Witness to a Catastrophe

An interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, the climate-change reporter and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction.

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Since 1990, global temperatures have broken records nearly annually, and 2017 is shaping up to be the warmest year yet. For decades, there has been consensus among scientists that climate change is caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, and that it is caused by human activity. The only open question about climate change is how bad the impact could be.

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In spite of all this, as Elizabeth Kolbert documents in her books The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, Americans — who are among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases — are not recognizing and dealing with climate change. In what feels shocking to people who don't even fully understand the climate problem and terrifying to those who do, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to curtail efforts to decrease carbon emissions and protect the environment.

Reading Elizabeth's books has given me the sense of being both completely insignificant in the history of the planet and tremendously important. As she chronicled the ways that people are causing a loss of species greater than any previous wave of mass extinctions, I felt a weight of responsibility for my actions like never before. There are consequences for the choices we make individually and collectively, and Kolbert has clearly mapped them out.

The story of climate changehas a lot to do with water, as we witnessed with Hurricane Harvey in August and as we are seeing as Hurricane Irma charts its path of destruction. Ice melting, oceans warming, seas rising, droughts, floods, storms — these are the effects of a warming world.

Pamela Doan: Your "Climate of Man" series in The New Yorker made me understand that climate change is the most important issue in the world. We can fight over all this other stuff, and of course it's important, but at the end of the day, we're not going to have a planet left. Or the planet that is left is going to be missing so much of what we love and cherish that it might not be worth it.

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Elizabeth Kolbert: It's getting more and more depressing every day. A lot of it's the Trump administration, and some of it is the news, and they're sort of going in opposite directions, which is one of the things that gives this moment a surreal quality.

PD: You started out as a political writer. I'm curious where that shift happened for you to tell the story of climate change in two books and numerous articles.

EK: Well, what more or less happened was the 2000 election, when George W. tried to downplay the differences between him and Al Gore over climate change. Then W. was elected, and one of the very first things he did, in the spring of 2001, was to say that the U.S. was not going to comply with bringing the Kyoto Protocol up for ratification.

There seemed to be a lot of noise and confusion around the issue, and it seemed to me, both as an individual and also as a journalist, that there was probably an answer in this scientific question, "Is this a real problem, or isn't it?"

That was a long and winding road. Along the way, trying to find that story, I talked to a lot of people, and they were unanimous in saying "This is a huge thing."

There are no solutions. There are only degrees of badness.

PD: I read Field Notes From a Catastrophe when it first came out in 2006, and rereading it in 2017, I was shocked by how relevant it still is, politically and otherwise.

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EK: It's interesting, because during the Obama years, all of the political part of it became very out of date, and now it's still out of date because it's about the Bush administration, but it's the same kind of insane, crazy bullshit coming out of the [Trump] administration. It's astonishing to be going back in that way.

PD: Do you think that states and cities picking up the slack or grassroots work are going to make a difference, or enough of a difference?

EK: It's all a matter of degree. The thing that is very disturbing but is important to understand is that there's a lot of damage that's already built into the system. I think people have a sense of, "OK, when it gets really bad, we can do something about it. Or we can do something about it before it gets really bad." They don't realize that there's a lot of warming in the pipeline that is irreversible already because of the time lag in the system and the time it takes for this large and complicated climate system that involves oceans and ice caps to reach a new equilibrium.

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There are no solutions. There are only degrees of badness. Everything that we do to keep a ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere is a good thing. Is it going to make the difference between bad and disastrous? No, clearly not. Clearly, to do that, we're talking tens of billions of tons of CO2 have to be kept out of the atmosphere.

I think that the sheer scale of the problem is extremely daunting, and it brings a lot of our values into conflict. I don't believe that we can continue to live the way we are, just switch to a new energy source and that's going do it. I think that if we were tackling this, we'd need to change the way we live. In many parts of the world, people don't have electricity yet, and we'd need to probably pay for them to make the transition in a much less carbon-intensive way than we did it.

PD: In Field Notes, you wrote about the mass die-offs of fish and mussels and how that was a process that took decades. But the pace of change seems to have accelerated.

EK: That is one of the other points that is important to me, which is that all the evidence suggests that things are coming in faster and harder than we thought. For example, recent surveys in the Great Barrier Reef show much of the reef has died off owing to spikes in water temperatures. That was anticipated, but it's happening decades earlier than people thought. That's very scary. The whole sensitivity of a lot of the systems to this sort of change seems to be potentially even higher than we thought as opposed to less than we might have.

PD: I guess that comes down to, how do you live? With all of this knowledge and all of this firsthand experience? That's a question that everyone is grappling with.

EK: People often ask me that, and I don't have a good answer. I think actually we could turn that question around in a lot of ways and say, "Well, people have lived through the most extraordinary horrors, and we just keep coming back for more." We're obviously a very resilient species. My grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany. The general experience of humanity has been pretty grim.

Recent studies show that Americans think, Climate change is something that's going to affect someone else. That is, to a certain extent, true. If you're a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa who's just barely eking out a living, then your odds of terribly devastating consequences from climate change in your lifetime are much higher than someone living in Manhattan or Iowa.

But I don't think people should be under the delusion that climate change is not going to affect them. Unless you're very elderly, it's quite possible that there will be severe disruptions in your lifetime and certainly in the lifetime of our children. We're seeing the impacts of the Mideast unraveling and millions of people on the move. When you add climate change into that, it's going be tens of millions, hundreds of millions. It's not clear that the world will react very well.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Pamela Doan is a writer and gardener at work on a book about being a plant advocate.

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