Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert




(Highly Recommended)




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In her new book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert lays out the facts about global warming in a systematic way that will alert every reader to what’s happening with climate change. Expanded from a three-part series she did for The New Yorker, Kolbert presents the topic of global warming clearly and will for many readers be the first reading on this subject that leads to understanding and possible action. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 3, pp. 62-66:


In October 2000, in a middle school in Barrow, Alaska, officials from the eight Arctic nations—the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland—met to talk about global warming. The group announced plans for a three-part, two-million-dollar study of climate change in the region. In November 2004, the first two parts of the study—a massive technical document and a hundred-and-forty-page summary—were presented at a symposium in Reykjavik.

The day after I went to talk to Sigurdsson, I attended the symposium’s plenary session. In addition to nearly three hundred scientists, it drew a sizable contingent of native Arctic residents—reindeer herders, subsistence hunters, and representatives of groups like the Inuvialuit Game Council. In among the shirts and ties, I spotted two men dressed in the brightly colored tunics of the Sami and several others wearing sealskin vests. As the session went on, the subject kept changing—from hydrology and bio­diversity to fisheries and on to forests. The message, however, stayed the same. Almost wherever you looked, conditions in the Arctic were changing, and at a rate that surprised even those who had expected to find clear signs of warming. Robert Corell, an American oceanographer and former assistant director at the National Science Foundation, coordinated the study. In his opening re­marks, he ran through its findings—shrinking sea ice, receding glaciers, thawing permafrost and summed them up as follows: “The Arctic climate is warming rapidly now, with an emphasis on now.” Particularly alarming, Corell said, were the most recent data from Greenland, which showed the ice sheet melting much faster “than we thought possible even a decade ago.”

Global warming is routinely described as a matter of scientific debate—a theory whose validity has yet to be demonstrated. The symposium’s opening session lasted for more than nine hours. During that time, many speak­ers stressed 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 temperatures. The study’s ex­ecutive summary stated, unequivocally, that human beings had become the “dominant factor” influencing the climate. During an afternoon coffee break, I caught up with Corell.

“Let’s say that there’s three hundred people in this room,” he told me. “I don’t think you’ll find five who would say that global warming is just a natural process.” (While I was at the conference, I spoke to more than twenty scientists, and I couldn’t find one who described it that way.)

The third part of the Arctic-climate study, which was still unfinished at the time of the symposium, was the so-called policy document. This was supposed to outline practical steps to be taken in response to the scientific findings, including—presumably—reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The policy document remained unfin­ished because American negotiators had rejected much of the language proposed by the seven other Arctic nations. (A few weeks later, the United States agreed to a vaguely worded statement calling for “effective”— but not obligatory—actions to combat the problem.) This recalcitrance left those Americans who had traveled to Reykjavik in an awkward position. A few tried— halfheartedly—to defend the Bush administration’s stand to me; most, including many government employees, were critical of it. At one point, Corell observed that the loss of sea ice since the late 1970s was equal to “the size of Texas and Arizona combined. That analogy was made for obvious reasons.”

That evening, at the hotel bar, I talked to an Inuit hunter named John Keogak, who lives on Banks Island, in Canada’s Northwest Territories, some five hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. 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.

“We just thought, Oh, gee, it’s warming up a little bit,” he recalled. “It was good at the start—warmer winters, you know—but now everything is going so fast. The things that we saw coming in the early nineties, they’ve just multiplied.

“Of the people involved in global warming, I think we’re on top of the list of who would be most affected,” Keogak went on. “Our way of life, our traditions, maybe our families. Our children may not have a future. I mean, all young people, put it that way. It’s just not happening in the Arctic. It’s going to happen all over the world. The whole world is going too fast.”


The symposium in Reykjavik lasted for four days. One morning, when the presentations on the agenda included “Char as a Model for Assessing Climate Change Impacts on Arctic Fishery Resources,” I decided to rent a car and take a drive. In recent years, Reykjavik has been expanding almost on a daily basis, and the old port city is now surrounded by rings of identical, European-looking sub­urbs. Ten minutes from the car-rental place, these began to give out, and I found myself in a desolate landscape in which there were no trees or bushes or really even soil. The ground—fields of lava from some defunct, or perhaps just dormant, volcanoes—resembled macadam that had recently been bulldozed. I stopped to get a cup of coffee in the town of Hveragerdi, where roses are raised in green­houses heated with steam that pours directly out of the earth. Farther on, I crossed into farm country; the land­scape was still treeless, but now there was grass, and sheep eating it. Finally, I reached the sign for Sólheimajökull, the glacier whose retreat Oddur Sigurdsson had described to me. I turned off onto a dirt road. It ran alongside a brown river, between two crazily shaped ridges. After a few miles, the road ended, and the only option was to continue on foot.

By the time I got to the lookout over Sólheimajökull, it was raining. In the gloomy light, the glacier appeared less sublime than merely forlorn. Much of it was gray— covered in a film of dark grit. In its retreat, it had left behind ridged piles of silt. These were jet-black and barren—not even the tough local grasses had had a chance to take root on them. I looked around for the enormous boulder I had seen in the photos in Sigurdsson’s office. It was such a long way from the edge of the glacier that for a moment I wondered if perhaps it had been carried along by the current. A raw wind came up, and I started to head down. Then I thought about what Sigurdsson had told me. If I returned in another decade, the glacier would probably no longer even be visible from the ridge where I was standing. So I climbed back up to take a second look.


It’s early to tell whether Field Notes From a Catastrophe will become the Silent Spring of this generation. All readers will benefit from reading this sober book, and learning many of the facts about what has been contributing to climate change, and what will happen if changes aren’t made.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2006 issue of Executive Times


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