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Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
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A-FieldNotesFromACatastropheField Notes, which emerged from a three-part series for the New Yorker last spring, is part travelogue, part primer on global warming. Kolbert interviews scientists, interprets scientific reports, and visits communities affected by climate change to argue that we’re on the verge of a major catastrophe. As Shishmaref, Alaska, witnesses its ice disappearing, as melting permafrost in Fairbanks threatens homes, and as the Dutch allow the sea to reclaim parts of their low-lying land, global warming is bringing imminent disaster. Kolbert, while explaining climate change and modeling, places our current predicament in the contexts of the collapse of ancient civilizations and of species evolution and extinction. All the while, the Bush administration turns a blind eye to climate change. But "global warming," Kolbert concludes, is no longer "merely a theory."
Bloomsbury. 210 pages. $22.95. ISBN: 1596911255

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Field Notes From a Catastrophe is a measured, elegant, and brief book that functions as a perfect primer on global warming. It might be the most important book you read this year." Karen Long

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Kolbert’s book is] a small miracle of concision, gaining by its brevity and its plan of attack a rhetorical power that elucidates, rises to meet, and deftly answers the historic crisis in which we find ourselves. … The hubris of current policymakers, Kolbert suggests, will be revealed, if not utterly laid low." Mark Svenvold

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Kolbert strikes a deft balance between Carl Sagan science (easy enough to understand) and rocket science (the impenetrable kind), alternating personalities and exotic locales with hard data and public policy. … Kolbert has rendered a mannered account as compelling as it is enlightening, a litany of evidence that conveys a reality overwhelming and unmindful of what our society eventually chooses to believe." J. David Santen Jr.

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Kolbert went not exactly all over the world to find out what’s happening with global warming but to a great many places in it, and she often heard the same elegiac expressions of foreboding, loss, and fear for the next generation. … The book may make a good handbook; it is both comprehensive and succinct." Mariana Gosnell

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"So if you … think that the jury is still out on global warming, I suggest you skip Field Notes. … You won’t be moved by her tales of species going extinct, polar caps melting, water rising in the Netherlands or butterflies in England migrating to higher elevations than ever before." Margo Hammond

Issues the books compare

This book was reviewed in tandem with The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. The books are compared below.

Bucking the trend: Kolbert, claims the Los Angeles Times, "gently but firmly dislodge[s] us from our sense of historical exceptionalism"—that is (and Flannery poses the same argument), we have now reached the point of no return. Kolbert points out that a 2-mile-long, 400,000-year-old ice-core sample from Antarctica reveals that today’s levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are approaching new highs. Flannery writes that while global warming occurs naturally, temperatures are now increasing 30 times faster than ever recorded.

Your SUV and the U.S. President: Both authors blame the rise in carbon dioxide and methane emissions on us—and our use of oil and coal. "The 20th century opened on a world that was home to little more than a billion people and closed on a world of 6 billion," Flannery writes, "and every one of those 6 billion is using on average four times as much energy as their forefathers did 100 years before." Critics agree that Kolbert’s most interesting chapters address how ExxonMobil, General Motors, lobbying groups, and the United States (which, along with Australia, has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol) manipulate and deflect information presented by climate scientists.

The good news: Only the Chicago Sun-Times saw the benefits of global warming for some regions—and criticized Flannery for downplaying them. "Higher carbon dioxide levels might increase crop yields. Canada and Russia could enjoy longer growing seasons and the ice-choked Northwest Passage might become navigable." That’s one way of looking at it.

The bad news: Global warming is, and will continue to be, a major player in geopolitics. Flannery cites as an example the struggle in Darfur. Carbon dioxide emissions exacerbated aridity, which, in turn, led to migration, competition, and genocide. While this causal chain convinced most reviewers, the Los Angeles Times questioned Flannery’s faith in our ability to alter our behavior. Kolbert pessimistically believes that we’re destroying ourselves. "She is not optimistic," says the New York Times, "in large part because it appears that Anthropocene man can’t be counted on to do the right thing."

Critical Summary

Kolbert’s and Flannery’s arguments, evidence, and conclusions should surprise few readers. Given existing scientific knowledge, neither author (and no critic) doubts that global warming is real, with terrible consequences looming ahead.

The difference between the books largely comes down to tone and style. Kolbert, a reporter for the New Yorker, provides an excellent primer on climate change. Praised for her elegance and accessibility, she offers a loose travelogue with "the clearest view yet of the biggest catastrophe we have ever faced" (Los Angeles Times). She takes her science seriously—from sulfate droplets to recarbonization—and rarely lets her belief in impending catastrophe cloud her objectivity. Flannery’s book may appeal more to activists. However, the Chicago Sun-Times thought that his passionate clarion call to action undermined sound arguments; others criticized scattered information and incomplete discussion on ways individuals can counteract climate change. Still, like Kolbert, Flannery elucidates complex concepts in climatology, paleontology, and economics. In the end, both books ask a crucial question: "Will we be lauded by future generations for heeding the advice of our best scientific minds, or remembered hereafter as counterexamples—as paragons of hubris, of a colossal failure of the imagination?" (Los Angeles Times).