THE CLIMATE OF MAN
Title: The Climate of Man
Author: Elizabeth Kolbert
Published: 3 part series (4/25 5/02 and 5/9/2005)
Overview: This nearly 50-page article is a stunning and eye-opening survey of the state of global warming as a reality and a debate. The author is Elizabeth Kolbert, an independent fact writer for the New Yorker, who had recently before written an equally eye-opening article on the state of sanitation in New York restaurants. Here, her work broadly covers the major scientific, socio-political and lifestyle issues that are now part of the looming climate change. In many instances she directly visits the people and the places at the forefront of the discussion to present both fascinating and frightful upfront accounts of the reality we indeed are already facing.
Details: Kolbert starts Part I with her visit to the small Inupiat island village of Shishmaref, which has just elected to relocate to Alaska’s mainland due to the loss of protection from the receding sea ice around the island. She then details the early work on carbon dioxide and the climate produced under President Carter by the U.S. National Academy of Science, also called the Charney Commission. That early report (1979) by an unbiased nine-member panel contained central projections and concerns that we have now come to face. The authors urged that waiting could be riskiest approach, since “we may not be given a warning until the carbon dioxide loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable.” She discusses at length the receding permafrost layer that has covered up to one-fifth of the North American land mass and which, as it recedes, releases massive amounts of the extremely potent greenhouse gas methane (currently trapped in biomass below the permafrost). Moreover, as the accompanying highly reflective sea-ice melts, the total average albedo (reflectivity of the earth’s surface) will decline, leaving the surface of the earth to absorb more light energy and thus heat. Through her tour and meetings at the research station Swiss Camp on Greenland she explains the scientific community's grave concern for the shrinkage of the Greenland ice sheet, which if the entire sheet were to melt, scientists estimate would cause a possible sea level rise of several meters. A direct effect of melting ice sheets (polar and Greenland) is the dilution of the seas’ current salinity, which could result in a substantial alteration of the ocean’s thermohaline circulation, which would likely result in radically altered sea currents and known weather patterns. The importance and possible fragility of the thermohaline circulation patterns was described by Columbia University geochemistry professor Wallace Broecker as the “Achilles heel of the climate system.” Kolbert ends her large first section with a visit to Iceland, which might be the most vulnerable nation to the effects of climate change and which was the presentation site for an eight nation (US plus seven other Arctic nations), three part, $2 million research report. As the American oceanographer Robert Corell, who coordinated the study, summarized: “The Arctic is warming rapidly now, with an emphasis on now...[much faster] than we thought possible a decade ago.” To make the point graphically, Correll described the loss of sea ice since the late 1970’s as “the size of Texas and Arizona combined.” The third part of the research project was to be a policy document. However, due to US resistance to obligatory language, the policy document did not get presented in Iceland.
For a distant historical perspective, Part II starts with a recounting of the sudden collapse (due apparently to a local climate change) of the Akkadians, the world’s first recorded empire. Next, Kolbert summarizes the work of climate change modelers, including that of James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) who did work for the UN’s Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change. These models suggest that even if carbon dioxide emissions were to hold constant it would take several decades for the full impact to appear. Of three major models, the GISS predicts the lowest resulting temperature rise of 4.9 degrees Celsius. The models from British and Japanese researchers predict 6.3 and 7.7 degrees Celsius respectively. It seems important to note that since our species has evolved, the recorded temperature is believed to have never been more than about 2 or 3 degrees higher than at present. Climatological research already suggests that the earth is warmer than it has been at any time in the last 420,000 years. A rise of four or more degrees will put us in a climatic world with which the human species has no experience.
Part III starts with Kolbert describing a nearly $400 million program by the Dutch government to buy out farmers living in lowlands that, due to climate change, will be subject to tributary flooding expected to flow several feet over the now protecting dikes. Incidentally, it was the Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen who dubbed our current industrial age as the Anthropocene, or age of man, where man (above all else) is directly defining the fate of the earth. One projection is that if the atmospheric carbon dioxide continues on its current trajectory, by mid-century it could be over 500 parts per million (ppm). The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide was that high was 50 million years ago during the Eocene period, when the sea level was 300 feet higher than now and “crocodiles roamed Colorado.” Kolbert then discusses the decision analysis framework of Princeton engineering professor Robert Socolow who co-directs the Carbon Mitigation Initiative, and the far-sighted propositions of NYU physics professor Marty Hoffert. Both Socolow and Hoffert work on mitigation possibilities but seem to share the view that, in Hoffert’s words, “[w]e’re just going to burn everything up...heat up the atmosphere to the temperature it was in the Cretaceous period...and then everything will collapse.” Kolbert presents a short synopsis of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which, when it began in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, was strongly supported by then-US President Bush. As the resulting Kyoto protocol requiring mandatory carbon emission cuts went into effect in February of 2005, the US and Australia were the only two developed countries who did not participate. The section ends with a summary of some of the logic used by scientific and political skeptics relative to global warming, and with a report on the events occurring at and following the protocol’s effective date.
Kolbert closes her article with these questions: “As the effects of global warming become more and more apparent, will we react by finally fashioning a global response? Or will we retreat into ever narrower and more destructive forms of self-interest? It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”