Time Is Not on Our Side
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate
Change. Elizabeth Kolbert. x + 210 pp. Bloomsbury, 2006. $22.95.
The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It
Means for Life on Earth. Tim Flannery. xx + 357 pp.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005. $24.
If the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the
burning of coal, oil and gas is not reduced greatly and soon, the
consequences are likely to be catastrophic. So say Tim Flannery and
Elizabeth Kolbert, authors of two new books that provide ample
evidence that those emissions are adversely affecting the complex
web of interactions that ties Earth's organisms to climate.
The incipient catastrophe is manifesting itself in a myriad of ways.
A half-century ago, the Inupiats of the small Alaskan island of
Shishmaref were able to venture 20 miles out onto the sea ice to
hunt seals; now that ice turns to slush only 10 miles out. Storm
surges that were once held at bay by the ice now regularly eat away
at the island, a strip of land only a quarter of a mile wide; a
single storm can remove as much as 125 feet. Once houses sat square
and firm on the frozen ground; now they tilt and veer as the melting
soil softens and gives way. The Inupiats recently voted to move
their village inland, away from their ancestral home—an early
loss to global warming.
This scene from Shishmaref is among those described by Kolbert in
Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which is based on a
series of articles that appeared last year in the New
Yorker. Such is the power of the images she paints that, soon
after the series appeared, a senior staffer to a Republican senator
told me, "When the Eskimos start moving their villages, you
know it's time to start doing something."
Kolbert describes scientists at a research station on the Greenland
ice sheet working rapidly in the early morning, trying to avoid the
slush and rivers of water that will form later in the day from the
melting ice. This water sinks rapidly through cracks in the ice cap
to the rocky base, lubricating the flow of the ice to the sea, where
icebergs will calve off, raising sea level and flooding coastal
communities. When the sea freezes, as ice forms, heavy salty water
is pushed out and sinks. When icebergs melt, the cold fresh water
they contain spreads across the ocean surface (rather than sinking
into the denser, saltier waters below), thereby interfering with the
large-scale thermohaline circulation of the ocean. No one can
predict with confidence how interference with such planetary-scale
processes will affect climate. We are like children poking at a
sleeping polar bear, without knowing what will happen when it wakes up.
Kolbert also tells of past civilizations being decimated by
relatively tiny fluctuations in climate. The Akkadians, living
between the Tigris and Euphrates some 4,300 years ago, were an
advanced agricultural people with a written language and a complex
system to account for the production and distribution of barley and
wheat. Their society was destroyed by a drought that not even the
earthworms survived. Other cultures, including the classic Maya of
Mesoamerica, met a similar fate as a result of climate changes that
pale in significance compared with what is predicted to occur later
this century. What do these past casualties forebode for our future?
Kolbert is like Matisse, painting an evocative picture with a few
deft strokes. Tim Flannery, in contrast, works more in the style of
Seurat, building up a persuasive portrait of a threatened planet,
point by scientific point. His book The Weather Makers is
an impressively researched, broad-ranging survey of the scientific
foundations of climate science. Kolbert constructs her story around
the people doing the science; Flannery puts the science itself in
the forefront. Kolbert focuses on the effects of climate change that
can be observed to be happening now; Flannery sets his sights at a
greater distance, discussing climate variation throughout Earth's
history and describing the outlook for our future. Kolbert avoids
detailed scientific discussion; Flannery tries to communicate enough
of the science to allow the reader to develop his or her own
understanding. Both books are excellent.
Although the two volumes address nearly the same issues, there is
little overlap between them. But Flannery and Kolbert do both tell
the story of the golden toad, formerly found in the Monteverde Cloud
Forest in central Costa Rica. Discovered in 1964,
the toad lived most of its life underground, displaying its bright
tangerine color for a brief period when it came to the surface to
breed explosively, laying its eggs in puddles. Too much rain, and
the eggs would get washed downhill; too little, and the puddles
would dry before the tadpoles could turn into toads. In 1987, a
biologist counted 1,500 toads. That spring was unusually warm and
dry, so the puddles evaporated early. The next year, Kolbert says,
only 10 toads were found. The year after that, a single golden toad
was seen—the last ever recorded. Kolbert writes, "It is
widely assumed that after living its colorful, if secretive,
existence for hundreds of thousands of years, Bufo
periglenes is now extinct." Cloud forests are expected to
largely disappear as our planet becomes hotter. Who knows how many
species will disappear without ever having been observed?
Flannery points out that fundamental climate science is not
something new: The basis was laid down by experiments and
observations made more than a century ago. The Earth is getting
hotter than it otherwise might because greenhouse gases, primarily
carbon dioxide, are accumulating in our atmosphere.
Today, carbon dioxide is produced primarily by the burning of fossil
fuels. Because CO2 is a greenhouse gas (meaning that it
is transparent to visible light but blocks parts of the infrared
spectrum at which the Earth radiates its heat energy to space),
adding it to the atmosphere results in a heating of the Earth's
surface. Flannery skillfully describes climate processes that
amplify this warming. For example, the surface heats, causing ice
and snow to melt. Sea ice reflects 90 percent of light back out into
space, but the ocean absorbs 90 percent of light. So when sea ice
melts, the result is further heating of the portion of the ocean's
surface that had previously been ice-covered.
Flannery is at his best when describing the complex web of
ecological relationships that can be disrupted by rapidly changing
climate. In chapters with titles such as "The Unraveling
World," "Peril at the Poles" and "The Great
Stumpy Reef," he tells us how much of the life on our planet is
threatened by global warming. As we see from the golden toad and
many other examples Flannery provides, subtle shifts in temperature
and precipitation can result in the demise of many individual plants
and animals, ultimately leading to the extinction of many species.
If global warming continues as projected, species will need to move
poleward three or four miles per year on average to avoid
overheating. For many species, movement on that scale is simply
impossible. For others—for example, those living on
islands—natural barriers prevent such migration. For most
species, human-erected barriers in the form of roads, farms, towns
and cities block the way. Extinction is an abstract concept,
difficult to grasp, but it takes the concrete form of the suffering
of individual creatures, such as a polar bear falling through thin
sea ice and desperately drowning in the frigid brine. (The bears are
strong swimmers but are adapted for swimming close to shore; some
now have to swim many miles across open sea to find food as the ice
floes from which they feed melt, become smaller and drift apart, and
drowned carcasses are being found off the north coast of Alaska.)
Climate effects of carbon dioxide are not the only problem. As
CO2 is absorbed by seawater, it makes the water more
acidic. If current patterns of coal, oil and gas consumption
continue, before the end of this century the ocean will begin to
dissolve some of the organisms that live in it—polar pteropods
(small marine snails), for example. Another problem is that by that
time, the surface-water carbonate mineral saturation state will
probably be so low that corals will be unable to calcify. Arguably,
our CO2 emissions represent the greatest threat to life
on Earth since a comet wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.
Kolbert describes the paralysis of the Bush Administration, which
acts as though press releases and sound bites are the primary tools
needed to combat this threat. But our energy system is at the root
of the problem. There are differences of opinion regarding how tough
it would be to provide the energy needed to sustain "the good
life" throughout the world without damaging our planet.
Flannery contends that minor lifestyle changes such as the adoption
of hybrid cars would go a long way toward solving the problem.
This line of argument is supported by Robert Socolow, a Princeton
professor who, Kolbert tells us, thinks that we have the technology
but not the political will to tackle this problem. Socolow likens
our CO2 emissions to slavery. Eliminating slavery made
our cotton more expensive, but we didn't get rid of slavery based on
an economic argument; rather, people recognized that slavery was
wrong. Similarly, getting rid of CO2 emissions will be
expensive, but it will happen when we recognize that it is morally
wrong to emit CO2 into the atmosphere.
In the United States, the demand to eliminate slavery developed in
the North, where mechanized manufacturing allowed the luxury of a
refined moral sense. Will we be able similarly to indulge a desire
based on ethics? Another subject of Kolbert's book, New York
University physics professor Martin Hoffert, hopes so. He argues
(like some others) that it will be the development of new energy
technologies that will allow us the luxury of a moral sense that
leads to the elimination of CO2 emissions. Hoffert has
led the call for a crash program to develop clean energy
technologies—perhaps the energy needed for our growing and
developing world can be provided by high-altitude wind turbines
tapping into the energy of the jet stream, from solar satellites
orbiting the Earth or from some other source not yet conceived, he contends.
We evolved as hunter-gatherers, with minds adapted to focus
optimally on our immediate surroundings, the present moment and the
people to whom we are most closely genetically related. Now we are
confronted by a problem that is global in scope, was centuries in
the making and is threatening almost every species on the planet.
Can our hunter-gatherer minds rise to meet the social, political and
technical challenges posed by modern global industrial society?
Kolbert quotes Hoffert, who is dubious:
I'm not sure we can solve the problem. I hope we can. I
think we have a shot. I mean, 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.
I highly recommend both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and
The Weather Makers. The former is more poetic, yet it
contains a bit of Fortran code. It is balanced and understated, and
I did not detect a single error. The Weather Makers is
chock-full of interesting facts, but amid them are a few that would
have benefited from a little more prepublication review—the
book contains a number of small errors, such as equating the
thermohaline circulation with the Gulf Stream. Flannery's tone is a
bit higher in pitch than Kolbert's, but even if things are only half
as bad as he makes out, or if the problem is 10 times harder to
solve than he suggests, he does convince us that this problem is
These two books can be understood easily by the average reader, yet
even most researchers in climate science will learn a lot from them.
One might consider consuming Kolbert's slim volume as an appetizer,
or a light first course, before sitting down to the heartier fare
provided by Flannery. I recommend both works to anyone who has a
concern for the fate of our planet.