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Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Climate Change - Is Time Running Out? [Hardcover]

Elizabeth Kolbert
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 Jun 2006
In writing that is both clear and unbiased, Kolbert - an acclaimed New Yorker journalist - approaches global warming from every angle. She travels to the Arctic, the North of England, Holland and Puerto Rico, 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, in an eerie foreshadowing, are watching their worlds disappear. Scientists have been warning the world since the late 1970s that the build-up 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 for all the countries in the world, but perhaps especially the USA, to face up to the realities of global warming and to secure our future. By the end of the century, the world will probably 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. Field Notes from a Catastrophe brings the environment into the consciousness of the reader and asks what, if anything, can be done, and how we can save our planet.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; First Edition First Printing edition (5 Jun 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747583838
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747583837
  • Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 14 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 711,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'The hard, cold, sobering facts about global warming and its effects on the environment that sustains us. Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catstrophe" is nothing less than a "Silent Spring" for our time' T.C. Boyle 'A riveting view of the apocalypse already upon us. Kolbert mesmerizes with her poetic cadence as she closes the coffin on the arguments of the global warming skeptics' Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. 'Reading Field Notes during the 2005 hurricane season is what it must have been like to read Silent Spring in the 1960s. When you put down this book, you'll see the world through different eyes' Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind 'Reporters talk about the trial of the decade or the storm of the century. But for the planet we live on, the changes now unfolding are of a kind and scale that have not been seen in thousands of years--not since the retreat of the last ice age. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert gives us a clear, succinct, and invaluable report from the front. Even if you have followed the story for years, you will want to read it. And if you know anyone who still does not understand the reality and the scale of global warming, you will want to give them this book' Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Beak of the Finch

From the Publisher

A highly accessible book on a subject that is never out of the
news and has never felt more urgent. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Be frightened, very frightened 3 Nov 2006
By William
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this as the Stern Report was published in the UK, which added a certain zest to Kolbert's excellent work. The subtext to this frightening book is that we have sleepwalked our way to disaster, but still haven't woken up. The prospects of there being any kind of meaningful agreement on emissions between the US, the EU, India and China to avert a global catastrophe seem remote indeed. But hey ho, at least Kolbert and Stern can both say they did their best. I can't speak for the Stern report as I haven't read the whole 600-odd pages, but Kolbert's book is compelling, brilliantly well presented and thoroughly depressing. Everyone who cares about our future should read it.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great summary of the global warming problem 3 Feb 2007
An excellent, brief, readable summary of the evidence for global warming, its scientific explanation, its consequences and the sorry history of our leaders' response to the problem over the last thirty years. The anecdotes and character sketches of the scientists involved bring the issues to life.

The weakness of the book is the lack of pictures and colour graphics to complement the excellent writing. Let us hope that the next edition will remedy this and bring the book to a wider audience.

Paraphrasing the last two paragraphs of the book to show its excellence:

'Ice cores show the last glaciation was a time of frequent and traumatic climate swings. During that period, humans who were, genetically speaking, just like ourselves produced nothing permanent other than isolated cave paintings and large piles of mastodon bones. Then, 10,000 years ago the climate settled down and so did we, building towns and inventing agriculture, metallurgy, writing and the other technologies that future civilisation would rely upon. These developments would not have been possible without human ingenuity, but, until the climate cooperated, ingenuity, it seems, wasn't enough.'

'Ice core records also show that the earth will soon be hotter than it has been at any time since our species evolved. The feedbacks that have been identified in the climate system - the ice-albedo feedback, the water vapour feedback, the feedback between temperatures and carbon storage in the permafrost - take small changes to the system and amplify them into much larger forces. Perhaps the most unpredictable feedback of all is the human one. With six billion people, the risks are everywhere apparent.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prescient 13 May 2009
The data is presented by way of a series of encounters with scientists and people experiencing the effects of climate change in their lives. The culmulative effect of what they've found, and what they are finding, and what they are predicting, is terrifying.

The book is weakened by the decision to use non-metric measurements as well as metric, which makes the data sometimes difficult to visualise: it would have been better to have used SI units throughout. And not being American, it's hard to imagine what someone looks like when they're compared to an American TV personality.....

The book seems to date from 2005 or even 2004: a new edition is well overdue, which would also sort out the metric/US centric issues, it deserves to speak to the widest possible audience.
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0 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Condition 6 Aug 2009
The item was sent promptly and was well packaged allowing it to remain in its great condition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  108 reviews
129 of 143 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scathing Indictment Of Mankind's Slide Into Ecological Catastrophe! 17 Mar 2006
By Barron Laycock - Published on
One never ceases to marvel at the consistent way in which we humans seem to be lunging headlong into the ecological abyss. In this wonderful new book by former New York Times reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, the reader is whisked away into a series of field trips into the myriad of places across the globe where the increasing evidence of approaching disaster is being observed, discussed, and reacted to in ways that has to give the reader pause. Eskimos are abandoning a small island in the Artic Ocean even as the surrounding ice cap that once protected from wind and storm damage melts into oblivion as a direct result of the Greenhouse Effect.

Kolbert offer us poignant glimpses at humans forced to confront ugly truths about the nature of the Anthropocene era, that is, that so-far limited expanse of time that humans have inhabited the earth. Presented with the bulk of the evidence, it is hard for an objective intellect to escape the distinct possibility that as a species we seem to be hell-bent on self-destruction. Indeed, the breadth and scope of the manifest effects of climate change on human habitation is breath-taking, affecting societies as far-flung as Netherlands to Siberia, from South Africa to the Great Barrier Reef. She writes wryly about stepping through the looking glass in a conversation with a Washington wonk who attempted to justify the Bush administration's active opposition to both the Kyoto Treaty and any attempt to rework it into a manageable tool to effectively combat the effects of global warming.

It is in such encounters that she discovers her voice and her poignant sense of urgency; if the best educated among us choose to stand in active opposition, what chance is thereto turn this catastrophic change in climate around? Furthermore, in interviewing climate specialists, we discover that the environment is moving rapidly toward disaster, and while there are reasons to hope, there is also reason to view our inaction and our opposition to meaningful global action with alarm. As the former Third World countries like India and China become both more industrial and more consumptive societies, the environment's ability to overcome the cumulative injuries to the earth's biosphere becomes even more difficult to imagine. This book is an easy read, is quite informative, delivered in a reporter's style of succinct and yet comprehensive prose. It does yeoman's service in informing citizens of just how dangerous and calamitous this developing ecological, social, and economic catastrophe truly is. This is a great book, and one I can heartily recommend. Enjoy!
42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catastrophe Averted -- NOT! 10 April 2007
By Ollokot - Published on
Earlier this year I read The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. It was an excellent book full of scientific explanations to nearly all the questions I had about the issue of climate change. Now I have just finished Field Notes From a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. It also is an excellent book. In fact, I wish I had read it first - not because it is the better of the two books, but because it is a better introduction to the subject.

Field Notes From A Catastrophe details the author's experiences as she traveled, met, and conversed with several leading authorities of the climate change issue. The first chapters explain some of the negative effects of climate change on nature, while the later chapters deal with how climate change has affected man and civilization in the past, how it will likely affect us in the future, and how political leaders are squandering the last few years we have left to make much of difference - all in order to appease their big-time cash contributors.

The author excels in letting experts in the field tell the story for her. For example, in explaining the devastating consequence of modest, but prolonged, local climate change to an ancient middle-eastern civilization the leading paleo-climatologist to study the case says, "The thing they couldn't prepare for was the same thing that we won't prepare for, because in their case they didn't know about it and because in our case the political system can't listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think."

I highly recommend this book. For more advanced scientific information about climate change many other good books are available (including The Weather Makers), but for an introduction to the subject this one is nearly perfect.
75 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wake-up call 17 Mar 2006
By Lee Hall - Published on
Discussing global climate patterns which are exacerbating weather changes worldwide, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how human-induced global will likely have dire consequences. In the Netherlands, Kolbert explains, construction is under way on buoyant roads and amphibious homes resembling toasters. In Alaska, as myopic politicans insist on drilling for more the last drop of oil, climate change is forcing people to leave their homes and, as Kolbert explains, their ways of life.

This will affect us all, as conflict over basic needs could soon turn the United States into a fully guarded zones, with security personnel staving off millions of migrants from flooded regions. Yet, as Kolbert also notes, the United States is the largest emitter of carbon in the world. Thus, the U.S. population has substantial responsibility for the migrations to come.

This book deserves serious attention, not only as a handbook of facts about climate and geography, but also for its keen interest in what real people are experiencing, right now.

Kolbert foresees widespread and dire consequences, yet interviews an expert who retains some hope that we could still avert utter disaster. In that sense, there's an element of activism to this book -- although Kolbert's sense of doom is quite clear by the book's conclusion. We're selfish, says this book, and it's killing us.

So what should our response be? Carbon emissions are more dangerous due to the increasing lack of forests, which we tear down for cities and rangeland. Methane is second to carbon dioxide in its warming potential; it accounts for 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with more than twenty times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. It's generated during cows' digestion processes, as well as by the consumption of oil and gas in animal processing.

As agribusiness is the prime culprit behind the loss of the forests needed to absorb greenhouse gas, we can do something today, literally, by changing to a plant-based cooking style. (I've co-authored a recent book, available elsewhere on this site, which can be of benefit in this way -- I derive no personal benefit from this non-profit project -- called Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine.) Truly, if its message is taken to heart, Kolbert's book should be sold together with a vegetarian cookbook.

Kolbert's work also suggests that China will overtake the U.S. as the carbon-emitting leader in just two decades. Yes, China should ensure future reliance on low-emission technology. But again, a big part of this is lifestyle. Ironically, the case of China presents a situation where ideas of western affluence are resulting in the heavy promotion of more and more animal products.

Readers are advised to put two and two together, and not wait for the commander-in-chief to see the light from a Texas ranch. As for global disaster, that would definitely "bring it on."
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book 5 Aug 2006
By Mrs. Wilson - Published on
Why people argue that man and his actions may not be "causing" global warming is beyond me. Whether our careless actions are causing the glaciers to melt, etc. should not be in question. The fact is that we can all do something to slow down the process. This book scares me with the reality that without EVERY NATION'S effort and participation this planet is in deep trouble. Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, was a lot easier for me to follow; however, this book (Field Notes) is probably more realistic in that simply changing lightbulbs, etc. isn't going to be enough. The U.S. government has to set an example for developing nations like China, so they take this issue seriously and incorporate earth-friendly designs when developing new power plants. Even if each individual in the U.S. buys the right cars and the right lightbulbs, China is capable of erasing any benefit we've provided toward reduction of C02 in the a land slide. The scary thing is when our U.S. government wakes up and decides to take the right position on this matter it will probably be too late. I see the world in a completely different way after reading this book.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Field Notes from a Catastrophe 17 July 2006
By David L. Eastman - Published on
While many people want to argue if the present Global Warming is being caused by our fossil fuel emissions, the simple fact is that things are changing in the global climate. When one reviews past histories of various civilizations, it turns out that drought and lack of rainfall really killed some expanding human habitation systems. Then the survivors shrink back to more primitive times, and leave their ruins behind. All this before the petroleum culture and Henry Ford. What I like about this book, is the reporter's exchanges with true scientists, who spend all their professional lives documenting SOMETHING on the face of this earth. Our concern with the environment has been all too much to do with leisure instead of heavy natural science knowlege. Those immersed in such serious work seldom get the attention that this author gave to them; more of that should occur!

I am buying this book as a graduation present for my nephew who possibly could be spending the next fifty years of his life on these issues affecting this present USA civilization.
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