming. It is bolstered in my own mind by my own sense that past years have been considerably warmer, than the colder times of my childhood. But of course this is just personal impression and not solid evidence.
Global-warming skeptics will say that this is all alarmist, that in much longer time- framework the kinds of temperature variations we are talking about are not significant. They will argue that 'natural events and processes' have far greater influence on the world , than human actions in the so- called 'Anthropocene'.
My own best guess here is that there is danger, that we are warming the planet up, and threatening our own future. However my sense is also that the 'catastrophe' if it comes may be much farther away than Kolbert would have us believe.
I do not really know.
What Kolbert has done however in this book is show that there are already many people for whom the negative effects of global - warming are already very real.
28 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Climate change is THE issue of our time. Any book that raises public consciousness about it is a good thing.
To its credit, "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" does educate lay readers about the basic science and implications of climate change. However, it never really makes the transition from a series of New Yorker articles to a full-blown book. It consists mostly of human interest stories about climate researchers and the impact of global warming in places like Alaska and Iceland. These vignettes would be easily digestible on a subway or in a doctor's waiting room, but we expect more from a book. The reading non-science-educated public (which includes me) can handle more than this.
One good chapter tells how scientists discovered that carbon dioxide levels can raise or lower the global temperature equilibrium. There's another good chapter on the incredible mendacity and short-sightedness of the Bush Administration (may it rest in peace forever). Every American should read these sections, since America is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and the greatest obstacle to international action. The rest of the book, however, is little more than disposable science journalism.
14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2006
Why people argue that man and his actions may not be "causing" global warming is beyond me. Whether our careless actions are causing the glaciers to melt, etc. should not be in question. The fact is that we can all do something to slow down the process. This book scares me with the reality that without EVERY NATION'S effort and participation this planet is in deep trouble. Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, was a lot easier for me to follow; however, this book (Field Notes) is probably more realistic in that simply changing lightbulbs, etc. isn't going to be enough. The U.S. government has to set an example for developing nations like China, so they take this issue seriously and incorporate earth-friendly designs when developing new power plants. Even if each individual in the U.S. buys the right cars and the right lightbulbs, China is capable of erasing any benefit we've provided toward reduction of C02 in the environment...by a land slide. The scary thing is when our U.S. government wakes up and decides to take the right position on this matter it will probably be too late. I see the world in a completely different way after reading this book.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Elizabeth Kolbert's book is all that it should be, as the previous reviews have attested. Perhaps the best news on this page is that lots of people seem to be reading it, judging from the rankings. But, still, I fear that most of these readers, like myself, come to these pages with an existing concern about global warming, and learn, mostly, how unaware we were of the extent of the damage that has already been done, and the magnitude of the challenge to merely slow the inevitable. The initiatives that might slow the rate of climate change require such enormous and farreaching commitment that it will take a massive grass roots comprehension of the problem. Media. Movies. Coldplay songs. But this book is so well written, short, dispassionate but compelling that I have hopes of seeing it on the best seller list -- soon.