[Marxism] New global warming book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 16 07:44:01 MST 2006

NY Times, March 16, 2006
Books of The Times | 'Field Notes From a Catastrophe'
In Epoch of Man, Earth Takes a Beating

"The whole world is going too fast," an Inuit hunter from Banks Island in 
the Northwest Territories in Canada told the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert 
at a bar during a global-warming symposium. A few years before, he and his 
neighbors had started seeing robins, birds they had no name for. At first 
the milder weather that drew the robins north seemed a good thing — "warmer 
winters, you know," he said — but as other changes occurred that affected 
their traditional way of life, including hunting, it did not seem so good. 
"Our children may not have a future," the hunter concluded. "I mean, all 
young people, put it that way. It's not just happening in the Arctic. It's 
going to happen all over the world."

For "Field Notes From a Catastrophe," Ms. Kolbert went not exactly all over 
the world to find out what's happening with global warming but to a great 
many places in it, and she often heard the same elegiac expressions of 
foreboding, loss and fear for the next generation. In Shishmaref, Alaska, 
she met people who were abandoning their tiny island home because, with 
less sea ice around it as a buffer against storms, their houses and land 
were being carried away. ("It makes me feel lonely," one woman said of the 
forced move.) In Iceland, a man monitoring glacial advance and retreat 
passed on the prediction that by the end of the next century, his country, 
where glaciers have existed for more than two million years, will be 
essentially ice-free. On the Greenland ice cap, well away from the coast, 
researchers gathering meteorological data were surprised to see melt "in 
areas where liquid water had not been seen for hundreds, perhaps thousands, 
of years."

And so it went in Fairbanks; Yorkshire; Eugene, Ore. "Such is the impact of 
global warming," Ms. Kolbert points out, that she could have gone to 
countless other places, "from Siberia to the Austrian Alps to the Great 
Barrier Reef to the South African fynbos — to document its effects."

Ms. Kolbert, a former reporter for The New York Times, doesn't doubt that 
human-induced global warming is real and will likely have dire 
consequences; the title of her book includes the word "catastrophe." The 
pages are replete with bad news: perennial sea ice, which 25 years ago 
covered an area of the Arctic the size of the continental United States, 
has since lost an area "the size of New York, Georgia and Texas combined." 
Carbon dioxide levels, if emissions go unchecked, could reach three times 
pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

Based on a series of articles that appeared in The New Yorker magazine, the 
book is organized around notes Ms. Kolbert took on "field trips," not only 
to places where climate change is affecting the natural world but also to 
ones — labs, offices, observatories — where humans are trying to understand 
the phenomenon of human-induced global warming. Hers is the latest in a 
large crop of books on the subject — she notes that "entire books have been 
written just on the history of efforts to draw attention to the problem" — 
and there are inevitably some places where other authors have trod before.

In language that is clear, if somewhat dry, she examines the major pieces 
of the story, shedding light on some insider concepts of climatologists, 
like "dangerous anthropogenic interference," as she goes. The book may make 
a good handbook; it is both comprehensive and succinct. (If you have ever 
wondered how a climate model is put together, that's in there, too.)

She visits the Netherlands, where rising sea levels caused by global 
warming are expected to swallow up large parts of the country. In areas 
where there are already periodic floods, a construction firm has started 
building amphibious homes (they resemble toasters, Ms. Kolbert says) as 
well as "buoyant roads." Another field trip took her to Washington, where 
she was treated to double-speak by an under secretary charged with 
explaining the administration's position on climate change. 
"Astonishingly," she comments in a rare show of heat, "standing in the way" 
of progress seems to be President Bush's goal. Not only did he reject the 
Kyoto Protocol, she notes, with its mandatory curbs on emissions, almost 
killing the treaty in the process, but he also continues to block 
meaningful follow-up changes to it.

The United States is the largest emitter of carbon in the world, accounting 
for a quarter of the world's total, with the average American putting out 
12,000 pounds of carbon a year, or about 100 times what the average 
Bangladeshi does. In two decades, the Chinese will surpass Americans in 
this disheartening achievement, unless they can somehow be persuaded to 
build their many projected new coal plants using modern, low-emission — and 
expensive — technology.

Some of the most downbeat (or realistic) observers are climate scientists. 
"It may be that we're not going to solve global warming," Marty Hoffert, a 
physics professor at New York University, told Ms. Kolbert, "the earth is 
going to become an ecological disaster, and, you know, somebody will visit 
in a few hundred million years and find there were some intelligent beings 
who lived here for a while, but they just couldn't handle the transition 
from being hunter-gatherers to high technology."

Mr. Hoffert isn't giving up in despair, though, but turning to high 
technology for help. He's trying to find carbon-free sources of energy — 
away from earth. Satellites with photovoltaic arrays could be launched into 
space, he suggests. Solar collectors could be placed on the moon. Turbines 
suspended in the jet stream could generate wind power. At least in the long 
term, "I think we have a shot," he says.

In a final chapter on the "Anthropocene," a newly minted term meaning the 
geological epoch defined by man, Ms. Kolbert turns from her mostly unbiased 
field reporting to give her own opinion. She is not optimistic, in large 
part because it appears that Anthropocene man can't be counted on to do the 
right thing. "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 now in the process of doing."

Mariana Gosnell is the author of "Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses 
of an Astonishing Substance," recently published by Knopf.



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