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Melting Points 

Noting the local impact of Elizabeth Kolbert's long-term forecast

Published March 28, 2006 at 5:31 p.m.

Can Burlington save humanity from the catastrophic effects of global warming? It can't by itself, of course. But if other cities in the United States alone were to implement the initiatives Burlington has taken over the past 15 years, the next generation or two just might be spared the unmanageable impacts of higher temperatures and rising sea levels.

At least that's the suggestion put forth by Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the newly published Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.

"I don't know of any place that's done more than Burlington to combat global warming," Kolbert said last week in a telephone interview from an Oregon stop on her national book tour -- she'll speak at Middlebury College next Monday. The Queen City's efforts are the subject of an entire chapter in Kolbert's concise dispatch from a few of the frontlines where the fate of the Earth is being decided -- and, perhaps, already being felt.

Kolbert spent a day last June driving around Burlington in Peter Clavelle's Honda Civic hybrid. The mayor, described in the book as having "mournful blue eyes," was pointing out some of the energy-efficiency sites that may help the city meet its "10-percent challenge" of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by that proportion in the coming years.

Kolbert and Clavelle visited ReCycle North, the Burlington Electric Department's generating plant and the farms and composting project in the Intervale. "Burlington has tried just about everything" to conserve energy locally and thereby reduce its tiny share of the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet, Kolbert observes in Field Notes. For example, the city provides free energy consultations to businesses, leases fluorescent light bulbs for 20 cents a month, and distributes "energy-efficiency calendars" to school children. In one of the city's most consequential actions, its publicly owned utility now makes use of renewable resources for nearly half the power it produces, Kolbert points out.

Burlington's efforts have been successful. In the 17 years since Clavelle was first elected mayor, electricity consumption has climbed by 15 percent in Vermont but dropped by 1 percent in Burlington, Kolbert reports.

But such gains are getting harder and harder to achieve and sustain, she adds. Electricity consumption has started to increase in Burlington, and whatever savings the city has made in greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation have been offset by increased pollution from other sources, mostly cars and trucks.

Simply for reasons of scale, even if Burlington fully meets the goal of its "10-percent challenge," the global impact will be puny, Kolbert concedes. The new coal plants expected to come on line in China in the next few years "would burn through all of Burlington's savings -- past, present and future -- in less than two-and-a-half hours," she writes.

Fatalism and resignation are not useful options, however. "It's more helpful to be hopeful," she said in the interview, "and say in the case of Burlington, 'Well, you've got to start somewhere.'"

Clavelle himself takes a similar view. "What this community is doing will obviously not make that much difference," the mayor acknowledges. "But we do need to demonstrate that you can make a difference at the local level, and you can replicate that experience in community after community around the country and throughout the industrial world."


The evidence of already-occurring climate change that Kolbert marshals in her book seems sufficiently compelling to convince communities to take the actions that Burlington is modeling -- and to take them now.

Nearly every major glacier in the world is receding; many animals are migrating poleward; the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is diminishing; plants are blooming days or weeks earlier than they used to. In Vermont, the frequency of poor skiing, sugaring and foliage seasons in recent years "may be part of the same trendline," Kolbert suggested in the interview.

The Arctic's perennial ice cover is also melting, she notes in her book, citing satellite imagery gathered since 1979. Of the 1.7 billion Arctic acres then encased in ice, 250 million are now open in the summer months -- an area equivalent in size to New York, Texas and Georgia combined.

Ice loss has begun to have disastrous consequences for some far-northern settlements. In one of her visits to a global-warming hot spot, Kolbert explains that recently opened seas have made the island town of Shishmaref, Alaska (pop: 591), more vulnerable to storm surges. After giant waves wrecked some of their homes, Shishmaref's inhabitants voted in 2002 to move their community to the Alaskan mainland. The prospect of being uprooted from her ancestral home "makes me feel lonely," one local woman told Kolbert.

As a journalist trained to strike balances, Kolbert allots space the argument that the warming of the Earth observable for at least the past 15 years may be due in some measure to a natural shift in climate cycles. "Global warming is routinely described," she adds, "as a matter of scientific debate -- a theory whose validity has yet to be demonstrated."

But Kolbert's efforts to maintain objectivity do not disguise her own rejection of these claims, and she cites reputable sources in support of her view. The American Geophysical Union declared in 2003, for example, "Natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global surface temperatures." Kolbert also attended an international scientific symposium in Iceland in 2004 at which participants voiced certainty that increased carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere are contributing significantly to the rise in global temperatures.

"The real question," Kolbert said, "is not whether we can avoid climate change -- we can't -- but whether we can avoid catastrophic climate change."

Doomsday scenarios in this realm come couched in the acronym DAI -- "dangerous anthropogenic interference." It refers to a tipping point at which human impact on global climate becomes so severe that ecosystems begin to collapse, species extinction accelerates, and the world food supply is disrupted.

Calamitous flooding would be another byproduct of DAI. And that is what will occur, Kolbert writes, if either the West Antarctic ice sheet or the Greenland ice sheet were to be destroyed. Sea levels worldwide would rise by 15 feet if one of those massive ice formations melts -- and by 35 feet if they both vanish.

Drastic climate change has destroyed advanced civilizations in the past, Kolbert points out, implying that it could surely do so again. The world's first empire, administered from the city of Akkad, south of today's Baghdad, disintegrated around 2200 BCE as a result of prolonged drought. The same fate befell Classic Mayan civilization, which succumbed to thirst and parched fields beginning around 750 AD.

The acronym that will hasten the arrival of DAI is BAU -- "business as usual." If world leaders take no action beyond the Kyoto emissions-reduction treaty that took effect last year, it is likely that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to rise toward DAI levels, Kolbert suggests. Carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) stood at about 280 in the pre-industrial era, and now measure 378 ppm. Some scientists theorize that levels between 400 and 450 ppm will be sufficient to trigger DAI, Kolbert reports. And a mid-range projection of BAU puts carbon dioxide concentrations at 500 ppm by 2050 and at 750 ppm by 2100.

The United States, which accounts for one-quarter of the world's carbon dioxide output, stands as the foremost bastion of BAU. The Bush administration has refused to endorse the Kyoto treaty and is opposing efforts to strengthen its provisions. "Astonishingly," Kolbert writes, her objectivity dissolving, "standing in the way of this progress seems to be Bush's goal."

Along with its scientific erudition -- always rendered in a readable manner -- Field Notes makes a convincing case because it avoids apocalyptic rhetoric and takes account of promising possibilities. But the book's tone does become elegiac at times.

While attending the Iceland symposium on global warming, Kolbert took a break to visit a nearby glacier that is shrinking every year. It was raining when she arrived at the viewpoint from which the grit-covered, forlorn-looking glacier could be glimpsed far in the distance. "A raw wind came up and I started to head down," she recounts.

But then she recalled a scientist's prediction that in another decade the glacier probably would not be visible at all from where she was standing. "So," Kolbert writes, "I climbed back up to take a second look."

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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