Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert describes itself as a frontline Report on Climate Change. It's an accessible, concise and cogent look at climate change covering the history of climate change and climate science, the effects of climate change on wildlife and on human settlements, the political aspects and some ideas on climate change mitigation.

The author has visited many places that are affected by climate change. She reports on scientific explorations of permafrost, explaining how important it is as a carbon store and how rising temperatures undermine this role. She travels to the Arctice seas where she learns to recognise seasonal sea ice by taste (it is salty compared to the fresh water that is stored in permanent sea ice). She also learns about the albedo affect, such that white surfaces (eg ice) reflect sun and so help to keep the temperature low whereas dark surfaces (eg open sea) absorb sunlight and heat up. This sets up a feedback loop such tat as more ice melts there is more open sea to absorb more heat and thus to heat up the planet more quickly.

We are taken through a history of how the climate has changed from prehistoric times and how the relative stability of the climate since the ice Ages has allowed civilisation to develop and how extreme climatic events have caused some civilisations to collapse (this is a theme that is explored in much more detail in Jared Diamond's book Collapse, which inexplicably I've not reviewed on this blog!).

A chapter of the book is devoted to how some communities are mitigating against climate change. In parts of the Netherlands (a country that lies below sea level that is kept dry by complicated systems of dykes and pumps) where people are starting to live in floating houses, and areas of the same country where low lying land is being allowed to revert back to the sea to increase the chances of saving other areas. The community of Burlington in Vermont is highlighted as one where citizens are all taking a lot of positive steps to reduce their energy consumption (and this is being replicated in other places too).

The book was published in 2005 and some things obviously have changed (George W Bush is no longer president of the USA for example) but much remains depressingly exactly the same. This is an incredibly sobering book and one that really everyone should read. As is Six Degrees by Mark Lynas which I'm currently reading and will review in the near future.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert published 2006 by Bloomsbury on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.


Titus said...

Thanks Poet, I always enjoy (and am stimulated by) your book reviews.

Gabrielle Bryden said...

Thanks for the book review!