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.
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.
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."
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.