Turning Out the Lights Just Isn’t Going to Do It

In this 2014 interview, environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert reflects on the challenges of writing about climate change, the biggest story of our time.

The clarity and immediacy of Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing—the force that carries us into whatever realm her high curiosity has prompted her to investigate and which she has determined is relevant to us, from the hall of mirrors that is politics to scientific inquiries epic and pinpoint— is firmly anchored in her own deep immersions. A quick study and a thorough researcher, she’ll drop everything to wing off to join scientists at work, whether on a glacier or in a tropical forest. She works alongside them, steadfastly gathering and interpreting complex information and insights, the lifeblood of her enlightening and bracing articles and books. Kolbert is a scrupulous journalist and a captivating teller of true stories.

After stints at The New York Times and Newsweek, Kolbert arrived at her intellectual home base, The New Yorker, in 1999, where her focus widened from city politics to planetary science and environmental issues. Prolific and exacting, she has written a remarkable number of articles, profiles, and editorial blog pieces about a dizzying array of subjects: population growth, sleep research, rewilding, dining on invasive species, fracking, raising kids, the Keystone XL pipeline, Neanderthals, nuclear power, overfishing, obesity, economics, the BP oil disaster, the auto industry, butterflies, hurricanes, bees, and big coal. Kolbert also reviews books and covers art and theater. But her central subject, her all-consuming concern, is global warming, the most significant challenge we all face.

Kolbert’s initial valiant and elucidating investigation into the science and consequences of global warming resulted in a three-part New Yorker series, “The Climate of Man,” which won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award, and the National Academies Communication Award. Kolbert then expanded the series to create the gripping and much acclaimed book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006). One early scene captures the nature of her frontline experiences and her dispatches: she describes her arrival at a research station on the rapidly disintegrating Greenland ice sheet and a long polar day in the howling wind working with a scientist and his graduate students as they take measure of the rapidly melting ice. Kolbert then slings us back in time and off to other lands as she vividly explains all the history and science that forms the foundation of their work. She neatly pivots back to the present and the personal: returning to camp, she finds that the snow beneath her tent has melted, leaving a large puddle on the floor.

The recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Nonfiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Kolbert is humble about the major recognition her work has garnered. The citation for her Heinz Award reads, in part: “Her passion and creativity shine through her writing. Ms. Kolbert has an ability to describe complicated scientific processes in entertaining and educating ways. . . . By dissecting and making accessible the vast and highly technical scientific information available on global climate change, she brings these crucial issues to a wider audience.” Kolbert is also a recipient of a Sierra Club’s David R. Brower Award, which “recognizes outstanding environmental reporting or editorial comment that contributes to a better understanding of environmental issues.”

When we spoke, Kolbert had just completed the final round of corrections for her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. As with Field Notes from a Catastrophe, this monumental endeavor began as a set of articles in The New Yorker and involved adventurous forays around the world in the company of scientists. Kolbert chronicles her experiences snowshoeing in the Adirondacks, entering a bat cave, snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef, and slipping and sliding “in a slather of red mud” in a rain forest while searching for the imperiled Panamanian golden frog.

Wherever she goes, Kolbert comes face-to-face with the harsh realities of humans’ enormous impact on the biosphere. As compelling as her tales from the field are, what truly sets Kolbert apart are her cogent explanations of how we are altering the composition of the atmosphere and causing the acidification of the oceans, a disaster few of us, until now, have been aware of. She illuminates the many ways we’ve “rearranged the earth’s biota” and delineates how climate change will impact every aspect of life. She zeroes in on grim facts about mass extinction. It’s a profoundly unnerving reality to contemplate, but as Kolbert writes, “Despair is rarely helpful.” Intrepid observer and clarion writer that she is, she also can’t help but marvel over what it means to be here now, and to witness and report on our species’s unintentional and oblivious power over the fate of our myriad fellow earthlings—and our own. —Donna Seaman

CNF: Did moving from the bricky Bronx to leafy Larchmont, New York, as a girl open you up to nature in any lasting way?

KOLBERT: I have thought about this because my husband teaches at Williams College, so I’m raising my kids in the Berkshires, which is a pretty rural, exurbia place. I did grow up in a very suburban suburb, on Long Island Sound, which is a wonderful place.

But what was important to me was the story about my grandfather, who is German. (My mother was born in Germany.) My grandfather read Karl May’s books when he was a boy. May was a German writer who knew nothing about the American West but who turned it into this incredible world in his adventure novels, and German kids loved him. He wrote something like thirty books, and my grandfather had them all. Now I have some of them; they were all schlepped from Berlin to New York. My grandfather was in love with the West, so every summer, he would take my mother and her sister to the Rockies. Then when I was a kid, my parents took us to the Rockies every other summer. I think that was a very important experience for me, to see a wild place, though I know now it wasn’t totally wild. But it seemed very wild at the time. And it was great.

CNF: Were you a big reader as a girl?

KOLBERT: I was. We grew up in a pre-Internet time. So a lot more kids were bookish because what else were you going to do? Books were definitely what you turned to. We were not as entertained and not as scheduled, nor all the other things kids are today. We just read. That was what was around.

CNF: I read a lot, too. And I walked a lot, thinking up stories and poems. I was very daydreamy, pleasantly at loose ends. I don’t see that now.

KOLBERT: I’m completely in favor of kids being bored. That forces you to read or have the inner resources to make up your own world. You don’t really have to do that now. Every kid is on his phone, playing games.

CNF: Did you write when you were young?

KOLBERT: I wouldn’t say I did a lot of writing as a kid. I was the editor of the high school newspaper. I was interested in journalism at a pretty early age, but not in a particularly passionate or directed way. It was just something I gravitated to. Part of what attracted me to journalism was not writing per se but the ability to challenge things. The politics of it, even in high school. As a girl reporter, you could go in and ask the principal to justify things, and I liked that. That was a role that spoke to me.

CNF: And yet, you don’t have a journalism degree.

KOLBERT: I do not. I studied German literature in college, which brings us back to my grandfather and Karl May. And I went to Germany after college, and I worked a bit as a stringer for The New York Times. I worked for Newsweek a little bit just because they needed bodies. I was completely inexperienced. I remember Newsweek sending me to interview a very important corporate executive, and he was appalled when a kid walked into his office. There were no grownups at the Newsweek bureau. None. So that’s how I got involved in journalism. And then I got a job at The Times, which used to have these really low-level positions in which you literally just answered the phone. That’s what I did.

CNF: You then went to The New Yorker, where you wrote about politics, including many profiles of New York political figures. This provided the material for your first book, The Prophet of Love and Other Tales of Power and Deceit (2004). Then you became an environmental writer. What happened?

KOLBERT: There’s no really clear answer to that except I was actually hired by The New Yorker to write a column called “About City Hall.” I wrote it for a while then a combination of things happened. The magazine decided its readership wasn’t just New York-based, that it was a national magazine. That made nitty-gritty attention to New York seem a little antiquated, so there was some rethinking. Meanwhile, this was around 2000, when President George W. Bush was elected, and he withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, or just said, I’m not even going to bring it up for ratification. That got me thinking. I had written some environmental stories about the Hudson River, and it seemed to me there was an important story here. It was still a moment at which people weren’t sure if global warming was a problem or not, and to me, that was a question that had to be answered. And The New Yorker was a very good vehicle for doing that because we’re not tied to the news cycle. And we’re not tied to what’s become known as “false balance.” We can try, to the best of our ability, to get to the real story.

So I was in search of a story because that’s the other part of The New Yorker that gets to the issue of creative nonfiction. It’s not enough to have an idea; you need a story. So, what happened was that I saw a book lying around. A lot of books come into The New Yorker that nobody wants, as you can imagine. And they’re put on a bench, and anyone can take them. I picked up a book––it wasn’t just a random choice, I was thinking about this issue––about ice coring in Greenland, The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future, by Richard B. Alley. It had a big influence on me; I really recommend it. It’s about what had been learned from Greenland ice cores. It struck me as very interesting and a great story, so I ended up going to Greenland. That really started me on this whole thing. Then 9/11 happened, and, since I was in New York, I was really immersed in reporting on that. But eventually, I came to try to write this story on climate change in the Arctic. It was one of those things—and you’ll find this if you talk to scientists—that you don’t plan. An issue comes along, and there’s nothing else you can do once you enter this other dimension. You start to see the world in different terms. That’s what happened to me.

CNF: How difficult was it to learn the language of climatology and other sciences? You basically translate scientific jargon and reasoning, which most of us are not familiar with, into clear, accessible prose.

KOLBERT: I’m really gratified to hear you say that, because I often do describe myself as a translator; that’s how I see my role. I’m not a scientist; I’m not educated or trained as a scientist. I barely took any science in college. Unfortunately, a lot of science is very jargon-y, and scientific papers really are incomprehensible to the general public. Even a very well-educated person cannot read most scientific papers unless they are part of that discipline. Even scientists in other disciplines can’t read them. So that’s a big problem. In the case of climate change, though, the science is not really very difficult. I did once write an article on the Large Hadron Collider, and that was very difficult. I never understood a lot of what people were telling me. With climate change, that is not the case.

At the time, in 2003, 2004, 2005, people were really saying, OK, we have eliminated all the alternative possibilities here. They were willing to say, Wow, something very big is going on. Now this is an old story; ten years later, it’s not news. But at that particular moment, it was pretty shocking.

CNF: Were the scientists you spoke with and traveled with in the field happy to answer questions and show you the ropes?

KOLBERT: In general, people were incredibly generous to me, and they were very happy to have someone interested in what they were doing, precisely because of the climate problem they felt they had stumbled upon. They were seeing amazing changes, things that were not supposed to be possible. When they were in school, they were taught that this speed of change could not occur. Scientists are very cautious, generally; if a result is weird or not what you’re supposed to see, they’re very hesitant to give it credence. They look for all sorts of different explanations. And I think that right at the time I was going around, in 2003, 2004, 2005, people were really saying, OK, we have eliminated all the alternative possibilities here. They were willing to say, Wow, something very big is going on. Now this is an old story; ten years later, it’s not news. But at that particular moment, it was pretty shocking.

CNF: Alas, I think it is still news for a lot of people who don’t read publications such as The New Yorker or The New York Times. I think a lot of people still don’t understand global warming, nor do they want to hear about it. And that’s terrifying.

KOLBERT: Yes, it couldn’t be more terrifying.

CNF: You seem quite intrepid in the field, accompanying scientists to glaciers and caves. This is a grand tradition, especially at The New Yorker. I’m thinking of John McPhee, Diane Ackerman, and many other writers. What are the challenges of participating in scientific expeditions? There’s a beautiful line in The Sixth Extinction about trying to grasp all that you’re experiencing: “I tried to keep a mental list of what I’d seen, but it was like trying to catalogue a dream.”

KOLBERT: That was about my visit to the Great Barrier Reef, to a spot no tourists get to go near, a research station that’s very hard to get to. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go out with these guys. It’s the greatest way to see the world, really, that you can imagine, because you wouldn’t be able to do it on your own. Someone else has done all the logistics, which are not easy, and you are with people who are very knowledgeable about the terrain. So if you went by yourself, you would probably kill yourself. But when you’re with them, they really know what they’re doing.

When I went to the Andes, for example, I was with people who had been there many, many times. Once again, this was a place you would really hesitate to go to on your own if you didn’t know what you were doing. By accompanying scientists, you get to see parts of the world that are spectacular and as close to the world before people as you can get these days. That’s one point of the book—that there really is no such place anymore—but these are amazing places.

CNF: Of course, it makes for intensely vivid, even dramatic reading to have a writer report on such remote places. In both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, you really put yourself on the line to do these investigations.

KOLBERT: I appreciate your saying that. It’s certainly absolutely critical to the story to have been to see it and to bring readers to a place they are not going to go on their own. It is really important to take people to see the world in this way. If I took you to Chicago or New York, most readers are pretty familiar with these places. They won’t be astonished by the subway. But very few people, even Greenlanders, go top of the ice sheet. It’s very hard to get there; it’s not a thing to undertake lightly. But when you’re there, it’s really otherworldly. It’s almost like being on another planet. But I do want to stress this: it was exciting and thrilling, but never really dangerous.

You ask scientists, and they’re like, Yes, of course, it’s happening, and global warming is a really big deal. That shocked me. I thought, You’re kidding me. It’s so simple. Why are we even questioning this?

CNF: Was The New Yorker’s great tradition of in-depth inquiries—I’m thinking of the work of Rachel Carson and Jonathan Schell—an inspiration to you?

KOLBERT: Absolutely. That was definitely part of it. When I embarked on all of this, it was with the sense that The New Yorker provides writers with an incredible opportunity to have a lot of space and a lot of time. I was almost doing it for myself, asking whether global warming was happening. And whether that question could even be answered—which, to be honest, I did right away. You ask scientists, and they’re like, Yes, of course, it’s happening, and global warming is a really big deal. That shocked me. I thought, You’re kidding me. It’s so simple. Why are we even questioning this?

And, definitely, I had the tradition of Silent Spring and The Fate of the Earth (which I reread in preparation for writing a series of pieces) in mind—which is very daunting, I want to say, to think that you’re following in their footsteps. So it’s a mixed blessing.

CNF: Over the course of your research, you gather an enormous amount of experience, facts, feelings, and thoughts. How do you pare all this down? What is most challenging about this process? How do you make this into a story?

KOLBERT: If I knew that. . . . In the movie Bang the Drum Slowly, there’s a card game called “The Exciting Game without Any Rules,” and I think that’s a good description of writing in general. It’s true of nonfiction writing in the sense that you are at the mercy of events. You go out, and you have to hope that you see something or that something happens which will make a good story. And you can’t make this stuff up. And when it doesn’t work out, it’s terrifying.

I had a very different conception when I initially set out to write The New Yorker series that became the basis for my book, but then I changed my idea for the first piece and did a lot of other reporting. One night I realized—this was half a year in—that it wasn’t going to work. I felt sick. I realized I had to go back to conception number one. And that I had to go back to Alaska. Fortunately, Alaska is four hours behind us. It was midnight for us but only 8:00 p.m. for them, so I called up this guy and said, I’m coming out next week. I need to go back out with you. So it’s not a linear process, as everyone who has tried it knows. It’s a hit-or-miss process. So that’s the excitement and terror of these things.

CNF: After learning how far climate change has advanced, you pursued the subject in your new book, The Sixth Extinction. Is global warming now your signature focus? Do you feel committed to this urgent, planetary issue? Is this now your life’s work?

KOLBERT: That’s a really great question, which I can’t quite answer at this moment. On some level, that’s clearly true, but on another level, I feel that in this last book, the topic I took on, which is a torment, may also be, journalistically, a very dubious decision. It would be hard to find a bigger topic, you know, except for the death of our solar system, which would take us beyond human concerns since it won’t happen for several billion years. So I’m not sure what to do next, to be really frank. It was a pretty big crunch to finish this book. I’m now in recovery. I don’t know where to go from here. It’s a tough question.

Illustration by Anna Hall

CNF: Global warming can easily become a cause. And taking that up as an activist can be very tricky for a writer.

KOLBERT: Yes, I agree. I’ve read Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (2013), and he has definitely transformed himself. And he’s really good at being an activist. He’s a wonderful speaker, and he’s very good on his feet. I am much more nervous, and I couldn’t do what he does. So you are limited by who you are, ultimately. In that book, he talks about missing being the person who’s sitting alone at his computer. I totally relate to that part of it, yet he felt he had to do this. And I agree with him: there was a complete vacuum, which he has filled, and he does it really, really well.

I do sometimes find myself trying to exhort people to do something, and some people would argue that is not the role of a journalist. But I don’t have an agenda. I just say, Look, this is happening. You can take action—I don’t know exactly what that might be—but you can try to acknowledge what’s going on. Or you can try to ameliorate what’s going on. Or you can just rush headlong into these things. Is that activism or not? I don’t know. All the scientists feel the same way. They just want to do their science, but they end up feeling they don’t have a choice, really. You do have some sort of ethical obligation to try to communicate what you know.

CNF: The puzzle is how to induce people to read, to listen, and to think. The best environmental writers involve readers in the story, as you do, rather than hectoring or outright alarming us. Your writing is thoroughly enjoyable even as we take in the bad, bad news.

KOLBERT: Well, thank you. That is a huge question, and there’s a huge pushback. In the social science world, there are a lot of conversations about how to communicate and what the message should be. I find this very interesting, but I don’t participate in it. My job, as I see it, is to communicate things, to the best of my ability, in a way that makes some people respond to it, but not to give them a message that necessarily produces a response. Social scientists are asking, How do you break through and get people to do x or y? I’m glad they’re working on this question, but even if I knew the answer to that—which, Lord knows, I don’t, nor do they—I don’t see that as the role of a journalist. Which is simply to tell the story as it is. This really gets to the heart of the matter. In this particular case, the news as it is is really grim, and people can deal with it or not. I feel that telling people what to do is beyond my purview. My obligation is to report on what is. And that, I think, is the ultimate defense, or the ultimate cop-out, or the ultimate calling, of a nonfiction writer: it is what it is.

CNF: I can see you writing about the work of these social scientists.

KOLBERT: Yes, that’s another way to do it. All these things are interesting, and that’s a great thing about being a journalist: you can go where your interests lead you.

Sustainability is not recycling, nor bringing cloth bags to the supermarket. It is fundamentally rethinking everything that we do, and it is living very, very differently.

CNF: Sustainability is such a wide-open term. What is your interpretation?

KOLBERT: I think about this all the time. I do hate the term. I think if it’s rigorously applied, sustainability is a very useful term. But when you look at most people’s definition, well, then it’s not. MacArthur Fellow John Holdren, currently President Obama’s chief science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote a paper many years ago about what is really sustainable, and it requires using very little of a finite resource over time, the opposite of the rate at which we’re running through resources. So sustainability is not recycling, nor bringing cloth bags to the supermarket. It is fundamentally rethinking everything that we do, and it is living very, very differently. If I could distill the problem down to as short a formulation as possible, I would say everyone is looking for a solution that allows us to continue to live more or less as we do in a way that is sustainable, and I’m not at all convinced that solution exists.

We could certainly power down and use a lot less power, and that would make a big difference. But look at our food supply, the way we get goods from all over the world. The way we travel. It’s all of these things, and when was the last time people lived sustainably? Maybe never, to be frank. But if we did, it was a long, long time ago.

CNF: I know you’re right, and yet I can’t not do those little things like recycling.

KOLBERT: I’m not a moral philosopher, and this is a question to pose to a moral philosopher, which is another piece I ought to write. But the fact that you have a moral obligation to behave in certain ways, and to do what can be done, is, perhaps, independent of the question of whether it will really make a difference. People always raise this question: does it really matter if you don’t do x or y? It’s usually not doing something, I should add. I think if everyone didn’t do x or y, it would start to make a difference, and if everyone didn’t do that and then the whole way we live started to change, that would make a difference. So you’re not going to change the world on your own, but this is not relevant to the ethical calculation, it seems to me.

CNF: Speaking of not doing things, one aspect of your books that I particularly appreciate is that you’d don’t do what I call “making nice.” So many otherwise excellent environmental books veer away from the hard facts to try to end on a cheerful note.

KOLBERT: Time will tell, but I think people who read serious books about the environment are much more savvy than they’re given credit for. They know that turning out the lights just isn’t going to do it. So the question becomes What is your message at the end? And should that message offer some sort of exhortation that is supposed to leave people feeling empowered? I very consciously dispensed with this notion. You could say, if you wanted to be kind to me—and I hope I have a relationship with my reader at that point—that this is me saying, I know you’re a pretty smart person and you’re not going to be fooled by some twist at the end that offers a message of hope.

We’re told, for example, that elephants are being slaughtered and that the money made is going to fund terrorism, but there’s hope because some guy is building elephant fences or whatever and it’s all going to work out. Any reader who reads that may well think, I’m not sure I buy that. I understand that my not raising hope may be an objection people can raise about my book. People can say, You’ve told us all this stuff, but you haven’t told us what to do. And to be frank: if I knew what to do, I’d tell you.

CNF: I do believe that knowledge is power. The writers who report the facts are doing hard and necessary work. It’s our responsibility to figure out what to do with what we learn. When you look at the gap between the care you and other writers bring to your work in explaining what’s actually going on versus the dangerous rhetoric of denial, there’s a huge gap.

KOLBERT: Let’s take just one example: the sobering realization that global warming—which is huge, it couldn’t really be huger—is just one of the ways we’re unleashing very, very powerful forces on the Earth that will change life forever. If you look at what is known, what is very clear and universally acknowledged among scientists, and then look at the politics of the issue and what a humongous gap there is. . . . Well, many people have made the point that rationality in humans is really overrated. We’re capable of rationality, but we’re not necessarily rational animals.

I really am glad you’re addressing this in Creative Nonfiction, because I think there can’t be too many people trying to figure out ways to get at the issues of our time. There is definitely the rap on environmental writing that it’s the same message over and over again, that it’s the same story over and over again, and this is, to a certain extent, a reasonable criticism. So the more people thinking about different ways to get at the story, ways that interest people and overcome their resistance, the better. And it’s not easy. Though on some level, there is a tremendous amount of interest out there. No matter what their politics are, everyone is seeing things in the world that are disturbing to them.

We bandy around the term sustainability, but we realize that with seven billion people on the planet, true sustainability is a very profound question.

CNF: How do you handle the facts you’ve learned about how we’re changing life on Earth? Are you able to set this all aside and enjoy life?

KOLBERT: I definitely have enjoying-life problems. I can’t say, Oh yeah, I can forget about all this. But that’s who I am; that’s probably why I write about things like global warming. If you’re more in touch with the joyful part of life, you would probably find more joyful subjects to write about. I feel, personally, incredibly lucky, and I certainly do enjoy a lot of things about life, though I do have a pretty dark sense of humor. But this does make you question pretty much everything you do. I certainly am not living up to what it takes to live a sustainable lifestyle. The more you know, the further you realize you are from that.

CNF: Yes, it’s really hard to reconcile the way one lives with one’s awareness about what’s happening to the climate and mass extinctions. But personally, I would rather know than not know.

KOLBERT: Well, that is, ultimately, the question. I think people are pretty smart and that part of being human is wanting to know, even when knowledge is very dark. That’s been a theme of classical literature since Oedipus. That’s a part of our condition, a contradictory part, but, then, there are many contradictory parts of our condition.

About the Author

Donna Seaman

Donna Seaman is the adult books editor at Booklist, a member of the leadership team for the American Writers Museum, and a recipient of several awards, including a Louis Shores Award for excellence in book reviewing.

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