Elizabeth Kolbert (New York, 1961) is one of the most recognized journalists specializing in the climate crisis in the world. Your book The sixth extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015. In his new work Under a white sky, Kolbert is dedicated to investigating what nature will be like in the future.
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In one of the saddest passages in the work, the author descends to a cave in the Nevada desert, where a group of scientists fight against wind and sand to preserve a kind of tiny fish that can only be found in that small pool.
The superhuman efforts to preserve the nature of the protagonists of Under a white sky Not only do they occur in the United States, but Kolbert paints a peculiar panoramic image of how nature is no longer what it used to be on the whole planet. The world is becoming more and more human in Kolbert’s eyes, and that is not always positive.
The book begins with a chapter dedicated to the problem of Asian carp in the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in Chicago. A species that before becoming a problem was imported to solve, in turn, another problem.
Many of the stories in the book have their origins in projects that ironically had the purpose of fixing an ecological problem. The Chicago carp case is an example of how humans have imported and exported species to kill pests or solve an ecological problem. These initiatives, in principle, did not appear to have a negative impact on the environment, but many have gone wrong. When a species is moved from one place to another, the impact that this action may have is uncertain and, many times, negative. People probably think that we are much more careful with the animals we move now, but we are not; we move many species without realizing it.
He also mentions other cases in which predatory species have been introduced to balance an ecosystem, projects full of good intentions but gone wrong. The introduction of the cane toad to Australia is one of those examples where a human-brought species wreaks havoc on the environment and forces scientists to come up with new ways to eliminate it using techniques such as gene editing. How do they do that?
In the book I explain how I got a gene editing kit for myself, which was fun and scary at the same time. The creators of CRISPR technology, gene editing, were awarded the Nobel; it is a very powerful tool that allows us to manipulate any gene – that does not imply obtaining the exact genetic result that we expected – which has opened up new possibilities. We can eliminate genes, reduce their presence, insert genes of some organisms into other organisms and that has certain implications in terms of conservation.
The interesting thing is that we have reached a point where many living things may not survive if their genes are not manipulated. In the book I mention the example of the American chestnut, a species that has been attacked by an imported fungus a century ago and that has killed almost all of the specimens. Thanks to this technology we now have a chestnut tree that is resistant to the fungus. The question at the moment is whether we should introduce this tree into the forests of the United States, for this we are looking for solutions jointly with technology to these problems. Many public agencies are working to resolve these issues.
Coastal cities around the world are going to have problems due to the climate change and sea level rise, but why did you choose the city of New Orleans to illustrate the argument that if we do not want cities to disappear, we must reduce our CO2 emissions?
New Orleans, from the American perspective, is the city most vulnerable to rising sea levels. One of the reasons it happens is because it sinks very fast. The reason for this collapse is due precisely to the solutions that were conceived in the past so that the city does not flood. It has a very peculiar geology, because it is in the delta of a river (the Mississippi) that depends on the constant flow of sediment to build land and when this does not happen, it begins to sink.
Nowadays, it is very difficult for the river sediments to settle in the city due to the damming systems that have been created to contain the water. The floodgates have made the city an island in the middle of the river. New Orleans is a great example of the complex situation we are in and how now we are forced to have all kinds of peculiar ideas to avoid a future that, in my opinion, is inevitable.
Marine biologist Ruth Gates dedicated her life to studying corals in Australia, saying that “nature is no longer natural.” What do you think about it?
It also made a huge impression on me when I heard it. It is a very forceful phrase. Not everyone can – and doesn’t want to – make these kinds of claims, but Ruth had the courage to do so. Unfortunately, it is true, we can no longer go anywhere and say “this area has not been affected by human action.” We have plastics all over the oceans – even in the Mariana Trench – so the question is: what do we do with that reality and how do we act? Ruth focused on trying to save coral reefs, making them more resistant to heat, but to what extent can our interventions have a negative effect or can they go wrong? Corals are very complicated organisms and I don’t even know if a piece of coral created in a laboratory is the solution or if it could become a large reef.
What we are doing to our planet and nature is the natural course of things?
I think it is a more semantic question than a practical one. There is constant change in nature and when it comes to biology there is only one way to change: natural selection, evolution. Now we have passed that “phase” and we are at a time when there is no time for evolution, if we want them to survive we need to modify the species faster and to do so modify their genome. I think that saying that this process is part of nature confirms how irrelevant it is to us.
We can no longer go anywhere and say “this area has not been affected by human action.” We have plastics all over the oceans – even in the Mariana Trench – so the question is: what do we do with that reality and how do we act?
The title of the book is directly related to one of the final chapters, in which the idea of shading the sun by filling the sky with tiny particles of all kinds is contemplated. Can you explain more about “solar geoengineering”?
Solar geoengineering is a perfect example that shows how we will increasingly turn to technology to find environmental solutions to problems caused, ironically, by older technologies. The atmosphere is full of CO2, which warms the planet. But what we don’t realize is that the planet would continue to warm for many decades even if we stopped emitting CO2 right now. The aim of this project is to try to figure out how to cool the planet by releasing particles into the atmosphere that reflect solar radiation. We know that this works because it is what volcanoes do and that would allow to reduce the temperature temporarily.
It’s all theoretical. There are no studies and no tests have been done. There is a group of scientists at Harvard who wanted to do a test in Sweden but it was canceled, because there is a lot of opposition to geoengineering. And that test was trivial, they just wanted to fly in a balloon! People see it as a problem that can have terrible consequences and they believe that that possibility should not even be explored because once you start the same thing you can not stop.
How do you feel when you see Jeff bezos and other tycoons launching into the stratosphere?
I think it’s very weird, a strange trend. I don’t know how much energy they put into it but it clearly seems like they are targeting the wrong problem.
In his book I think he does not say it directly, but you can guess: climate change is not reversible.
Yes, it is not reversible. Unless we start removing CO2 from the atmosphere. In theory, we could remove a large enough amount to cool the planet. Another option is solar geoengineering, but given the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is currently not reversible on a human timescale. In the future it will be possible, but only through geological processes that will take thousands of years to occur.
Do you think that physiological adaptation is also part of this “plan” against climate change? Will we have to modify our bodies to encourage adaptation?
Altering our genetics to cope with climate change is something that is not practical right now. There is still great public resistance to modifying our biology. The only precedent there is is an experiment by a Chinese scientist with twin girls and he is in jail. There are not many people trying to modify human biology and if it is done it is something that should have a clear purpose.
The Swedish professor of human ecology Andreas Maln positions himself in his latest book in favor of a more radical eco-activism that promotes actions such as the sabotage of polluting companies and infrastructures. What do you think about it?
I think there has always been a side within social movements that feels that it is not heard. Things can get tense. I understand that we have a moral obligation to try to stop something that is going to affect millions of people, so I sympathize with that. But the response and the political backlash can be very great. The political and economic powers could strongly counterattack against acts that involve destroying any property. You have to be prepared to face that and I don’t know what public opinion thinks, maybe your actions may have an effect contrary to what you expected.
Has covering climate change affected you in any way on an emotional or psychological level?
Clearly, looking at the world through the lens I use in this book or earlier The sixth extinction, does not make you see the future with optimism. That said, throughout the book you realize that there are very smart and very important people – like Bill Gates – interested in solving this problem. We live in a very interesting period and that has negative things but it is also stimulating.
Daniel Schrag is one of the scientists he interviewed and he says his duty is not to bring hope or a happy ending to the climate crisis, but simply to report rigorously and pass on the science. How do you see it?
Yes, Dan works at Harvard, and he asked me if I as a journalist felt that people also demanded that I give them a happy ending in my books and articles. And yes, it’s true, people want a happy ending, but how do you give it to them? There are hundreds of books that talk about this topic from an optimistic perspective but then they do not provide adequate solutions and the reader realizes it. I didn’t want to make a book like that, I wanted to let the reader think. I do not know if it is a smart editorial decision because sometimes the reader wants to have answers and can get frustrated, but unfortunately I do not have them, if I had, I would give them.