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By Greta Petry (April 2, 2007)

Kolbert: The Time is Now to Make Significant Impact on Global Warming

Kolbert speaks with student

Award-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert chats with freshman Kristen DiChiaro. Kolbert's book, "Field Notes from a Catastrophe", was read and discussed by University at Albany students, faculty, and staff as part of the Campus Book Project for Spring 2007. (Photo by Mark Schmidt.)

One member of the audience at a March 29 seminar on Elizabeth Kolbert's book on global warming hesitated, then said respectfully that her book Field Notes from a Catastrophe is "kind of a downer."

Kolbert did not disagree. "I'm grateful and heartened that you chose it as your book of the semester.  It is easy to ignore global warming and it's easier not to believe in it. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter what you believe. It matters what is true."

The well-attended New York State Writers Institute seminar was one of two public appearances by Kolbert in the Campus Center Ballroom that day. On stage with NYS Writers Institute Director Donald Faulkner, the two had an informal discussion. Afterwards, she responded at length to questions from the audience.

In her book and in her remarks, Kolbert said there is little debate in the scientific community that global warming is real. In a study of 900 peer-reviewed journal articles on climate change from 1993-2003, "75 percent endorsed the view that anthropogenic emissions were responsible for at least some of the observed warming of the past 50 years," the author wrote. The other 25 percent dealt with questions of methodology or climate history and took no position on current conditions. "Not a single article disputed the premise that anthropogenic warming is under way," Kolbert wrote. During the discussion with Faulkner, Kolbert reiterated that point of view, saying, "In 1981 Jim Hansen (the NASA official in charge of one of the first 1970s studies on the effects of carbon dioxide) said around the year 2000 we would emerge from the noise of climate variability," an unequivocal signal that carbon dioxide emissions were causing climate changes.

"The problem is once you start seeing it, it's the front end of the wave," said Kolbert. As we emit more carbon dioxide into the air, "that wave is going to crest over us. I'm not sure people appreciate this is the tip of the iceberg, and how little time we really have to make a significant impact on this problem."

Kolbert saw Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth when it was still a slide show, and she thought it was "very good." Her only objection to his research is that he "vaguely misrepresents the Clinton administration's stance on the issue – they did nothing."

Dismissing a recent report in The New York Times of a pushback against Gore's research as "ridiculous," Kolbert was similarly unfazed by an article in Science Times that chalks up changes over the last 100 years to normal climate activity. In articles like these, Kolbert said the reader needs to pay attention to "who the players are" in the global warming debate, and to what their agenda may be.

"If we wait until every single scientist is on board, will we be sitting here with water covering lower Manhattan?" she said. Faulkner said no one on the University at Albany committee that selected Kolbert's book for the Campus Reading Project anticipated the massive amount of information on global warming that has been released over the last year.

Kolbert said the scientific community is conservative, and it wasn't until recently that the data on global warming have become statistically significant. It took several decades for the signals to appear. In her book, more dramatic changes have taken place within the last 10 years.

Field Notes sprang from a series of articles Kolbert wrote for New Yorker magazine several years ago. She said full professors at Harvard spent hours on the phone with fact-checkers from the New Yorker, to ensure the articles were scientifically accurate. Kolbert started as a political writer for The New York Times, covering the New York State legislature. Asked how she made the switch to writing about science, she said, "On one level writing about science is just like writing about anything else. It's like writing about the New York State legislature. You start out knowing nothing and go on to know more than you want to know." The difficult part was reading the scientific papers, which can be "incredibly, staggeringly dry." She found scientists to translate what she didn't understand. Kolbert said most of her work translating difficult issues for the lay reader is what reporters do every day.

George Robinson, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, said his students read the book and submitted reviews of the book. "For the majority, it was life changing." One of his students, however, observed that Kolbert characterized individual scientists in the book as "jovial, genial, and grandfatherly," while she found the politicians to be generally "dull and robotic."

Kolbert responded, "This just shows you should always give journalists more time. The scientists gave generously of their time. With the politicians, I was mostly quoting from their (prepared) statements."       

The book leaves the reader with the impression there is very little any one individual can do to stop global warming.

"If you didn't take that shower this morning, that will not stop global warming," Kolbert said. "If we all stop being big carbon dioxide emitters, it [emissions] will drop 30 percent. There are no guarantees."

If you accept the scenario Kolbert lays out in her book, is there any hope?

"I don't know. A year ago we were going nowhere. Now on Capitol Hill, there are some interesting things that may happen," she said. "Federal legislation is the only possible next step. We don't get another shot at it."


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