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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Notes

Air Date: Week of

New Yorker staff writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, has been called the "Rachel Carson of global warming." She's been reporting on the issue since her series first ran in the New Yorker last year. Now she's turned the knowledge she's gained in the field into a new book: “Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change." She speaks with Living on Earth's Bruce Gellerman.


CURWOOD: It's said if you set a frog into a pot of water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog won't notice. It'll stay in the pot and eventually die. Well, our planet is our pot, and scientists say we're the ones turning up the heat, and we're also the frog, when it comes to global warming.

Almost each week, it seems, there’s another sign pointing to a changing climate. Just recently, scientists noticed a sharp jump in the increase of carbon dioxide, a key factor in warming the Earth. Other researchers note that the Arctic Ocean ice has failed to reform for the second year in a row.

New Yorker magazine staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert has been to the front lines on the global warming story. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman spoke with Ms. Kolbert about the book she brought back: “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.”

GELLERMAN: You did a lot of traveling for this book.

KOLBERT: Yes, I did. I went, well, I won’t say around the world, but to Greenland and to Alaska and to Europe and to the West Coast, so as many places as I possibly could.

GELLERMAN: You say that the world is getting hotter than any time in the last 2,000 years, and by the end of the century it will be hotter than the last two million years. But is this unprecedented? Haven’t we had, you know, periods of intense and very speedy warming of the planet followed by long periods of very cold?

KOLBERT: Yes, but we are now, you know, in the 10,000 years into an interglacial, and we are basically near the peak of temperatures that we’ve seen in any recent interglacial. And as you keep putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere you keep raising the temperature. That’s just the basic physics of global warming. So the predictions are that we will leave what people call the envelope, climate envelope, of natural variability quite soon; and we will be entering territory that the Earth has been through before, but it just so happens that humans were not around during that time period.

(John Kleiner ©)

GELLERMAN: But is it so simple? When you burn fossil fuels, don’t you create particulates? They reflect sunlight off of the planet, and that cools the Earth.

KOLBERT: Yes. When you burn fossil fuels you create aerosols, which are basically the same thing that you get when you have a volcanic eruption. And as people know, when you get volcanic eruptions you do tend to get a period of cool weather – you know, the year without a summer, it’s sometimes referred to. And that is why people think that actually the effects of global warming have probably been masked. The 50s and the 60s were pretty cool decades, and people had a hard time understanding that until they factored in aerosols, the effect of aerosols.

But what you’re seeing now is aerosols are pretty short-lived, and also aerosols are something that we’ve tried to get control over because they cause things like lung cancer. So what you’re having now is as CO2 levels go up, and aerosol levels remain relatively steady, you see the effects of greenhouse gases canceling out the aerosol effects. And now we’re heading into a territory people expect to be of quite dramatic warming.

GELLERMAN: What I found interesting in your book was that this is actually a feedback system: that when you start melting ice and glaciers, there’s organic materials frozen in the ice that starts decaying, and that gives off methane and carbon dioxide, and that accelerates the whole process.

KOLBERT: Well, that is why people will say it’s so, so important to start dealing with our emissions, because once you set some of these feedbacks in motion, once you – some of these processes are irreversible because they feed on themselves, precisely what you’re saying. And one of the reasons scientists are so concerned, for example, about what we’re seeing with the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap, is that the Arctic ice cap has a huge affect on the climate. Because it reflects sunlight back into space, so that sunlight is not being absorbed, that energy is not being absorbed. And once you start to melt that back, as we’re seeing now, more and more energy is getting absorbed by the dark surface of the water. It’s the same principle at work as, you know, when you wear light clothes in the summer and dark clothes in the winter. So that dark water absorbs the heat and it melts back more ice, and that feeds on itself.

GELLERMAN: Ms. Kolbert, in all your research, have you come across any convincing science that denies the veracity of global warming?

KOLBERT: I guess, in a word, no.

GELLERMAN: Not a shred of evidence that would suggest that this is all hooey?

KOLBERT: You know, I can’t stress strongly enough that no one denies – no one – no one denies the basic principle that CO2 causes warming. In fact, there’s what we call the natural greenhouse effect, and that is why we are here. And it is greenhouse gases that are in the air naturally, and that’s the reason why the Earth is habitable. If we had no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the Earth would be about zero degrees Fahrenheit, the average temperature. So it would be frozen. And everyone agrees on that. You find that in any basic earth science textbook.

So the only question, really the only question that is debated, is how much the Earth will warm up. That is really the only question. And whether there are some negative feedbacks in the system so that as the Earth warms certain things would counteract that. And everything that we’ve seen so far suggests that, in fact, the positive feedbacks outweigh the negative feedbacks. So I really think you would be very, very hard-pressed to find anyone who will tell you that this is hooey.

GELLERMAN: What about some of the evidence you’ve seen in the field?

KOLBERT: Well, the evidence you see in the field is very compelling. And one place, you know, that I would advise anyone who is still dubious that we are actually seeing global warming happening now, I’d advise them to go to Alaska, where people are not, for the most part, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating types. And they will all tell you that they’ve seen dramatic changes over the last decade or so.

People talk about, you know, needing air conditioning in Fairbanks in the summer, something that was simply unheard of. And the sea ice which, along the coast, used to come in, you know, in mid-November, is now not coming it at all. I just recently got an email from someone on an island off the coast of Alaska where I had been, and the sea ice hadn’t come in at all this winter. And that is simply unheard of in the lifetime of anyone who has lived in Alaska.

GELLERMAN: I’ve read that mosquitoes are evolving and adapting to global warming. What about animals with longer life spans?

KOLBERT: Well that’s a real concern. I mean, it simply makes logical sense that organisms that go through their life span very quickly, that reproduce several times in one season, are going to be more adaptive. As you point out, people have documented already evolutionary changes in mosquitoes to adapt to a warmer climate and a longer reproductive season.

Now if you’re a tree, let’s say, that, you know, live 100 years – so, basically, has a reproductive life cycle of 100 years – obviously you’re going to adapt much more slowly. So things are going to be out of synch, as it were, and that leads to all sorts of questions about what happens to biological communities where organisms depend on each other. And I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that, but if you talk to biologists they will say they expect to see a lot of communities disrupted.

GELLERMAN: Some of the material in this book has been published in the New Yorker earlier, and it’s been compared to another New Yorker writer…Rachael Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” which warned about the danger of pesticides. Do you feel that same sense of foreboding?

KOLBERT: Well, I certainly do feel a sense of foreboding. I think that, you know, I’m certainly flattered by the comparison. I think that Rachael Carson was alerting people to something that they didn’t know about. And what’s very disheartening about global warming is that we have been alerted to it. And the question is, why can’t we listen to what we’ve heard?

GELLERMAN: Elizabeth Kolbert, thank you very much.

KOLBERT: Thanks for having me.

[MUSIC: Xenis Emputae Traveling Band “Song From A Wasted Orchard” from ‘Gold Leaf Branches (Disc 2)’ (Gold Leaf – 2005)]

CURWOOD: New Yorker magazine staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert's new book is called “Field Notes from a Catastrophe.” She spoke with Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman.



“Field Notes From a Catastrophe” By Elizabeth Kolbert


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