The world has known about global warming since the late 1970s, yet little has been done to halt it. The threat, if we fail, is nothing less than catastrophe - the flooding of coastal communities, the extinction of species and entry into a climate regime of which humans have no experience. Exploring the relationship between what we know and what we refuse to know, Elizabeth Kolbert takes us on an urgent journey from the Arctic to Central America, interviewing researchers, environmentalists and traditional Inuits whose lives have already been dramatically altered by climate change.
On the burgeoning shelf of cautionary but occasionally alarmist books warning about the consequences of dramatic climate change, Kolbert's calmly persuasive reporting stands out for its sobering clarity. Expanding on a three-part series for the New Yorker, Kolbert (The Prophet of Love) lets facts rather than polemics tell the story: in essence, it's that Earth is now nearly as warm as it has been at any time in the last 420,000 years and is on the precipice of an unprecedented "climate regime, one with which modern humans have had no prior experience." An inexorable increase in the world's average temperature means that butterflies, which typically restrict themselves to well-defined climate zones, are now flitting where they've never been found before; that nearly every major glacier in the world is melting rapidly; and that the prescient Dutch are already preparing to let rising oceans reclaim some of their land. In her most pointed chapter, Kolbert chides the U.S. for refusing to sign on to the Kyoto Accord. In her most upbeat chapter, Kolbert singles out Burlington, Vt., for its impressive energy-saving campaign, which ought to be a model for the rest of the nation just as this unbiased overview is a model for writing about an urgent environmental crisis.