Common Reading Author on Campus

Posted: September 20, 2007

Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the College's Common Reading, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, spoke last night to an enthusiastic crowd in Chapin Auditorium. Introducing the speaker, economics professor Jens Christiansen explained that Field Notes grew out of a three-part series published last year in the New Yorker magazine. To research the book, Kolbert traveled to Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland, where the effects of global warming are the most visible, spending time with some of the world's leading climate scientists to witness the effects of global warming firsthand. Christiansen said that Field Notes had been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and called this "the ultimate praise for Kolbert's book."

Kolbert explained that her goal in writing the book was to convey as vividly as possible the effects of climate change. "I wanted to show people that climate change is real," she said. She illustrated her talk with slides showing the devastating effects of global warming, such as the erosion of the coastline village on a small island is Alaska, and "drunken trees" that were no longer able to stay upright due to thawing ground. She stressed that we have already changed the temperature of the planet significantly, and that "global warming is much farther along than what we can see now." She explained that greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere decades ago caused the effects we are seeing now in the Arctic. "The earth is out of energy balance," she said. "The effects of the warming we've already done won't be felt for several more decades. Even if we stabilized the level of greenhouse gas now, the earth is still going to keep warming up."

Turning from the causes of global warming to responses to the problem, Kolbert said that critics have faulted her for not offering a concrete solution. "The problem is bigger than any group of politicians, or the Bush administration," she said. She pointed to various bills in Congress setting targets for limiting energy use as well as technological research to develop ways of using energy more efficiently. She explained that she chose not to propose that the solution lay in drastic measures such as eliminating automobile and air travel because she did not want to be dismissed as an alarmist or a radical. But she emphasized that she did not intend to minimize the problem, which she sees as immense and immediate. While it is impossible to predict with certainty when we will cross the threshold of disaster, she said mathematical and computer models suggest that we are "dangerously close." She closed by urging the audience to take action. "A solution may or may not exist. But it if does exist, we don't have much time to find it and implement it. It's up to your generation to find it. Quite literally, your future is at stake."

Kolbert fielded many questions from the audience, ranging from the implications of the book's title, to strategies for talking to people who are skeptical about climate change. She cautioned against "greenwashing," publicity campaigns by industry aimed at covering up its harmful role in climate change, and also "green consumerism." She observed that it's helpful to buy more efficient appliances and automobiles, but that "generally it's not helpful to buy more stuff. Even though we've made things more efficient we've acquired more and more of them and that's not good."

Related Link:

MHC's Common Reading for New Students