Saturday, July 01, 2006

Book Review - Field Notes from a Catastrophe

Today's book review (I'm not promising weekly any more!) is Field Notes from a Catastrophe - Man, Nature and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is a fairly slim book, based on a series she did for the New Yorker in 2005, and I read it after reading the review on realclimate, a blog by climate change scientists which attempts, as far as possible, to give a non-political review of the science of the various sensationalist discoveries that appear in the press.

I found it, surprisingly, even more convincing and simultaneouslly depressing than Tim Flannery's book (see my earlier review here). The book is a set of, as suggested in the title, field notes from various trips Kolbert has made to places where global warming is very clearly happening. Then in the second half she talks about what the US is doing about it.

The most obvious place is the arctic, where she describes life in an Alaskan inuit village that will have to be moved away from its current island location because the combination of changes in sea-ice and increased storm surges are starting to render it uninhabitable. The scariest part of the arctic visit is the description of permafrost that hasn't melted for millions of years now melting - hard to blame anything other than global warming for that.

I did have a vague idea that the arctic was where things were happening. But the are happening more quickly than the modellers have predicted, and that is very quickly indeed, because of the feedback loops that happen when ice starts to melt.

In her second half of the book, Kolbert has a hilarious account of her meeting with the US Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs - Paula Dobriansky. She is responsible for explaining the Bush administration's position on global warming to the rest of the world. She appears to have three phrases, which were pretty much all she said during the 15 minute meeting; "we act, we learn, we act again", "we view this as a serious issue" and "we have a common goal and objective, but we can take different approaches". Fairly platitudinous when said once, but must have been pretty frustrating listening to each phrase three or four or five times.

Kolbert talks about the politics of it, and comes to a conclusion that the problem with global warming is that everything takes so long. It seems likely that eventually everyone (even China and the US) will take it seriously enough that they act. Unfortunately, but that stage, we may have reached the point of no return. We're currently at 375 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (up from 315 in 1958 when good measurement started). The scientific consensus seems to be that at around 450 to 500 will be the point when catastrophic change (such as melting the Greenland and Antarctic icesheets) will be inevitable. But they won't happen then; they could take another 50 years. So in the meantime, we, the people who elect our politicians, will think shorter term than that, and won't be willing to make the big changes in lifestyle required to stop things happening.

There was an article in the Economist a couple of weeks ago, talking about a talkfest which looked at where you could best spend $50 billion to improve the world. The conclusion was that global warming didn't make it onto the list. Basically, because the solutions are very expensive, the payoff (in terms of avoidance of catastrophe) is so long term, and the costs are so uncertain, we should spend our money on things like improving breastfeeding rates, which has proven costs and benefits.

I don't disagree that improving breastfeeding is important. But I think these models of costs and benefits are failing to model the costs properly. One piece of modelling described in the book is the change in rainfall in continental US under two fairly accepted climate change models. The rainfall that emerged from the models was low enough that California water-resource managers didn't think there was any way they could find enough water to support California. If you put into your cost models a reversion of large parts of the US to desert, would wipe-out of the US economy be sufficient cost worth spending the money?

In the meantime, I do continue to make poor choices from an environmental point of view. We replaced our hotwater system with another electric one this year; not because we didn't want to spend the money on a solar system, but because the hassle involved was too great - we'd have to get council approval to change the roof of our heritage listed house. And much as I'd like to replace our roof with solar panels when we have to replace it in the next few years, I can't see us seriously doing it - again for the hassle factor. But at least we only have one car, and we catch public transport all over the place.


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