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An Interview with Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, tackles the topic of global warming in her newest book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Field Notes from a Catastrophe grew out a three-part series for The New Yorker published last year. Kolbert recently spoke about global warming with NRDC communications director Phil Gutis; the two know each another from their days working together at The New York Times.

Photos of Elizabeth Kolbert

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

Elizabeth Kolbert in OnEarth:

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Q: How did you decide to focus on the topic of global warming?

A: Like a lot of people, I am concerned about global warming. And as a journalist, I thought, if half of what I'm reading is true, then global warming is an unbelievably important issue. The real challenge is how to make global warming vivid to people, how to make it real. I could fill this building with reports that have been written on global warming, but they're not accessible, not readable. They're filled with jargon and statistics. So I thought: there's got to be some way to make the story grab people. That was really the task and it took me a really long time to find an avenue into it. I'd been thinking about it for years.

Q: And what was the avenue you discovered to tell the story?

A: I heard about this town, Shishmaref, on a little island off the Seward Peninsula. Someone told me that there was a vote in 2001 to move the village because the island's coast is eroding as sea ice retreats in that area. This is how my book opens. It seemed like a good way in to the story and the more I looked into it, the more I saw that people all around the Arctic were seeing this sort of effect. And this really shouldn't come as a surprise. The earliest climate models predicted that the first and most dramatic effects of global warming would be felt in the Arctic. The predictions are coming true. By talking about real people who live in the Arctic, people who are seeing their livelihoods and homes disappear, it makes global warming real.

Q: But the Arctic is fairly remote for most people. It doesn't affect them on a day-to-day basis. Why do you think Americans will care what is happening to an Arctic village? How is this affecting them?

A: I was born in 1961 and when I was growing up, we skated on our local salt-water pond when it froze over in winter. I'm sure this winter it hasn't been frozen over once. Now I live in western Massachusetts -- ski country. Its increasingly difficult for the ski resorts to make it because there isn't even enough time for them to make snow, much less get snow. People like me see that the world has changed in course of their lifetimes. We are thinking, "Well, something is going on." The danger is when you start to hear the argument, "Well, yes, something is going on, but the temperatures change and the world changes and we had an ice age 10,000 years ago so who knows what will happen 10,000 years from now." It's this argument that I really tried to deal with in the book because we do know what is causing this and we do know where it's heading. If we just sit twiddling our thumbs and saying, "Who knows?" then we are consigning our children and our children's children to a truly disastrous situation.

Q: For so many people, that disastrous situation seems so big and so impossible to solve. Sometimes even I have fleeting feelings of hopelessness. Do you think people can be persuaded that global warming is a problem that can be addressed?

A: With just a little effort, we can do a tremendous amount to curb global warming. With a little more effort, we can achieve an extraordinary amount. Just think, we were able to mobilize ourselves to invade Iraq and we spend hundreds of billions of dollars doing it. If we mobilized our nation and spent an equal amount on global warming, we could make a tremendous amount of progress. It's not easy. But it's doable if we start now.

People should understand that if we don't do something now, lots of other conservation efforts will be moot. All the hard work we put into conserving habitats will be lost because those habitats will be changed by global warming. There's a lot of evidence that in the past animals have migrated with the climate, but that's not really doable any more. So that's a way in which an issue like habitat fragmentation and global warming come together in this absolutely potentially devastating way.

Q: We've been talking on a scientific and practical level. Doesn't global warming also resonate on a moral level?

A: I definitely think that global warming is a moral issue and I think that you see a lot of religious groups increasingly getting involved, some of the evangelical groups, some of the more mainstream Protestant and Jewish groups. And I've definitely gotten letters and read about people preaching on this subject and I think it's absolutely going to become, if it isn't yet, the moral issue of our times. And there's two reasons for that. First of all, if you care about the future, which supposedly we do, and for those of us who have children, preserving a world for them, well, then, clearly global warming is an overwhelming issue. And it also ties in with all sorts of issues of equity and poverty because as devastating as global warming will be for this country, and I unfortunately believe it will be quite devastating, it will obviously be worse for people living on the edge. If you're living on the edge, then a slight change in rainfall patterns can push you over the edge.

Q: I've recently read suggestions that the next major world war will be fought over water. What are your thoughts about that?

A: I don't want to claim expertise that I don't have about geopolitics and water availability because it is a complicated thing to predict. But one of the things that we know about global warming is that as temperatures rise, we get more evaporation so certain places will almost inevitably suffer from drought. Where those places exactly are located is hard to anticipate. Different models predict different things.

But in those areas where water is already scarce, it's not inconceivable that the problems will intensify -- for example, in the American West where growing cities depending on snow pack for their water may not have that source available 30 or 40 years from now if temperatures continue to rise. It could become a tremendous problem.

Q: How quickly will we feel the impact of global warming?

A: Well, on one level the answer is: we already are feeling the impacts. On another, no one can answer that. There's a quote in my book from Tony Blair that pretty much says it all:

"What is now plain is that the emission of greenhouse gases . . . is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has become alarming and is simply unsustainable in the long-term. And by long-term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence."

History shows that the climate doesn't always change slowly; it actually can change fairly rapidly. What seems pretty certain is that there will be very noticeable changes by 2050-and some changes are likely to be very dramatic.

Q: Is there anything that you'd like say to wrap up?

A: I want to stress that people have gotten an unfortunately weird view of global warming by listening to various people perhaps purposefully confuse the issue. What was really revelatory to me, as one of those people who was by no means an expert -- and I still don't consider myself a scientific expert -- is that we're not talking about a speculative thing. The notion that you put more CO2 up there and you get a warmer world is not debatable at all. This has been understood for a century now. Global warming is real. The only debatable issue is how warm it will get. That's really the only question. And, yes, it's complicated but everything that we've learned has tended to support the conclusion that the effects will be quite significant. What people ought to know is that there's nothing that's been learned that suggests, "Oh, don't worry about this."

Photos: Lisa Whiteman

last revised 3/15/2006

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