To be a well-informed citizen of Planet Earth, you need to read Elizabeth Kolbert. She is one of the pioneers in climate journalism, known for her intrepid, in-the-field research (“We strapped on our snowshoes, put on helmets and headlamps, and filed down into the mine,” she writes of a trip into a cave in upstate New York. “Bats flew up at us out of the gloom”) and her ability to translate complex science into witty, compelling books and articles for The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 1999. Her work, taken as a whole, explores the endlessly complex story of whether nearly 8 billion humans can live on this planet without self-destructing and taking a good percentage of other creatures down with us.
Her 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was a long look backward in time, examining the causes and consequences of the five previous mass extinctions on Earth. What humans are doing to the planet today, Kolbert suggested, is every bit as impactful to the future of life as the giant asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Now, in her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (to be released February 9th), Kolbert explores many of the so-called solutions to the climate crisis, from genetically engineering coral reefs so they can survive in warmer, more acidic ocean waters, to using a fleet of high-altitude aircraft to inject tiny sulfate particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet (the book’s title comes from research suggesting that if we try this kind of solar engineering, it may turn the Earth’s luminous blue skies a hazy white). It will surprise no one to discover that many of these quick fixes for the climate crisis have unexpected consequences. As Kolbert writes, the book is “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” It’s a tribute to Kolbert’s skills as a storyteller that she transforms the quest to deal with the climate crisis into a darkly comic tale of human hubris and imagination that could either end in flames or in a new vision of Paradise.
Kolbert zoomed with me from her home in western Massachusetts for the latest installment of the weekly “RS Interview: Special Edition” video series. We talked about why engineers made the Chicago River run backwards, what it’s like watching coral sex on the Great Barrier Reef, and the parallels between the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis.
One of my pet peeves when I talk to people about climate change is this notion that we’re going to “fix” the climate. “How are we going to fix the climate?” You take that on directly in this book, about the implications and consequences of “fixing” the climate. Can you talk a little bit about that?
First the good news: We are having a conversation about climate change and what to do. What those in the climate change world would say, I think, is “mitigate” climate change. Whenever someone says we’re going to “solve” climate change or we are going to “fix” the climate, your ears should definitely perk up, because as you know, climate change is like a supertanker. You are pushing a humongous system, a system the size of planet Earth, in one direction. And you don’t get to just stop that when you decide you don’t like it. One of the messages that I think haven’t really gotten out yet is that carbon dioxide is not like particulate matter, where you can say, “OK, if we stopped emitting that, it would dissipate.” That problem could be solved in fairly short order if we took dramatic steps. [But] if we reduced our [carbon] emissions by half tomorrow, which is obviously not going to happen, we would still continue to push the climate, we would just be doing it more slowly. If we reduced our emissions to zero, we would still see warming.
In your book, you talk about how our attempts to fix things, to control things can end up backfiring. You open the book with the Asian carp example, which is kind of funny and strange and emblematic of what you’re talking about. Describe what the problem with Asian carp is and why you started the book with that.
The first chapter is sort of a metaphor. And it starts with the Chicago River, which bisects the city of Chicago and for most of geological history flowed east into Lake Michigan. Chicago dumped all of its waste into the Chicago River, dumped all its sewage, [and] as the stockyards grew, dumped all of its animal waste. It was said that the river was so thick with filth that a chicken could walk across it without getting her feet wet. And this was not just disgusting, obviously, but it had very serious public-health implications, because Chicago drinks from Lake Michigan, and [they were] getting constant outbreaks of water-borne disease. So around the turn of the 20th century, the leaders of the city of Chicago decided something’s got to be done about this. And what they decided to do is this massive construction project that reversed the flow of the Chicago River. It was one of the most massive construction projects of the day. And now the Chicago River flows west into the Mississippi drainage basin. And that solved one problem. But in the process, which no one seems to have been thinking about, it connected these two huge drainage basins, the Great Lakes drainage basin and the Mississippi drainage basin. And the effects of that became apparent over the course of the 20th century as both the Great Lakes and the Mississippi became these highly invaded water systems — tons of invasive species wreaking havoc in both systems and now able to cross from one to the other.
Asian carp were imported largely to do bio control, to try to control for certain pollutants that we didn’t like. They have completely taken over the Mississippi system, many of its tributaries as well. They make up in some parts of the river system like 90 percent of the biomass now. So it’s a huge impact. And people in the Great Lakes really don’t want them in the Great Lakes, so they’re trying to think of ways to keep them out of the Great Lakes, even though these systems are connected. And what they’ve come up with so far is electrifying parts of this river, basically. So you go down the Chicago River, you go into what’s called the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and eventually you reach part of the river that’s so electrified that if you were to jump in, you’d die.
Your book reads a little bit like a darkly comic Greek tragedy of humans having the hubris to think that they can manipulate things, with [plans that] are on some level effective and on other levels completely harebrained schemes. And this is something that, as you point out, has been a part of environmentalism and climate action for a long time. But what inspired you to write about this?
I went a few years ago to Hawaii to do some reporting and visited a project that had been nicknamed the Super Coral Project. We’ve really radically changed the oceans. We’re pouring tons of heat into the oceans via climate change, so the oceans are warming really rapidly, and we’ve also changed the chemistry of the oceans through the same mechanism — if you pour a lot of CO2 into the air, a lot of it ends up in the oceans very quickly. And one group of organisms that really doesn’t like that is coral-reef-building corals.
So reefs all around the world are suffering from what’s called coral bleaching. We’ve lost something like half of the coral cover from the Great Barrier Reef. I mean, this is really some serious shit. But we’re not getting the heat out of the water. That’s just not happening. We’re not getting the chemistry back in any sort of foreseeable human time frame. So the idea behind the Super Coral project was, “Well, we’ve manipulated the oceans, we’ve manipulated the atmosphere — not consciously, just by burning a lot of fossil fuels. But if we want reefs, we’re going to have to try to consciously manipulate the coral. We’re going to have to try to breed up these corals that can withstand warming.” And this sort of two levels of intervention — first you change the oceans and then you try to change reefs because you don’t like the effects of the first intervention — that seemed to me to be opening up a new chapter in our very complicated relationship to the natural world. Once I started to think about that, one form of manipulation overlaid on another form, I started to see that pattern everywhere.
When you write about the genetic engineering and manipulation of coral and the problems of the Great Barrier Reef, you also write about the great miracle of coral sex. I think you’re the only person except maybe besides [climate scientist] Ken Caldeira that I know who’s actually witnessed coral sex. Can you explain what coral sex is like and what it’s like to be a coral sex voyeur [laughs]?
There’s no one way to have coral, sex, how’s that? Many, many species are hermaphroditic and they release these, what look like little beads, little glass beads, pink beads, once a year. They have what’s called a mass spawning, and you can time it. It seems to be light cues, when the water is a certain temperature. It always happens in what is our fall and the spring down in Australia, and after a full moon. So you can time your visit hopefully to correspond to a spawning. Corals are tiny little animals. They’re not microscopic, but very, very small, very hard to even see with the naked eye. And when you’re seeing a coral reef, you’re seeing a bazillion corals who are all connected to each other in this thin film of tissue. And all of these polyps, they all release their little bundles or little beads at the same time. And so it looks like you’re in a blizzard, except that it’s moving up, the snow is moving up instead of down. And it’s just fantastically beautiful.
It’s really effective in the book because you really capture that, and then you capture humans laboring to somehow play with and mimic this. That complexity of natural systems is something that you mine throughout the book. And the place where the stakes are highest is the idea of solar engineering, right? The idea of putting particles into the stratosphere and reflecting away a little bit of the sunlight. It has sort of gained traction over the years as it becomes clearer and clearer that whatever progress we may be making on emissions cutting, we’re still moving into a time when climate impacts are enormous and there may be calls for doing something quickly. The politics of it are very complex. But what did you learn when you went into this world to talk to people like David Keith and others at Harvard?
Well, as you say, I spent a lot of time at Harvard where they have probably the biggest or best financed of the solar geoengineering research, called the Harvard Solar Geoengineering Research Program. It’s a fundamentally very creepy thing to think about. But the guys that I spoke to, three scientists, mainly — David Keith, Frank Keutsch, also Dan Schrag — these are really smart and thoughtful people. And they made a very compelling case that we don’t have a lot of arrows in our quiver to do something about climate change quickly. And another thing that’s important to recognize is we have not yet seen the full effects of the carbon dioxide that’s up there now. So that’s decades away. Meanwhile, we’re still digging this hole. So at a certain point, and it may be decades from now, [but] decades are not that long, you decide, wow, we are committed to warming that humanity cannot deal with. That’s going to cause tremendous suffering and mortality. You can’t reverse that, you can’t stop it, except potentially — and I want to use the word potentially very vigorously — by shooting some compound into the stratosphere that would block incoming sunlight. That’s what happens when you get a major volcanic eruption. They spew a lot of sulfur dioxide into the air and it gets all the way into the stratosphere, drifts around, creates a sort of global haze that reflects sunlight back to Earth.
The idea is we create these sort of manmade volcanic eruptions. Without the eruption part, we would just shoot the stuff with a special fleet of airplanes directly into the stratosphere. And that could theoretically — once again, theoretically — counteract the effects or partially counteract the CO2 we’ve dumped into the atmosphere. And everyone who advocates this — or they would not say they’re advocating it, they would say we need to look at it because we don’t have a lot of great options at the point that we decide we’ve gone too far. There’s a huge debate. I mean, I’m already getting e-mails from scientists saying, “We should not even be talking about this. It’s the most dangerous possible thing to even be talking about.” And I think that is also a legitimate point. It’s one of those debates where everyone has a legitimate point, and one of the privileges, I suppose, of a journalist is to say, “I don’t get to decide whether this is going to be talked about. It is being talked about.” And so I try to lay out the possibilities and the perils, which are boundless.
So, with geoengineering, and this is a theme running through your book, it’s not like we’re talking about messing with pristine nature. Humans have been mucking around on our planet for a long time. We’re dumping tons of carbon dioxide and particulate matter and reflecting away sunlight and doing all kinds of things now. And you point out the well-known quote from Stewart Brand of: “We are as gods, we may as well get good at it.” You know, we’re already messing with nature, we may as well get good at it. And we are already messing with the climate, more specifically with the reflectivity of sunlight. So the question is, should we be thinking about doing a better job at it?
That is absolutely a key point. There’s a strong impulse, and I share that impulse, to say, “Let’s just stop messing around. Let’s try to preserve things.” And one of the messages of the book, I think, was that even preserving things today requires change. So much change has been set in motion. So, for example, while we might have thought of conservation [as] “Well, we’re just going to fence this off. Humans stay out, let the natural world do what it will.” Now, with climate change superimposed on that, that’s no longer a conservation strategy, right? Because everything’s going to be moving. Things are going to be moving in different directions. You’re not preserving that ecosystem as it is just by fencing it off. Even so, that leads you down this road or slippery slope or whatever you want to call it into “OK, what do we do now?” And that, I think, is the moment that we’re in. And it’s not going to be a moment. It’s going to be a century or centuries.
I read a description of my book that was like, “You broke it, you own it.” We have manipulated the system. We didn’t intend to in many cases, we didn’t intend to warm up the planet, didn’t intend to acidify the oceans. But we did it. And you can’t just go back and say, “Oh, well, let’s just leave it alone now and maybe it will all be OK.” We know that’s not the case. So what are we going to do?
I don’t feel like you say this explicitly, but the implication I’m left with from reading your book is that of course we’re going to fuck it up in ways that we can’t even begin to understand, right? [But also] the amazing ingenuity and imagination humans have to think about solutions. And there’s a lot of hope, in a sense, in that. But there’s also this undercurrent of hubris through everything that we’ve done, and we are going to repeat that again and we’re going to imagine solutions that end up causing bigger problems than we know, right?
I mean, the book in some ways is a third way. Like, there’s this huge argument in environmental circles between the so-called Ecomodernists — “Yeah, let’s just put up a bunch of nuclear plants and if we’ve got to geoengineering. We’re just going to find a way and everything’s gonna be great because we’re such clever people.” Then there’s another school of thought that’s absolutely horrified by that and takes a much more traditional conservation approach, sort of John Muir-ian, let’s say. And I, emotionally, want to say I’m with the Muir-ians, but when you look at it, neither is tenable. Neither one of them really gets to the situation at hand. And what I was sort of trying to do, what I am trying to do in the book, is break through both of those conversations. That was one of my hopes.
Books take a long time, and there’s always the way you imagine the world and think about the world as you’re writing it — and then there’s the world that it emerges into. And two things have happened, presumably, since you finished the book, two big things. One is the Covid pandemic. And also we have the Biden administration, which in the last few weeks has taken some dramatic action on climate. I wonder how you feel about where the world is right now vis-a-vis your book versus how you felt about the world when you finished your book a year ago or whenever?
Well, I didn’t finish a year ago [laughs]. But I talk a little bit about Covid across the book. And I think, unfortunately, it fits all too well with the thematics of the book. I talk about man-made natural disasters [and] these coupled human and natural systems that are called “chans,” that’s an actual term out there in the world. And it’s used to refer to things like the Mississippi Delta, which is hugely manipulated by humans to control the flow of the Mississippi. But you could apply it to the whole world, as a coupled human and natural system. And Covid, which presumably originated with some wild or domesticated animal, was absolutely a product of how we treat the natural world, and then was spread immediately by the way we live now, the globalization of life. So it’s definitely a coupled human and natural system. We let it get completely out of control. We did not do the things that scientists told us we should have done to control the outbreak immediately. But we have now let it rage on so that we’re getting new variants that are going to undermine the vaccines that we’ve created. And we are hoping for the techno fix that’s going to get us out of this. And we are also doing all the things to undermine a techno fix. It absolutely fits the pattern. So on that level, I would say, “Wow, that’s just confirmed my worst fears.”
The Biden administration, I want to applaud the administration. They have put together a great team. They have made major moves already. I think that’s great and very encouraging, but I think it’s important that we acknowledge how much we have taken the first baby steps along a very, very, very long road, and whether we’re going to take one baby step forward and one baby step backward, the way we’ve been doing for the last few decades. One administration comes in, puts in a [regulation]; the next one comes in and lifts the [regulation] — I mean, it’s been just a disaster. We don’t know the answer to that yet. Let us hope for the best. But let us also acknowledge that it’s a very long and difficult process to decarbonize the economy, and we have to do it. We know we have to do it, but we seem unable to just do it.