Eliizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe

John McGough

Field Notes from a Catastrophe
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Bloomsbury, New York: 2006,
210 pages, $22.95.

“I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that by 2100 most things were destroyed.”  — David Rind, of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, quoted in Field Notes from a Catastrophe

FLOODS IN NORMALLY drought-stricken eastern India have killed hundreds and left 1.5 million homeless this summer. Closer to home, a record-setting heat wave this June killed 225 in the United States, breaking thousands of local temperature records and sending the mercury above 104 degrees as far north as North Dakota.

This year has been the hottest year on record for the U.S. since modern temperature recording began in the 1890s. Globally, the ten hottest years on record have all occurred in the past 15 years.

The hottest year globally ever recorded, 2005 was also the year of the so-called “natural” disaster. The majority of those affected were victim to the devastating earthquake that hit Kashmir and Pakistan on October 8. The event of course was not in itself a function of climate change, but the huge numbers of rural poor living in environmentally degraded and unstable regions certainly contributed to the death toll of over 73,000.

Hurricane Stan affected two million people, mostly victim to flooding and mudslides, when it hit Central America a few days earlier. The number of extreme weather events and the people affected (killed, injured or displaced) are both on the increase. A year ago, Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people, displaced over 200,000 from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, caused an estimated $200 billion in damage, and exposed the brutal racial and class inequalities that underwrite uneven capitalist development.

This new climate regime of more numerous and intense hurricanes, droughts and floods has everything to do with our continued industrial age and the socio-economic priorities of ceaseless profit accumulation at the expense of labor and nature.

A growing body of literature on DAI, or “dangerous anthropogenic interference” on the world’s climate, is exposing modern industrial civilization’s potentially irreversible and catastrophic effects on the course of nature. (A cottage industry in literature — scientific, journalistic, memoirist — on Katrina itself has also hit the shelves on its one-year anniversary.)

It’s Getting Hot in Here

Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by New Yorker science writer Elizabeth Kolbert,  provides a captivating and readable account of the development of the science of global warming, alongside shocking vignettes that demonstrate the rapidly altering effects climate change is having on our world.(1)

In 1859, Irish physicist John Tyndall built the first ratio spectrophotometer to compare how different gases absorb and transmit radiation. He discovered that some gases are “transparent” to visible and infrared radiation, while others — like carbon dioxide and methane — were not. The presence of these later in the earth’s atmosphere, Tyndall argued, largely determines the earth’s climate.

A bit later, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius produced theoretical models for the effect of CO2 levels on the earth’s temperature. Completing his studies in 1895, Arrhenius “recognized that industrialization and climate change were intimately related, and that the consumption of fossil fuels must, over time, lead to warming.”(41)

The more modern story of global warming science picks up with work of Charles Keeling in the 1950’s. Keeling and the U.S. Weather Bureau set up an observatory at Mauna Loa on the Island of Hawaii to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The result of measurements made there since 1959 reveal an unflagging increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, as shown in the now famous Keeling Curve. Whereas CO2 levels stood at 319 parts per million when the observatory began operation, today they measure 380 parts per million. (44)

Arctic ice cores enable us to gauge both the temperature and atmospheric makeup  of the earth over hundreds of thousands of years. The Vostok core from Antarctica goes back 420,000 years and shows that the earth’s current temperature is as warm as its ever been in this long history. CO2 levels are now rising off the chart. During the previously hottest epoch, 325,000 years ago, the atmosphere contained only 299 CO2 parts per million. (128)

It may take a while for the atmosphere to warm in response to this unprecedented rise in CO2 levels, as a built in delay effect always operates at certain levels of climate change. (105) The corporate boardrooms and their political agents are working to prevent people from putting the pieces together too soon, at least before a profitable way is found to save the current economic system.

There’s a lot at stake — certainly current investments and profits, maybe the whole setup too — and those at the helm have poured millions into the creation of phony science, the promotion of business-friendly bureaucrats into positions dealing with resources, parks and the environment, and the manufacture of doubt and confusion about the reality of global warming.

Thus the current administration would have us consider “greenhouse gas intensity” — or the levels of greenhouse gases in relation to economic output — and forget about the actual changes in the atmosphere. (158)

Falling Through the Ice

Pre-historic air trapped in arctic ice-cores is not the only evidence of our new climate regime. Many fundamental and sweeping changes in nature and society are already evident “at the surface,” so to speak, as Kolbert’s expeditions and interviews described in Field Notes show.

She describes projects of scientists aboard the ice-breaker Der Groseilliers to research ice floes in the Arctic Ocean. After years of preparation for the studies, the ship sailed north, only to discover the floes were nearly half as thick as they’d anticipated! (25) They settled on one anyways.

In 12 months it drifted 300 miles north and itself decreased in thickness by a third. A new regulation on the project requires scientists to wear life jackets, as many had begun to fall through ice.

Warming is rapidly altering migratory and habitation behavior too, as animals chase the northward retreating climate they need to survive. English scientists tell Kolbert that butterflies are moving northward, with typically southern species now being recorded in the formerly middle climates. (70) A few years ago, Inuit tribes in Alaska began noticing the presence of robins, a bird they have never seen there before and have no word for. (64)

Kolbert describes projects underway in the Netherlands to clear land for the inevitably rising ocean and river waters. A Dutch construction firm is even building “amphibious homes” and roads designed to survive a regularly flooded environment. (130)

Unprecedented changes in the earth’s climate and landscape that are happening before our eyes sound an even louder alarm as scientists recognize now that shifts in climate regimes can happen “catastrophically” — with long periods of relative stability punctuated by radical reversals into a new, fundamentally different climatic period. We are either past or in the midst of such a transition, when numerous influences — for the first time, of our making — accumulate to propel conditions towards a “tipping point” beyond which there is no return. (34, 50)(2)

 Business As Usual?

Kolbert’s book has been compared to Rachel Carson’s galvanizing Silent Spring (1962), which publicized the destruction caused by pesticide use and led to the ban of DDT. Field Notes is an alarming account of global warming and a solid introduction to the science. It also gives a hard look at various existing schemes proposed to meet the crisis.

As might be expected, the book takes the global warming debunkers, including representatives of the current administration, harshly to task. She isn’t soft on the Democrats either, pointing out that CO2 emissions from the United States were 15% higher at the end of the Clinton-Gore years than they were in 1990. (157)

Existing international efforts are also open for criticism. Kolbert writes that “if every country — including the United States — were to fulfill obligations under Kyoto, concentrations in the atmosphere would still be headed to five hundred parts per million, and beyond.” (166)

There is a scary, skeptical tone in Kolbert’s descriptions of all the efforts she notes. Even the 15 “stabilization wedges” as proposed by two Princeton scientists — which include measures like carbon emission “taxes” and the installation of a million wind turbines (!) — would require a huge level of commitment and coordination that Kolbert doubts is possible. They probably are, given current socio-economic priorities.

But beyond calling for a “global response” on the book’s last page, Kolbert doesn’t hazard any proposals to meet this crisis. (187) A crisis of this magnitude, in my opinion, would require us to fundamentally alter our relations with one another and with the ecologies that sustain us. The American way of life — which demands personal cars, air conditioning, everyday wastefulness, and where our wonderful model of economic development translates into planned obsolescence, poverty, and a society where the average person consumes five times the energy of the global average person — will certainly have to go.

A global economy that requires constant expansion of production and inceasing exploitation of finite resources — fossil fuels, labor — would have to be transformed at its roots. We’ll have to produce less — and fundamentally differently and more equitably — than we do now.

Challenging the regime of capital — based as it is on the cheapest and fastest exploitation of labor and nature and the endless expansion of exchange value — and the creation of an ecological social-economic democracy, is at the core of this necessary transformation. It’s either this, or learn fast from that Dutch firm to build those “floating houses.”


  1. Incidentally, these qualities are the undeniable virtues also of Al Gore’s new movie An Inconvenient Truth. For someone new to this stuff, there’s a lot to learn there. But you have to stomach a lot of pathetic reminiscence and self-promotion from Gore along the way  Perhaps the accompanying book (or CD-ROM, or musical, or whatever else…) is better on that score.
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  2. In a recent survey of the new global warming books in The New York Review of Books (Volume 31, Number 12, July 13 2006), James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies argues that we are in a 10-year window beyond which time the dangerous changes now observable will become self-reinforcing and magnified through “feedback loops” in the climate system.
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ATC 125, November-December 2006