To write about global warming is to confront the challenge Rachel Carson faced more than 40 years ago in addressing what she memorably called “death by indirection.” Carson’s subject was toxic drift—like global warming, a form of oblique, slow violence that poses imaginative difficulties for any writer. Falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads have a visceral, page-turning potency that tales of slow violence cannot match. Stories of toxic buildup or the massing of greenhouse gases may be cataclysmic, but they’re scientifically convoluted cataclysms in which death is deferred, often for generations. Such long dyings are out of sync not only with our dramatic expectations but with the swift seasons of electoral change. How can we goad our leaders to avert catastrophe when the political rewards will be reaped on someone else’s watch, decades, even centuries, from now? And how can our environmental storytellers help rouse us, individually and collectively, from the blank fatalism of an unfocused paranoia?
Two ambitious new books on global warming, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe and Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, have garnered more public attention than any global-warming book since Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (which he virtually disowned on the campaign trail) appeared in 1992. In the intervening 14 years, the world’s climate has shifted in alarming ways, and the science has become more decisive. As Flannery observes, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990.
The political climate has shifted, too. Kolbert, a suddenly ubiquitous American science reporter, and Flannery, a prolific Australian evolutionary biologist, are emissaries of sanity from the only two sizable industrialized nations that refused to sign the Kyoto protocol capping carbon emissions. The United States, responsible for 25 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases, and Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, are both ruled by conservative governments with a strong fossil-fuel bias. Indeed, the Bush administration has turned foot-dragging over climate change into a veritable performance art—a bamboozling ballet of dissimulation and denial.
Kolbert and Flannery write with a shared urgency, but they approach their vexing subject in radically different ways. The brilliance of Field Notes From a Catastrophe flows from Kolbert’s gift for making the violence of climate change feel vast yet intimate. She clearly intuits that “global,” as in “global warming,” is a bland, unpeopled, world-weary word. So she shapes her argument around a series of excursions to talk with scientists in the field (often in the Arctic), many of whom become memorable characters. These aren’t braying talk-show “experts” but men and women who have spent patient years, decades sometimes, calibrating shrinking sea ice, dwindling glaciers, and permafrost that has started to thaw. Kolbert works alongside them, getting snowmelt in her boots.
Her field-journal format adroitly bridges the gulf between professionals and amateurs, giving the writing a conversational tone without compromising the science. Kolbert grounds her quiet anecdotal advocacy in the sensory world of local inhabitants. She speaks to Inuits, who have many words for ice and must now find one for the robin, a previously unimagined bird driven north by warming. She speaks to a Dutchman who is developing amphibious homes to cope with the anticipated flooding of one-quarter of the Netherlands. She speaks to an Icelandic glaciologist whose models predict an Iceland stripped of ice by the end the next century. (“Glacial” as a metaphor should be retired from the language: When almost every glacier on the planet is beating a hasty retreat, “glacial progress” now means something else entirely.) In parts of Alaska, the average temperatures have risen 6 degrees since the early 1980s.
Flannery’s book is longer and larded with more science, but his robust, charismatic voice escorts us effortlessly through 300 million years of climatic variations. The long view is his forte. It helps the drama of Flannery’s story that his is a conversion narrative: He’s a former global-warming skeptic who now believes the science is irrefutable. He agrees with the skeptics that climate change isn’t new—it’s a natural hazard that may be accelerated by an asteroid collision or evolutionary developments. However, what’s indisputable is that the current changes have human fingerprints all over them and that we’re facing the prospect of the most massive extinction of life on Earth in 65 million years.
Exactly how late is it, climatically? The British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock has argued that our chance of saving life on Earth as we know it (not to speak of human civilization) has come and gone. Michael Crichton, on the other hand, believes we’re so far from midnight that there’s still time for afternoon tea. (In the afterword to State of Fear, Crichton’s 2004 environmental-conspiracy novel, he calls for 20 years’ more data-gathering before we make any policy decisions.) Kolbert and Flannery have us teetering on the brink, but they believe there may be time enough for action if it’s extremely rapid and extremely concerted. The Weather Makers (a “manual on the use of Earth’s thermostat”) ends with practical strategies that we, as consumer-citizens, can deploy to reduce our carbon footprint and avert the full catastrophe.
We can follow the example of cities like Burlington, Vt., and Schoenau, Germany, where grass-roots activism and mayoral leadership have combined to green the power grids. We can trade in our SUVs for hybrids, reducing our personal-transport emissions by 70 percent. We can demand that our states follow California’s lead, setting higher automobile-emission standards than the dismal federal ones that indulge Big Oil and Big Auto and discourage the application of existing fuel-saving technologies. As Flannery notes, we have the consumer clout to transform the energy sector: “[I]f enough of us buy green power, solar panels, solar hot water systems and hybrid vehicles, the cost of these items will plummet. This will encourage the sale of yet more panels and wind generators, and so the bulk of domestic power will be generated by renewable technologies.” A consumer groundswell would exact greater answerability (and more amply funded research) from both government and industry.
Field Notes and The Weather Makers have both been touted as the next Silent Spring—as was Gore’s Earth in the Balance, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature before that. We should be thrilled if Kolbert and Flannery’s books gain, in tandem, even half the traction that Silent Spring achieved. Carson’s salvo possessed a startling novelty that no current intervention, however astute, can equal on as familiar a threat as climate change. However, the comparison to Carson is spot on in an unexpected way. The New Yorker articles that became Silent Spring arrived in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exhorting an America awash in paranoia to take charge of its fears by changing the way it lived. Carson redirected some of the national anxiety away from the Red Peril to the doom perched on the kitchen shelf. By revealing how small domestic choices could help secure a more inhabitable world long-term, Silent Spring altered the landscape of fear—and ultimately, the laws as well. The public outrage that her book stirred led to the banning of DDT and PCBs, as well as to landmark legislation like the Clean Waters Act, the Clean Air Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In our own age of sprawling paranoia, let’s hope that Kolbert and Flannery’s arguments refocus our fears, directing them toward the most encompassing, definitive threat of all: the slow violence of what a more hotheaded writer might call climatic terrorism.