Digging Deeper: Seven Questions with Elizabeth Kolbert

by Jane Black

If you want to understand climate change, there’s one name you need to know: Elizabeth Kolbert. A staff writer at the New Yorker, Kolbert’s three-part series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest in 2006, and later was expanded into her definitive book on the subject, Field Notes from a Catastrophe. Kolbert’s writing lacks the alarmist tone so often found in environmental coverage but is more arresting for its clear, patient explanations of how serious the situation has become. Her latest book, The Sixth Extinction, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Jane Black talked to Kolbert about climate change, agriculture and what it will take to get policy makers to act. Excerpts, edited for space and clarity, follow.

Black: Nearly 10 years ago, you published a book called Field Notes from a Catastrophe that looked at the dangers of climate change and the lackluster political response. Are you more or less optimistic now than you were then?

Kolbert: Since that book was written, things have gotten very seriously worse in terms of global emissions. When I wrote it, they were at 7 billion metric tons annually, now they are up at almost 10 billion. Now when we talk about holding emissions steady, we are talking about 10 billion, instead of 7 billion.

In general, the situation that we seem to see is that countries that have very high emissions like the U.S. are flattening out. But in countries that are developing—and there are a growing number of these countries—we see their emissions skyrocket. China has now committed to peaking its emissions, which is new and significant. But China’s are now, on a per capita basis, higher than Western Europe. And there are over a billion Chinese. So you just added another huge chunk of emissions. It’s a pretty grim scenario whether you are climate scientist or any person who lives on the planet.

Black: The statistics are shocking: C02 levels are as high as they’ve been in 3.5 million years! Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and precipitation patterns are changing. Why can’t we take action?

Kolbert: The truth is we lack the collective imagination to do much of anything. Even as we get more and more information, we don't have the ability to say what is the equitable way to solve it. Equity is a big issue here—and it should be. Why shouldn’t the Chinese be emitting as much as the Western Europeans? We in the United States are still emitting a lot more than the Western Europeans. Equity demands that you even out global emissions, and we have failed to do that.

Black: The drought in California has plainly demonstrated how climate change can affect our world today—not just generations from now. Will this at last persuade people that climate change is real?

Kolbert: I think Californians are more aware of climate change than anyone else. And they really are living it. One lesson that comes from the drought is that we are wasting a lot of water. In part, that shows us that our system has a lot of fat left in it, and we can wring that out. That’s the good news. But eventually you wring the fat out of the system and then you don’t have anywhere to go. We’re going to start doing crazy things–or, maybe they’re not crazy things given the situation–like desalination. The problem is that these technological solutions require a lot of energy and make the problem worse. We get into a vicious cycle.

Black: Re-reading the book, I noticed how little you talk about agriculture. It’s not even in the index! Has agriculture only emerged as a big contributor to the problem in recent years? Or is it a sideshow compared to the energy industry?

Kolbert: The book was a very short book and tries to cover a lot of ground. There are many things it doesn’t take on. Agriculture as a source of emissions is significant; but it’s relatively insignificant compared to energy use—though some of that energy is used for agriculture, of course. The question is: Can agriculture be done differently so that the emissions are significantly reduced? For example, what difference would a switch to no-till agriculture make?

One of the reasons that agriculture may be neglected in the whole conversation is that it’s extremely difficult to quantify its contributions. It’s difficult to know what you are sequestering in the soil, when you are supposedly sequestering. But if I put a ton of coal into a power plant, I know how much carbon I get out.

Black: These days, there’s a lot more talk about carbon sequestration in agriculture and more research being done. But, you’re right, there’s very little proof that it works.

Kolbert: People cut things the way they want. There’s a long debate about the carbon impact of grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef. It would be very nice to think that grass-fed beef has a lower carbon footprint. But it’s not at all clear that it does. There’s a famous line from Thomas Huxley that “the great tragedy of science [is] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

It’s nice to believe it because we want to believe it, that the things that seem to us preferable are also preferable on another level. But if you look at where the emissions are coming from in agriculture, a lot are coming from cows’ digestive tracts. You can’t reengineer that very easily—though people are working on that. You can play around the margins.

Black: Are there any signs of progress?

Kolbert: There are some hopeful signs. I think that the problem remains that the hopeful signs are very small compared to the size of the problem. I went to a place in Germany where they take the methane that is produced from cow manure and produce pretty clean power off that. But that’s not solving your problem. That’s a way to reduce emissions and get double duty out of the emissions. There is a lot to be done on the farm. But they take big investments.

Black: Your latest book, The Sixth Extinction, looks at the phenomenon and history of extinction and argues that we are in an era where man is driving change, maybe even his own demise. This situation, this hubris, seems to me a peculiarly American response. We believe that we can solve this problem without any changes or sacrifices. Is American exceptionalism the biggest obstacle to reframing the conversation?

Kolbert: It’s an article of faith in America that things are always going to get better. Climate change profoundly challenges that narrative. The basic message is what you are doing now makes it worse for future generations. That’s a message we find anathema so we refuse to acknowledge it.

I do think there are a lot of forces lining up to make this an issue. Unfortunately, the way our political system works, it’s going to take a long time—as long as a generation—for the people who are blocking progress to leave.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Take an issue like gay marriage: We’ve seen that things can change really fast. The question right now is: What does it take to get from A to B on climate change? Part of that is technological; what energy systems would you put in place? And a big part of it is political. Getting your ducks in a row is very important. It may seem pointless when it feels like there is no chance of action. But on some level you have to believe that the political tide will turn.