Field notes from a catastrophe : man, nature, and climate change

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Paperback, 2007




New York : Bloomsbury Pub., 2007.


New Yorker writer Kolbert tackles the controversial subject of global warming. Americans have been warned since the late 1970s that the buildup of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere threatens to melt the polar ice sheets and irreversibly change our climate. With little done since then to alter this dangerous course, now is the moment to salvage our future. By the end of the century, the world will likely be hotter than it's been in the last two million years, and the sweeping consequences of this change will determine the future of life on earth for generations to come. Kolbert approaches this monumental problem from every angle. She travels to the Arctic, interviews researchers and environmentalists, explains the science and the studies, draws frightening parallels to lost ancient civilizations, unpacks the politics, and presents the personal tales of those who are being affected most--the people who make their homes near the poles and are watching their worlds disappear.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member dougwood57
`Field Notes From a Catastrophe' is Elizabeth Kolbert's masterpiece of conciseness and clarity explaining current climate change science and the political obstacles (read the US, Republicans, and Bush Administration in ascending order) to getting serious about attacking the problem. Originally published in 2005, the paperback version has an afterword written in 2006.

Kolbert takes a journalist's approach to explaining the climate change phenomenon (the book began as a series in the New Yorker). She takes the reader to Shishmaref, Alaska an island village rapidly becoming an untenable place to live due to climate-induced sea ice changes, to the North Slope, to the great Greenland ice shield and she brings the story down to a human scale.

Kolbert also leads the reader through the science of global warming making understandable seemingly arcane topics like "dangerous anthropogenic interference" (DAI), which is basically the point where something truly major goes haywire. Kolbert brings the joy of learning to the reader, until one ponders the potential consequences of what she lays out for us. Perhaps most disturbing is the evidence she marshals that the climate has already changed. For example, the climate has warmed sufficiently to allow numerous butterfly species to migrate to new previously too cold locations and to cause the extinction of certain frog species.

Scientists do not, of course, understand everything about climate change (indeed, it is in the very nature of science that an endpoint of total knowledge is never achieved). Those political and economic forces (primarily in the United States) that benefit from the status quo latch on to the uncertainties to create doubt among the public and forestall action. Her interviews with Bush administration officials strike an odd note - they stonewall with robotic incantations. While Europe and most of industrialized world has acted, the US has dithered, delayed, and denied.

Kolbert explains why scientists conclude that it is virtually certain that under the current `business as usual' approach, greenhouse gas concentrations will reach a level that causes massive coastal flooding, large scale extinctions, and crop failures leading to starvation (DAI). These outcomes will not be evenly distributed and are likely to fall heaviest on the poorest countries. Scientists do not, however, know what level of greenhouse gas concentration will cause these impacts. The Bush administration uses that uncertainty as a reason to do essentially nothing and Congress too has failed to force any action.

Kolbert's book inspires the reader to search out even more current information (NOAA's Arctic Change web site is one good source). And the news is alarming. This stuff is not just a tree hugger's paranoid delusion: global heating is happening, it is happening now, and it is getting worse faster than anticipated.

Kolbert's book is a work of journalism (and given the rapidly changing reality, journalism is probably the best source of information) that informs on both the science and the politics of climate change without stridently hectoring the reader. Kolbert presents the facts. The reader would have to be a dim bulb indeed not to get the picture.

Absolutely the very highest recommendation. Kolbert's Field Notes From a Catastrophe deserves more than 5 stars
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LibraryThing member rmwilliamsjr
Recent (March 2006) addition to the literature addressed to the mythical educated layman on the issue of anthrogenic climate change.
Better than most, a bit more science, much more personal interest (partly i think because the author is female and partly because it began as a series in the NYT). It was an enjoyable and informative read, the best was the relationship of the science to several personal encounters with people, the chapter on Swiss camp. Makes the case for DAI (dangerous anthrogenic interference) kind of slowly, increased in not upsetting people so that they cease reading, interested in making the case scientifically and well structured. Is perhaps better than most in the genre, certainly i'd have no problems recommending it.

Chapter 3, Under the Glacier is both the most interesting and the best written chapter. Her personality and observational abilities both make this an excellent place to start reading and a good introduction to the book. If you are looking for a nice read on the topic of global climate change, this is a suitable and interesting book.
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LibraryThing member jorgearanda
It's a good introduction to the topic of global warming, but we shouldn't be needing just an introduction at this point. The urgency and immediacy of Kolbert's "field notes" (as opposed to lab reports) counter skeptics' claims that this problem was made up by simulation models.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
Frankly, I'm a bit confused about all the hype over this book. I read any number of individuals, not scientists, who raved about this book, saying it totally changed their mind. When I read it, I could hardly see why, since it is one of the weakest entries in the genre, at least as far as evidence, using mostly anecdote to present a very weak case for the phenomenon of global warming. Read instead the Rough Guide to Climate Change or any of a dozen other books that do a much better job.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Kolbert is a science reporter for the New York Times. She wrote a series of human interest + science articles about the work various scientists around the world are doing to study global warming. This is the book version. The message is clear: we're in trouble. If you've never read a book on global warming, or are curious about what scientists are doing and how they know what they know, this is a great start. The real meat is in the last 4 or 5 chapters.… (more)
LibraryThing member HistReader
Field Notes from a Catastrophe is the literary equivalent of taking a photo of a power plant on a snowless winter's day to enhance the heated air rising from the cooling stacks to exaggerate "global warming." Kolbert, is a journalist and relies on the emotional aspects of changes in our world to promote her belief. The only thing seemingly out of place in the book, besides the Rolling Stone magazine-style one or two sentence description of her interviewee's physical appearances, is the fossil fuel she consumed to research the stories covered in this book. From trucks, to snowmobiles, to flying, she travels the world and apologetically writes about cruising the landscape with her hosts.

I still don't fully understand her inclusion of the demise of Mesopotamian civilization of Akkadians. They suffered loss of fertile and arable land via droughts, heat and sandstorms over a century. Yet, if we are hurtling towards the same fate through coal burning, gas guzzling and tree falling, what did the Akkadians do to suffer the same downfall?

My copy has been marked with margin comments on nearly every page. One thing that became apparent was an occasional quick toss of a bone to "global warming deniers" and acknowledgement of arguments, possibly to suggest plausibility as being evenhanded, but she just as swiftly follows-up with a caveat by order of a counter-argument. This book was not science based, it was written to persuade those who are concerned but maybe not "on the bandwagon" yet. From a sorrowful Native Alaskan and sinking homes in thawing permafrost, to horrified Scandinavian children subjected to public service announcements threatening doom in a deluge of flood water, to awe of Dr. James Hansen and his computer models which take a month of processing to predict the end of the world, Elizabeth Kolbert pleads a case more and more people are believing less and less in.
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LibraryThing member JenneB
Well, what I got from this book was that we're pretty much screwed.

However this is less depressing than you might expect since I just read [book:The World Without Us] and it seems like even if we don't survive at least the rest of the world will, and it'll probably evolve some interesting new species, which would be cool.

Also, this book was a more entertaining read than I thought it might be, because apparently climate scientists are FUN GUYS. Perhaps they feel liberated, knowing that it's pretty much the end of the world as we know it.
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LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

This is another book that looks at climate change – what humans are doing to cause it, the politics, the science, and what is happening with the climate and our world.

It was good. I think the author presents it in an easy-to-understand way. I will admit to losing focus a few times while reading, surprising to me more in the first section “nature”, which I would have thought would hold my interest more. I suspect, though, that it's not the material; it is what's happening in my life right now that is distracting. It may also have to do with me seeming to read quite a bit about this lately, so maybe I need to set this topic aside for a while and come back to it again later. Overall, though, I'll still rate it “good”. It did hold my interest more for the second half, anyway.… (more)
LibraryThing member billsearth
A must read for all adults, period.
LibraryThing member JaredOrlando
Published in '06, Kolbert's Field Notes is more valid now than ever. With a president in office that is ignorant of the change's of the Earth due to man's hand, we learn, from real science, the price we are paying for the choices we have made. But there is a positive. There isn't a way we can undo what we have done, but Field Notes offers ways to cut down our emissions. As is said for most things, little changes go a long way.… (more)
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
This book was horrifying. We are destroying the world, and instead of doing anything about it, we seem all to have chosen to accelerate the process.
LibraryThing member Cl56
Fun and interesting book to read. The book is divided in different chapters talking about completely different aspects about climate change from her own experiences at the pole to how capitalists are blocking every action towards solving it. It's not a book were you will learn the hardcore facts about climate change but one that shows you a few aspects in a very readable way. Not a book for someone who wants to learn his/her first facts about climate change but a very "fun" book for people who's lives are being dominated by such subjects.… (more)



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