Feeling the heat
Anushka Asthana on Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Field Notes from a Catastrophe
by Elizabeth Kolbert
Sunday 12 August 2007 23.55 BST
The Inuit people of Banks Island have no word to describe what we know as a robin. After all, the islanders, 500 miles inside the Arctic Circle, deep in Canada's Northwest Territories, had never seen the creatures until they suddenly turned up in numbers a few years ago. 'We just thought, "Oh gee, it's warming up a little bit,"' islander John Keogak tells Elizabeth Kolbert. 'It was good at the start - warmer winters, you know - but now everything is going so fast.'
If you have any doubts about the potential devastation facing the planet as a result of global warming, Kolbert's book will eradicate them. She takes the reader on a terrifying journey from Canada, Alaska, Iceland and Greenland through Manhattan and Washington to the Netherlands and York. The effects of global warming, she argues, can already be felt on every continent, in every country, by plants and animals alike.
She describes butterfly populations edging northwards through the English countryside, mosquitoes that have mutated so that they go into diapause (or dormancy) later each year in the US and an extraordinary toad - 'a flaming shade of tangerine' - that has disappeared completely from the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. As for humans, families in the Netherlands have already moved into floating homes.
All these tiny signs, brought to life in remarkable detail, point to a coming catastrophe. And it is the scientists - not the campaigners - who are ringing the alarm bells. 'It is true that we've had higher CO2 levels before,' one expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells Kolbert. 'But, then, of course, we also had dinosaurs.'
Kolbert presents the arguments in an utterly compelling and convincing manner and she does not shy away from the science. She goes into great detail about what can be done. As you reach the final chapters, you are left with some hope. 'I think we have a shot,' says one leading physicist.
But when Kolbert turns to the action taken by the US, she becomes pessimistic. I was left wanting to throw this exposé at those officials who are too selfish to consider what could happen to the planet their grandchildren inherit. They, like the rest of us, should heed the advice in Kolbert's remarkable book.