Shortly after President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, longtime New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert decided it was time to get clear on the debate around global warming. “I thought, ‘Either this is a really big deal—in which case it’s being horrifically under-covered—or it isn’t, in which case we could forget about it,” Kolbert says. She set off to Alaska and Greenland, met with top atmospheric scientists, and quickly learned that the vast majority of scientists had arrived at a consensus: Our world was changing. Her resulting three-part series in 2005, “The Climate of Man,” took readers to the front lines of climate change and became the basis of a seminal tome on the topic: Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change(2006).
Field Notes galvanized conversations around climate action, policy, and research. It was also instrumental in creating Climate One, a San Francisco talk show aimed at engaging leaders from business, policy, advocacy, and academic circles in a conversation about stabilizing the earth’s climate and building a sustainable economy. (Founder Greg Dalton, a journalist, started Climate One after an interview with Kolbert prompted him to visit the Arctic and witness the changing climate for himself.) Since then, Kolbert published another influential book, the Pulitzer Award–winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), which details why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in ways no species has before.
More than a decade after their first interview, Kolbert met with Dalton again last week at the Climate One headquarters, within the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. She sat onstage alongside fellow veteran climate reporter Dave Roberts (formerly of Grist, now writing for Vox), for a televised conversation about environmental journalism in a post-truth world where climate-denialism is on the rise.
“We’ve already met the enemy, and he’s all of us,” Kolbert said during an interview with Sierra before the event. At the time, Maria was spinning toward Puerto Rico, and Texans and Floridians were still reeling from Harvey and Irma.
Sierra: In Field Notes From a Catastrophe, you discuss turbulent natural forces that have shaped previous human civilizations with a NASA scientist. You quote him saying, “We may say that we’re more technologically able than earlier societies. But one thing about climate change is it’s potentially geopolitically destabilizing. And we’re not only more technologically able; we’re more technologically able destructively as well.” Can you talk about the ways in which technology is helping humanity to address climate change, and the ways in which it isn’t?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Right now we’re sort of only addressing climate change through technology. It comes down to two schools of thought: One is that we can keep doing everything we’re doing now, just with different technologies. The other is that we’ll have to live differently, with maybe much less technology—that we can’t just solar-power everything and call it a day. I tend to fall into the “We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing but actually have to change the way we live” category, but then I also don’t have a mechanism to get from here to there.
In any case, right now I think it’s pretty clear that we’re only pursuing the former, tech-reliant strategy and that we’re not even pursuing that very accurately. I mean, look out on the street—most people are still driving cars with internal combustion engines, even here in California, which has done as much as any place in the United States. Nothing very dramatic has changed. So, I don’t know an answer.
The other point of that quote was that, really, at the end of the day—and this is sadly all too relevant right now—most major countries have nuclear weapons, and that if things get ugly, they’ll use them. At the time I wrote that, it seemed way out there, but now it doesn’t. So I think this nativist, national moment we seemed to be in is contributing to all sorts of potential crises around the globe—climate-related and not.
Photo credit: CLIMATE ONE