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Elizabeth Kolbert Ponders Whether We Can Change Nature So It Can Survive
Elizabeth Kolbert will speak at 5:15 tonight at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. PHOTO: John Kleiner
Sunday, July 17, 2022


Elizabeth Kolbert has watched scientists mix buckets of coral sperm to create a super coral that can withstand acidic oceans and warming temperatures. She’s seen Harvard scientists experiment with spraying non-toxic sun-dimming chemicals to mitigate manmade warming.

And, always, she has written what she’s seen in hopes of galvanizing the world’s eight billion citizens to take action to stop runaway global warming before it’s too late.

“I think it’s a very scary world—no denying that. We have let this go unaddressed for far too long and we are self-destructing,” said Kolbert.

Kolbert, considered a pioneer in climate journalism, penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” which warns that we could lose half of all living species this century. The Massachusetts author has also written “Field Notes form a Catastrophe,” which examines such things as rising sea levels and thawing permafrost. And in 2021 she published “Under a White Sky,” which examines how one technological fix can lead to other problems.

She is spending this week in Sun Valley where she is making a couple presentations at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

One of those presentations—“The Nature of the Future”--will be held at 5:15 tonight—Sunday, July 17, and is open to the public. The public may watch it free of charge via the big screen on the Pavilion Lawn. Or they may purchase a ticket for $35 to watch it inside the Pavilion at

Kolbert has spent 40 years documenting the climate crisis. When she started, she said, few acknowledged there was a problem.

“Now, at least, people are increasingly convinced that we do have a big problem,” she said.

Kolbert said her own defining moment began with a trip to Greenland in 2001 where she visited the North Greenland Ice-core Project—a desolate spot eight degrees north of the Arctic Circle where scientists had drilled a five-inch-wide hole 10,000 feet from the top of the ice sheet to bedrock.

The first drilling was done in the mi-1960s not to challenge established views of the Earth’s climate but to do normal science. And those who did the drilling weren’t even quite sure what to do with the core.

But the ice contains volcanic ash from Krakatau, lead pollution from ancient Roman smelters and dust blown in from Mongolia on ice-age winds. And it’s possible to date each layer of ice and the climatological information contained within.

“One of the scientists told me at the time: Although we didn’t yet see signs of climate change. we know we’re going to because we know we’re pumping a lot of carbon dioxide into the air and it’s going to warm the planet,” she recounted. “Many people have tried to find a flaw in that logic. There wasn’t.”

Kolbert has tried focusing on the alarming aspects of climate change to make people care. And she’s tried the opposite tack, taking readers to the site of a coral reef that’s still relatively healthy.

“I don’t dive—I just snorkel. But I’ve never seen so many species in one place. The incredible diversity of life I saw under water was amazing,” she said. “I thought drawing people’s attention to that would make a difference, but I’m becoming increasingly discouraged.”

It’s impossible to reverse the damage that’s been done, Kolbert said. The oceans, for instance, have been radically altered by all the CO2 we’ve pumped into the air and we can’t get the heat out of the oceans.

“We can’t change the chemistry back. So, we’re going to have to remake reefs through things like biotechnology so they can withstand warmer temperatures,” she said.

Clean energy technologies may make it possible for the world to continue to slog along, she said.

“I recently visited a company making an electric airplane. That would be helpful as air travel releases a lot of carbon,” she said. “But there’s a tremendous amount of hard work that needs to be done.”

Kolbert warns that man must be careful about unintended consequences of proposed solutions.

As an example, she points to the Chicago River. There was a time, she said, when the city of Chicago dumped its sewage into the river, along with the animal waste from the stockyards. City leaders tried to address the water-borne disease that resulted by reversing the flow of the river so that it flowed into the Mississippi River drainage basin instead of Lake Michigan.

But that led to invasive species being able to cross from one drainage to another. And the Asian carp imported to do bio control took over outcompeting native fish populations and lowering water quality.

That said, man has interfered with nature so much that at this point that even not intervening is an intervention, she said.

Daily news reports, such as this week’s news that record-breaking temperatures of 104 degrees is hitting the United Kingdom 28 years ahead of long-range climate forecasts, just affirm Kolbert’s lifelong work in her mind.

“I would say these kinds of things mean my books have held up pretty well,” she said. “It remains to see how people respond to the inevitable, including cuts in food production at a time when the global population is growing.”

And what would be the most pressing message she has?

“It would be especially for the folks in Idaho to vote for people who take climate change seriously on a state level or national level,” she said. “It would be for citizens to encourage or demand transition to clean energy.”

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