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The Facts, Unvarnished


By Charles Linn, FAIA

Elizabeth Kolbert began her career covering politics for the New York Times, and has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. Her interest in climate change began when she did a story on researchers who were taking cores from ancient ice pack in Greenland. “Ice Memory” was the first of a number of articles that have helped make the science behind global warming and its effects accessible to readers. Although her stories are captivating, they do not make any attempt to gloss over the tremendous damage that humankind’s activities have done to the environment.

Elizabeth Kolbert
Photo © Rebecca Bolte
Elizabeth Kolbert
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GreenSource: How did you come to write about climate change?

Elizabeth Kolbert: When I started to think about writing about climate change, no one else at the magazine was doing it—why people write about things at The New Yorker really has to do with their own interests, generally—and it just seemed to me to be a pretty big gap, and that if this was a really important issue it probably wasn’t getting enough coverage. This was all the way back in 2000. The first thing I did was go out to central Greenland with some people who were taking ice cores. That was the first climate-related story I did and it was really very eye-opening for me.

GS: The New Yorker has a tradition of publishing authors who write about the environment. Rachel Carson, who wrote about the effects of synthetic pesticides, is a person whose work might be compared to yours. Do you look at her writing as an inspiration?

EK: When I sat down to write the series on climate change, I read a lot of people who had taken very serious scientific issues and written about them in a narrative form. She was one of the people, but I wouldn’t say the primary one. It’s something you grapple with a lot if you write long nonfiction: how do you tell a story about an issue? I was really struggling about how to do that. It wasn’t even stylistic, to be honest, it was very practical and technical writing. I think Carson comes up with a solution that was definitely not the direction that I went in.

GS: How do you feel about the Obama presidency so far? We have, for the first time, elected a president who made the ills of climate change part of his cam-paign. But, during the confirmation hearings, some of his nominees seemed to be backpedalling.

EK: I’m reserving judgment. Obama had a very good, ambitious plan. But, it’s easy to do that on paper and it’s very hard to get it through Congress. The best interpretation of what happened at the confirmation hearings would be “Look, we know we can’t dictate on high what happens, we’re going to have to work with Congress, and we’re not going to jinx those negotiations.” The worst interpretation is that they don’t really have the guts to do this, especially when people are so focused on the economy, and it’s their top priority. But addressing climate change has to be in their top two or three things to get done. I know the legislative process, having covered politics for a while, and I know how hard it will be to get anything done.

Unfortunately “anything” is not enough, and the real concern is that they will do something that is not really meaningful and call it a day. Most people don’t really understand the difference between what has to be done and these sort of feel-good gestures. The bottom line is if there is not a price on carbon emissions by the time Obama leaves office, you can kind of forget about it.

GS: Could you elaborate on that?

EK: In other words, to make this legislation amount to anything, people must pay to emit carbon. You can do all the research and upgrading of the grid, but really if the bottom line is to reduce emissions, you have to make it cost something. Anyone who has looked at this problem would say, you need the price signal, and that will change people’s behavior. When gasoline went up to four dollars a gallon, it was a very beautiful test. Driving declined seriously for the first time in many, many years.

GS: What most economists consider a healthy economy is one that is growing by 3 percent or so a year. Is it possible to do that without emitting a lot of carbon?

EK: I think that is the issue of our time. The sixty-four-billion dollar question is whether there is a different model for an economy which is, to use the much over-used word, “sustainable.” There’s a famous quote by Kenneth Boulding in The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, which is, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” When you think about it, it just doesn’t work. We have not come face-to-face with those limits yet, but we are about to.

GS: We rely on the government to regulate almost everything. What about personal responsibility?

EK: I think it’s an illusion that it can all be done painlessly and in a happy, “we’ll do everything we do now, but we’ll do it with coconut oil” way. The world is a very small place and there are six and a half billion people on it. To get that coconut oil you have to chop down the rain forest, which has climate effects of its own. We need to think about what it means to live on one planet. That seems to me to be the foremost issue of our time; there just isn’t anything more important even in a time of very severe economic hardship. We can’t lose sight of that, because we are really determining the lives of our kids, and virtually every generation we leave, in the course of the next few years. Just to say “Well, we don’t really have time for that, we don’t have the energy to bother with that,” seems to me to be really unacceptable.

GS: Is there any silver lining here?

EK: The potential silver lining is that we are going to be forced to rethink things. We could use this economic crisis as an opportunity to do a lot of really bad things, or as an opportunity to take stock of consumer culture and to what extent that is viable for the long run. Certainly the smart money isn’t going to be on the hope we will rethink the way we live, but that’s really what we’ve got to hope.

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This article appeared in the March 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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