The book in three sentences: In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tackles one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change. In doing the research for this book, she meets scientists, hunters, academics, inventors and entire communities that are living on the forefront of a changing landscape. Whether we look at melting permafrost, the poleward migration of entire species, or global air temperatures, to ignore these signs means to speed towards (not away from) an inhospitable future.
Rating: Travel companion
Long story long: I picked up this book because climate change scares me. A lot. It should scare all of us. And though I recycle, compost, walk or take the bus, I know I need to be a more active advocate for the earth.
The book is organized into three parts: nature, man, and time. In Nature, Kolbert covers the science of climate change. She talks to scientists studying permafrost (ground that has been frozen for at least two years), Arctic glacial melt, and species migration to convey the magnitude of the problem we are facing. Kolbert argues that it is not only warming temperatures we should be concerned about, but the cascading effects that has on biodiversity as we know it. In Man, she addresses our tenuous relationship with climate change, both our contribution to it and our remarkable and repeated denial of any involvement. Finally, in Time Kolbert looks to where we are headed. She explores the unconventional fuel sources that have increased fossil fuel reserves, as well as small-scale innovative initiatives to combat climate change.
There are many important lessons in this book, but three stood out to me in particular:
We need to invest in local policies and programs that focus on climate change, and work to scale those up to state and national levels. Many people in the United States claim they do not believe in human-made climate change. This is especially disturbing when climate change deniers have a lot of political power. Although this significantly impacts national and international politics, it is important that we do not lose sight of what we can accomplish at the local or state levels. For example, a number of states joined the United States Climate Alliance (USCA) to show their support for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions when President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Bipartisan support at local levels, like with the USCA, can generate leverage with which to influence climate policies on a national scale.
Adaptation is futile. One of Kolbert’s most honest and frank interviews is with David Rind, a climate scientist who was working at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). When presenting his paper “Potential Evapotranspiration and the Likelihood of Future Drought”, he was often asked about how we can adapt to a changing landscape. He responded with another question:
“What adaptation are we talking about? Adaptation in 2020? Adaptation in 2040? Adaptation in 2060? Because the way the models project this, as global warming gets going, once you’ve adapted to one decade, you’re going to have to change everything the next decade” (111).
We cannot rely on our ability to “adapt” to climate change; there is no in-between response—we either change how we do things or we die. Robert Socolow, an engineering professor at Princeton, made a similar comment when asked if a particular policy or program was practical. “Whether it’s practical,” he said, “depends on how much we give a damn” (144).
Any discussion about climate change must address environmental justice. One of my major critiques of this book is that it does not account for the fact that resource-poor communities, who are often communities of color, disproportionately bear the burdens of climate change. Kolbert makes a very conscious decision to only visit places in the United States and Europe, and as such presents an extremely narrow view on how human development has impacted the planet. She defends this decision by saying, “Such is the impact of global warming that I could have gone to hundreds if not thousands of places. These alternate choices would have resulted in an account very different in its details, but not in its conclusions (3). I disagree. Yes, ultimately we will all die if we do nothing, however many communities are already experiencing an end to their life as they know it. To not acknowledge this in a meaningful way—i.e., by writing about it in your book on climate change—is to be complicit in white supremacy.
When we talk about climate change, we need to recognize that communities facing the most severe consequences are often low-income communities of color. This is true around the world, and it is true in the United States. We are living in a capitalist white supremacy, which literally has consequences for the air we breathe. Whether we are talking about fracking, hazardous oil pipelines, offshore drilling, deforestation, etc., communities of color are impacted disproportionately. At the same time, these very communities contribute relatively little to global warming and climate change. There is no justice in that. So while Kolbert makes the science behind climate change accessible to those without a technical background, and while the material itself is fascinating, she does not look critically at environmental health because she fails to address environmental justice in any capacity except for a refusal to talk about it at all.
That is unacceptable, and I hope you will join me in doing better and holding others accountable as well. I urge you to start familiarizing yourself with environmental justice by reading these works. Then, talk about these concepts the next time you engage in discussions about climate change. For those who are settlers on stolen indigenous lands, consider the environmental impacts on native communities.
Climate change is inextricably linked to white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Being apolitical about climate change is immoral, and morally, we are obligated to demand justice.