We are killing our planet. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but, as acclaimed writer Elizabeth Kolbert explains in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Sixth Extinction, humans are to blame for the impending mass extinction that will spell the end of many of the world’s species. The Earth has seen five other mass extinctions over the last half-billion years; one of them was the asteroid that obliterated the dinosaurs. But this time, it’s not an asteroid — it’s us.
Kolbert’s research took her across the globe and brought her face to face with evidence of species and habitats changing, and the scientists documenting all of it. She recently talked with the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute about the state of our changing climate, the challenge of finding solutions, and the degree to which she sees room for hope.
You wrote recently in The New Yorker that because the climate is on a time delay, the evidence of climate change that we see now is the result of what happened decades ago. What changes should we be bracing for now?
Elizabeth Kolbert: It takes a long time for climate to re-equilibrate, as it were. We know there’s a lot of warming that’s in the pipeline. On some level, it will probably be more and greater of the same — more heat waves and more extreme weather events. When you have flooding, you’ll get heavier flooding, and when you have droughts, you’ll get deeper droughts.
You’ve explained that the climate is changing very quickly right now — that species are rapidly migrating upslope or toward the poles to stay in a moderate enough climate. What does that say about visible changes we should expect in the United States in the near future?
EK: We’re seeing species on the move, the growing season changing, pathogens surviving, disease vectors moving around — all these things are already happening. Most of us are not in touch enough with what exactly what was in our backyard last year compared to this year. But if you were — if you tagged birds, for example — you’d see that a lot of things are changing.
Has The Sixth Extinction motivated any changes that you know of?
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EK: Unfortunately, the answer would have been different before the election. President Obama read the book and commented on it, and that was very encouraging. He ended his term — as I’m sure you know — putting aside a lot of marine territory as preserves, and he spoke about the need to preserve biodiversity. Now, the current administration seems intent on pumping as much oil out of the ground as possible — and coal. They are rolling back a lot of environmental regulations. So, it’s hard to say at this point.
In recent years, what efforts do you think are doing the most to address climate change?
EK: There are efforts all over the world. Germany and some Scandinavian countries have been changing their energy systems. Under President Obama, the U.S. had some important progress in the form of regulatory framework, but now that will be rolled back. The Paris Agreement was significant, to the extent that people agreed that there’s a problem to be dealt with.
What will happen now, I don’t think anyone knows. There are positive steps and negative steps, with the result that global emissions are basically flat right now, and that’s not good enough. That’s not anywhere near good enough, because they’re flat at a very high level. But that attests to some effort that has been made.
What do you think are some of the simplest areas of opportunity for mitigating the climate changes we haven’t seen yet?
EK: There are many opportunities. I think what’s so dismaying about this administration is that they want to block these opportunities. Take the methane rule — leaking methane is a huge problem, and it’s a total waste. The leaks contribute to global warming. Plugging leaks in the natural gas system is a no-brainer. But we’re having trouble even doing that — that rule is getting repealed.
Also, I read that they want to get rid of the Energy Star program — another no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we want more energy-efficient appliances? There are also opportunities in moving toward electric cars. There are all sorts of opportunities, and one of these days, these technologies will move forward, anyway. But now, we’re actively trying to slow them down. To call that dismaying is an understatement.
Who is in the best position to make changes that matter?
EK: The fact is that we need everything. It’s not going to be just business or just technology or just public policy — it has to be all of them, because it’s such a huge problem. What our experience over the last several years has demonstrated is that if you make policies at the government level, and you have people on board in the business world, and everyone is moving in the same direction, you can make significant progress. But if everyone is moving in different directions, then it’s very difficult.
What role do you see the business world playing in what can be done now, and what can be done in the future?
EK: I see them playing a very important role, and I hope they will step up to the plate. The people at these hundred-billion-dollar corporations — many are very smart and have scientific backgrounds. Even the ones at fossil fuel companies know what’s coming down. Basically, they need to be honest — even in a world that is encouraging them to behave badly. They can see that their long-term interests call for them to step up and get behind efforts to reduce emissions. They need to do this in their own operations, and they need to support policies that will have a broad impact.
Sustainability has gained prominence in recent years. What actions would you encourage new and established sustainability leaders to take?
EK: Things have to produce meaningful results. I feel like the word “sustainability” is bandied around, and a lot of companies are using it in a mushy way — to make things nicer and better, but the whole apparatus isn’t really changing. People need to be very, very rigorous as consumers, as citizens and as sustainability officers — people need to not just enable the same behavior.
In your travels, you have seen for yourself many ways the Earth is changing, and you have seen scientists doing the work of documenting it. How does that perspective inform what you think should be done to address these problems?
EK: The more global your outlook, the more daunting it becomes. There are many, many different forces, almost all of which are participating in the problem. A global perspective makes you realize this is really hard.
Is it already too late? We’re talking geologic times here, so does it matter what we do now?
EK: There’s a lot of damage that’s been done, and a lot of damage that’s baked in and is going to be done, but there are degrees. There’s never a moment when you can say things can’t get any worse, because at that point, everyone will be dead. There’s always an opportunity to do something — certainly for the foreseeable future.
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and her series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine writing award and a National Academies communications award. She is also the author of the book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, a two-time National Magazine Award winner and a recipient of a Heinz Award and Guggenheim Fellowship.