Tuesday, April 04, 2006

As Glaciers Melt and Oceans Rise, Earthlings Yawn and Consume

As Glaciers Melt and Oceans Rise, Earthlings Yawn and Consume

April 4 (Bloomberg) -- ``Field Notes From a Catastrophe'' (Bloomsbury, 210 pages, $22.95) expands a three-part series Elizabeth Kolbert wrote for the New Yorker magazine on the topic of global warming and degradation.

She visits Shishmaref, Alaska, where melting ice has forced Eskimos to use boats instead of dogsleds for some seasonal hunting. On a visit to the Dutch town of Maasbommel, contractors show her ``amphibious homes'' that can float when the North Sea rises and floods canals.

The Earth is warming. Does it really matter if this has happened before or that the melt will take centuries? The news is not good when 100,000-year-old glaciers in Greenland are slowly sliding into the sea. Let's pay attention.

Kolbert, whose book is subtitled ``Man, Nature, and Climate Change'' is sober and convincing and there is little good news. Changing weather patterns will threaten agriculture and food supplies. Rising, warmer seas will spawn more storms of greater intensity and flood more coastal areas, as surely as Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.

The catalyst is well known: methane and carbon-dioxide emissions caused by everything from fermenting rice paddies in Asia to Airbus jetliners crossing Kansas. The gas traps heat in the atmosphere, preventing it from radiating back into space.

``Humans aren't the first species to alter the atmosphere,'' she says in a not very consoling passage. ``That distinction belongs to early bacteria, which, some two billion years ago, invented photosynthesis.''

Kolbert finds hope in places like Burlington, Vermont, where the local electric company gets nearly half its power from renewable sources, including a 50-megawatt power plant that runs off wood chips. To start, she wants the U.S. to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, mandating emissions controls.

Flannery's Plea

Australian scientist Tim Flannery marshals much of the same data in his fiercely polemical ``The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth'' (Atlantic Monthly, 357 pages, $24; Allen Lane, 20 pounds). It's essentially an attack on gas guzzlers and a plea for the use of electric hybrids that cut average carbon-dioxide emissions by about 70 percent. The same ``amount scientists consider is required for the world economy by 2050 in order to stabilize climate change,'' he writes.

``We cannot wait for the problem to be solved for us'' by corporations or governments, he says, insisting that we can switch to ``a carbon-free economy'' by producing our own electricity with solar panels and curtailing our energy consumption. They don't call him ``Calamity Flannery'' in Australia for nothing.

Summit Lost

In ``Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness'' (Riverhead, 247 pages, $23.95), Erik Reece describes how radical strip mining destroyed a forested peak in Appalachia.

Rather than digging tunnels, the company used explosives and bulldozers to shear off the summit of the 1,847-foot (563-meter) mountain to get to a coal seam 100 feet below. A year later, the aptly named Lost Mountain was 450 feet shorter and as barren as a moonscape.

Reece, a professor at the University of Kentucky, challenges the viability of strip mining, which pollutes streams with ``sulfuric acid and heavy metals,'' cracks the foundations of local homes and makes no dent on Appalachia's 33 percent unemployment rate.

``Lost Mountain,'' part of which first appeared in Harper's magazine, indicts coal companies that ``operate with little conscience or constraint.''

The author lays most of the responsibility on U.S. consumers. Much of the coal mined at Lost Mountain went to fuel the coal-fired power plants that ``provide electricity to more than 50 percent of American homes.''

Reece calls our ``failure to understand the energy and employment alternatives'' that would save Appalachia, and in the long run, the Earth, ``more than a moral failure; it is a failure of the imagination.''