Global Warning
Elizabeth Kolbert's new book takes on society's take on global warming

By MATT PACENZA, Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, April 16, 2006, J1

Thirty years ago, global warming was a tantalizing theory.

By 15 years ago, most scientists had agreed human activity was beginning to warm the planet.

And by one February afternoon in 2006, a journalist talking about her new book could point to an e-mail from an Alaskan native villager reporting midwinter open water -- for the first time in memory.

"There's no ice!" exclaimed Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of "Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change" (Bloomsbury, 192 pages; $22.95), an expanded version of her award-winning 2005 series in The New Yorker.

Kolbert's slender book builds carefully, from an eye-opening study of how a changing climate is already transforming life in Alaska and the Arctic. It also probes how -- and most importantly, how quickly -- the weather will change, with analysis of how warming oceans and melting glaciers could set off bigger transformations.

Tuesday night, as part of the New York State Writers Institute Spring Series, Kolbert will read from her new book.

The former New York Times reporter and current New Yorker staff writer ably translates complex science, illustrating how ocean currents drive weather or how warm air has already increased the life span of adult mosquitoes.

But mixed up in all that smart, calm and collected science writing is barely concealed panic. Kolbert is impressed by climate change, but she's also scared of it.

"The more you know, the more worried you are," Kolbert said last month during an interview at an Albany coffeehouse.

The scientists she profiles, each one smarter and more credentialed than the last, reach equally stern conclusions.

The most devastating, Kolbert's own, is saved for the last. "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself," she writes, "but that is what we are in the process of doing."

A learning experience

Kolbert covered the state Legislature for the Times for much of Gov. Mario Cuomo's final term, before settling in Williamstown, Mass., where she lives with her two sons and husband, a professor at Williams College.

By her own admission, Kolbert was a novice to climatology before 2000, when she wrote a feature for The New Yorker on a research expedition to Greenland that successfully found evidence for global warming in tiny air bubbles trapped deep in glaciers.

That led to another reporting trip to Shishmaref, an Inupiat village on the Alaskan coast, where residents are planning to move inland due to melting sea ice and frequent storm surges.

When she returned from Alaska, energized but prepared to write a single article, editor David Remnick urged her to "blow it out," to do a series on climate change.

"It was at once a horrifying challenge and a challenge I felt I had to take," Kolbert recalled. It paid off. Earlier this year, she won a prestigious science journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Walking the line

In the articles and new book, Kolbert walked a line between the roles of journalist and advocate. "It isn't my job or goal to set policy," she said. "But I do want to get people to think carefully and take action."

Another challenge was to fight off a sense of despair, easy to wallow in, given research that suggests warming is a train that will be very difficult to stop.

That tension is most explicit in the next to last chapter, which looks at Burlington, Vt.'s, bid to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels. The small city has embraced a series of energy-saving measures, from reducing waste to helping businesses and homes cut power use.

The campaign has worked: Burlington reduced power use by 1 percent over 16 years, even as usage in the rest of Vermont grew 15 percent.

But Kolbert follows that note of optimism with a dispiriting analysis of China, where massive growth is fueling new coal power plants that are not likely to be built with technologies that minimize carbon dioxide emissions.

The pollution from those new plants threatens to overwhelm the modest promise that Burlington represents, Kolbert writes. "China's new plants would burn through all of Burlington's savings -- past, present and future -- in less than two and a half hours."

Despite such alarming comparisons, the book also presents research which has looked at practical approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Kolbert writes at length about a 2004 Science magazine article that showed, with current technology -- solar power, more efficient cars, cleaner coal plants -- we can avoid reaching 500 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, an admittedly arbitrary number that many experts have identified as a possible tipping point. Today, that number is 370.

"We know what we have to do," said Kolbert. "If we want to keep this in the realm of possible, we have to start now."

Climate change

The story of how little has been done is well known, as the U.S. government under President Bush has fled all international efforts to reign in carbon dioxide emissions. "If you parse through it all," Kolbert said. "This is the administration's line, 'We'll just sit here and wait for something to happen.'

Kolbert also notes that relatively little was accomplished under the Clinton-Gore administrations, despite some strong rhetoric.

It plainly irritates Kolbert that she has to spend any time, in either the book or during an interview, to refute those who claim climate change is not real, or is a hoax. The number of skeptics appears to be winnowing to a few, such as novelist Michael Crichton, several U.S. senators and at a few key White House staffers.

Kolbert agrees with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote in December that there are few skeptics left, even among Republicans. "Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this)," Brooks wrote.

Kolbert pointed to conservative Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who has begun to talk about global warming in recent months.

"If you are in Alaska, I don't care what your political persuasion is, you see the world changing," Kolbert said.

Whether people, governments and nations act in time will likely hinge on whether ordinary people believe there is a crisis.

One reason many don't today may be fatigue with "doomsday environmentalism," the tendency among activists in earlier generations to have labeled certain crises, such as the population bomb or nuclear winter, as looming catastrophes. Those predictions have thus far fizzled.

The science is much stronger this time, but the challenge remains.

"It's like the boy who cried wolf," Kolbert said. "People do get tired of hearing it. But unfortunately, the wolf eventually arrives."

Matt Pacenza can be reached at 454-5533 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Elizabeth Kolbert