March 24, 2006
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Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe Takes Us Down Into the Trenches of Global Warming Research
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Few of us have the opportunity to camp out on the Greenland ice sheet or gaze at mammoth icebergs floating lazily in the bay. But journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has, and her report to the rest of us is both awesome and unsettling - which is her intent. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change truly sounds an alarm. Kolbert visited key research sites herself. She questioned the scientists, as well as local residents, and observed not only the data, but the land and seascapes firsthand. Her report tells us in layman's terms what the world's top climate researchers are already seeing. She wants us all to understand global warming, and why we can no longer ignore or deny it.
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BuzzFlash: In the Seventies we began the tradition of Earth Days, and we seemed to have a growing environmental consciousness. It seemed to be supported by conservatives and liberals alike. It was as American as apple pie. Now it’s a partisan issue. What happened?
Elizabeth Kolbert: In American politics in general, the environment, very broadly understood, is the public space. It’s the world that we all occupy. As an observer of American politics, I think the public space has been really devalued. There’s only one planet and we all share in it in some way, and it’s our commonality. There’s very little sticking up for the public good now, and the environment has fallen victim to that.
BuzzFlash: Why did you call the book Field Notes from a Catastrophe?
Elizabeth Kolbert: There was a struggle to find a title, it wasn’t something that just popped into my mind. I wanted to convey a sense of what the book really is, and it’s not a scientific treatise. It’s a series of notes – almost a travelogue. I go and I talk to people, and I am out in the field with a lot of people. So I wanted to give that sense of being out in the field. So that is “Field Notes.” And "Catastrophe" is pretty self-explanatory.
BuzzFlash: Global warming is the issue you investigate. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, of course. We’re getting to the point, as your book details, when the total global environment may reach a stage that will be catastrophic. Is that correct interpretation?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes. It’s a global phenomenon, and due to the sheer scale of it, the potential for irreversible harm is great.
BuzzFlash: You’re a journalist, but you went out like a scientist. You did, in essence, field research on this problem, looking at the problem in a variety of locations, with a variety of people studying it. What did you find?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I chose the scientists I followed quite carefully. They’re very eminent people, all of whom were doing very important research. But the one thing that I hope comes through is that every single one of these people was looking at very serious changes that are already occurring. And the ways they are looking toward the future are not at all speculative. Any global warming scientist will tell you, this is not a field rife with speculation. As one person put it to me, this is basically Physics 101. And they are all very, very concerned.
One of the scientists put it to me very well. He made the point that in many fields there’s a scientific opinion and a lay opinion, and the lay opinion is more hysterical than the scientific opinion. But in the field of climate science, the climate scientists are the ones who are saying, wow, wake up, this is really serious! If there’s one thought I’d really like to get out to people, it is that the scientists are really, really worried.
BuzzFlash: You begin in your Preface with a recollection from the Hotel Arctic on the west coast of Greenland. Can you tell us what you found, because this sort of sets the tone for the book.
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Greenland ice sheet is ice that’s up on land. That ice is always flowing. There are ice rivers that flow particularly fast and deliver a tremendous amount of water to the sea, in the form of these huge and really fantastically beautiful icebergs. They sort of float and laze around, and people come to watch them because it’s very spectacular. It’s believed that that probably was the source of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic.
But this ice stream has been moving faster and faster, and the height of the ice is sinking as it moves south. It thins out, and the point where the icebergs sort of break off and enter the water has been moving back very, very rapidly. All of that ice, as it’s delivered to the sea, contributes to the sea level rise. So it’s something that people are very worried about, and it’s something that the Greenlanders who live there will tell you is just astonishing. In places that used to be iced over all winter, there’s no sea ice. As I was told, “You can see a lot of strange changes.”
In the short term, some changes may be economically beneficial to them. They can take their fishing boats out all winter now. But they’re not happy about it.
BuzzFlash: We had a recent report that the Antarctic ice sheet is melting twice as fast as had previously been anticipated.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Both the ice sheets and the Arctic ice cap melting are reasons to be worried, for somewhat different reasons. They’re all showing signs of change.
The Arctic ice cap, which is floating, since there’s no land up there, is shrinking very fast. People say that it is possible that by the middle of this century, there will be no ice in the summer. That has tremendous ramifications. You could say, well, big deal. There’s no ice in the Arctic. I don’t go to the Arctic. What difference does it make? But ice is a very important regulator of our climate because it reflects light – that’s basically sun and solar energy that’s not being absorbed by the earth. When you start to melt back that ice, the water can absorb more heat - a tremendous amount of heat. Water is a very good heat absorber, so the increase in heat feeds on itself, and it basically becomes impossible to stop.
BuzzFlash: We have mostly a mythical conception of the Arctic circle, largely related to Christmas and Santa Claus. There's also the history of adventurers in the beginning of the century racing to get to the Arctic circle. When you say this is just ice, there’s something in the back of our minds – at least in my mind – that thinks somehow there’s something below that. But you’re saying, really, the Arctic Circle is just a massive accumulation of ice.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Go to your globe and look at it. Once you’re above Siberia and Alaska, there’s no land there. The continents make sort of a ring, and then there’s the Arctic Ocean. The ice cap is floating on the water, and it used to stretch all the way to the edge of the land. If you look at satellite data and the diagrams, which are in my book, you can see the ice is pulling away from the edges of the land. There are now places where the ice has pulled away many, many miles from shore. It’s just shrinking. It’s coming farther and farther up toward the North Pole. This makes people say, for example, that there will be a northwest passage. The much, much sought northwest passage will eventually open up.
BuzzFlash: There’s a positive benefit to global warming. We’ll have a northwest passage.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Another point I try to get across in the book is that we have lived under certain conditions as our society has developed. Human history has all happened very rapidly, from the perspective of geological history. We have become an industrialized society with six billion people, and that’s happened under a certain set of climactic conditions. You change those conditions, and a lot of people are not going to be able to live the way they were. You have to be concerned about what happens next. You have to be concerned about geo-political issues. You have to be concerned about humanitarian issues - people living in places where they are just barely scraping by and are just barely getting enough rainfall. If you change the rainfall patterns, you really can’t know what’s going to happen.
So yes, shipping companies may benefit, but it seems unlikely that change as a whole is going to be good for the six billion of us who are here right now.
BuzzFlash: Suppose there is a sudden rise in the earth’s temperature. The oceans could rise up to fifteen feet because of melting, particularly synergistically with a rise in temperature. Once you reach a tipping point, there’s really no going back. There’s nothing presently in our technology which would enable us to be like the surgeon and suddenly repair the hole in the ozone layers and so forth.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Right.
BuzzFlash: We want to emphasize to people who read this book that you did due diligence. You went way beyond getting on the Internet or reading a lot of books or just calling people. You were there in Greenland, and Alaska, and so forth. What do you say to people who say, well, this is gibberish? I don’t want to put you in a political spot, but the President of the United States would say this is just unproven.
Elizabeth Kolbert: The Administration takes a very complicated and somewhat internally inconsistent stand. They’re on record saying this is a real problem, and a serious problem. The President speaks of it, very rarely - you have to sort of piece it together out of these fragments - but their official position is that it’s a serious problem for which we have no solution at this moment, so we’re going to just sort of see, and maybe a solution will show up. That’s their position.
Now, there are people who are even further out there, like Senator James Inhofe, who will say, this doesn’t prove anything. There’s three or four places in the world that are actually getting colder, so what are you talking about? That is just another form of denial. It’s like Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which is heavily footnoted as to be tricked out as science.
But unfortunately, it really doesn’t matter what people think or deny. It really only matters what’s going to happen to the world. The earth doesn’t really care about human opinion on this topic. You also can deny that smoking causes cancer. You can deny that, and you can smoke, and you can see what happens. But unfortunately it just doesn’t change the basic facts.
BuzzFlash: Let me back up a second to the Bush Administration. There is a political dimension, of course, to responding to the problem. The Bush Administration doesn’t just acknowledge the problem and say, well, we don’t know what the solutions are. But they also say that, even the proposed solutions, which seem to be common sense based, aren’t proven in any way to reduce the problem, so therefore we aren’t going to try to put those in place.
Elizabeth Kolbert: They use every imaginable reason to justify doing nothing. One of the justifications for doing nothing is, if you take something like the Kyoto protocol, which is generally accepted as our best hope for doing something at this point – they say, well, that isn’t going to really measurably impact the problem. And on some level, they’re right. The Kyoto protocol is inadequate. Every climate scientist would tell you the Kyoto protocol does not address this problem in a way that will really make a serious significant difference at the end of the day - the end of the day being a century from now.
That was always understood. The Kyoto protocol was always understood as a first step, and then you have to take even more serious measures. It’s f like saying, well, I’m fat, and if I don’t eat that candy bar today, is it really going to make a lot of difference? No - so I will just go to Dunkin Donuts, too.
These problems take a lot of hard work over a long time. But to just throw up your hands at the beginning and say, well, that’s not going to solve the problem, is to not even take the first step. That’s really the situation we’re in right now.
BuzzFlash: The American financial system and our way of life are sort of a carpe diem lifestyle. We live for today. We are a society that’s built on instant gratification and consumption, and a six-hour news cycle. How will Americans begin to understand that our lifestyle has long-term implications, although not that far away anymore?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I wish I had the answer to that. It’s the ultimate challenge to our political system, and this is not a completely partisan issue. A person I spoke to who really addressed this and is quite downcast was John McCain, one of the few people in the Senate who has really taken a strong stand on this. He said to me, our political system is designed to respond to crises. By the time you respond to this crisis, it is too late. So we really have to be taking proactive measures. It’s completely unclear that our political system is capable of doing that.
BuzzFlash: What might this mean in terms of world drought?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I’ve talked to enough people to tell you that one of the clear effects of climate change is going to be changes in precipitation. It is not that easy to predict exactly what they will be, and the models, in fact, sometimes show contradictory results. But changes in precipitation mean that some areas will get drier and some areas will get wetter, and that’s a pretty well-accepted impact. To go back to what I said before, we grew to the population that we are now with the rainfall patterns that we have had for the last fifty years, let’s say. You change those, and you can imagine it causing a lot of problems.
BuzzFlash: What would a rise in the sea level of fifteen feet do?
Elizabeth Kolbert: It would be catastrophic. You only get a rise in sea level of fifteen feet when you melt one of these ice sheets – either it’s the Greenland ice sheet or the West Antarctic ice sheet. And we are not going to see that tomorrow. It is not a process that happens overnight, but probably over the course of a couple centuries.
It is possible that we have set that in motion, and that our great-great-great-great grandchildren will feel the effects of that. Someone compared it to rolling a boulder down the hill. You can’t stop it. That's why what’s happened to the Greenland ice sheet is of intense interest to people. There’s a lot of change that’s already in the pipeline - the eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet. One has to hope not, but one cannot be sure. We have seen changes in the ice sheet that are ominous – let’s put it that way.
BuzzFlash: In your Foreword you talked about the doubling of the speed of that ice stream that is flowing into the sea.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Right, that’s a huge change.
BuzzFlash: What would awaken Americans to this problem? It may not affect you now, but the legacy of not attending to this could be catastrophic to your children.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I would be happy to give you the answer, if I knew it. Why did I write this book? Here I am, doing what I know how to do. And many other people are doing what they know how to do. So there’s many people out there trying to work on this problem, and trying to say exactly that – wake up!
I do think we should be appealing to people as parents. Most Americans above a certain age are parents. Think of all the energy we spend, getting our kids ready to attend college and take the SATs, for instance. But this is their future. It is definitely my children’s generation that will really start to feel some potentially very, very serious effects, and certainly their children. We are society that claims to believe in the future - Americans always claim to be a forward-looking society – so we’ve got to look forward.
BuzzFlash: Well, Elizabeth, thank you for a wonderful book.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Hardcover), by Elizabeth Kolbert, a BuzzFlash premium.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe, a BuzzFlash review.
Q&A: A Planetary Problem, an interview with The New Yorker.
Elizabeth Kolbert received the American Association for the Advancement of Science's magazine writing award for her three-part series on which Field Notes from a Catastrophe is based, published in The New Yorker.