Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction with her book ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’, which details five previous mass extinction events and explains why the planet is now amidst a sixth. Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999 and is an acclaimed science author with many notable environmental works, including ‘Field Notes from a Catastrophe’ (2006). In this interview, Kolbert describes with a mixture of pragmatic pessimism and guarded optimism the ways in which humankind must now confront “the sixth extinction.”
The Sixth Extinction describes familiar issues such as global warming, but also significant environmental issues that are not receiving as much attention, especially changes in the makeup of the ocean. Could you tell us more about that?
Climate change gets a lot of attention, and I understand why, absolutely. But there’s actually a lot of very serious damage being done by ocean acidification, which is sometimes called “climate change’s equally evil twin.” Ocean acidification is the effect of dumping a lot of CO2 in our water and acidifying the oceans—that’s really huge, and I don’t think it can be huger. Changing the water temperature is actually also huge. Most of the extra heat that’s trapped by the CO2 we’re putting out is going into the oceans, the oceans are warming really rapidly, and that’s going to have huge effects. On weather, on fisheries, on where things can live, what can live, the stratification of the water, how much oxygen is in it—there’s just tons and tons of potential ramifications there.
A powerful image in The Sixth Extinction is of the oceans becoming like a “vacant lot.” What are the chances of such a severe outcome?
I think one of the scary things is we don’t really know. It’s really hard to change the chemistry of the oceans. No one has been around to watch this happen before. We’re in uncharted territory, and what you often see in the scientific literature is this idea that we’re heading into a “no-analog” situation. Another thing that’s important to note is we’re doing all of these things at the same time. Not only are we releasing a lot of carbon, but we’re doing so at the same time that we’re moving a lot of things around the world. We’re cutting down a lot of forests, which is part of the problem of releasing carbon but is also just destroying habitat, at the same time that we are damming up all of our rivers. So it’s not actually just one thing, it’s a lot of things and the potential synergies between them, they’re huge. But once again, since nothing’s ever done this before, it’s hard to know what they are.
Your book opens with the case of the golden frog in Panama, which was driven extinct in the wild by fungi that humans unwittingly transported into its ecosystem. Some people might say the frog was not doing much for humans anyway and is still there in captivity for people who care about it being there. For many of these endangered species, what direct impacts do they have on human lives?
For many of them it’s quite possible to have no direct impact. I think if that’s the only thing that we care about, then we could potentially let a lot of things go extinct. The problem we’re faced with once again is we don’t really know which of the species are species that are keeping ecosystems going that we happen to depend on. Once you discover that, and that species is extinct or functionally extinct, it’s too late. We’re playing a really high stakes game, and we’re gambling a lot on outcomes of which we have really no idea.
With so many urgent environmental appeals based on “unknowns,” how can we formulate effective means of confronting the issue?
Dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, cutting down the rainforest, even moving things around the globe—we do have ideas of how we could pretty profoundly mitigate those, we’re just not doing them. I don’t want to say it’s easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not like we could not formulate at least semi-effective policies. People say: let’s put a price on carbon, that would start to ratchet down carbon emissions. You could say we don’t know that would solve the problem, and I would agree we don’t know that, but if we tried we would get more information. We’re just sort of sitting here saying we don’t know what to do, or we don’t want to do it, I mean there’s all sorts of arguments. But I don’t think it’s for lack of policies that could make a difference.
There are, of course, huge barriers to coordinated political action; but even for something like moving people and things around the globe—with today’s interconnectedness, it’s almost inconceivable to see how you can stop that. Is it time to accept that climate catastrophe will become reality, and move beyond mitigation to adaptation?
There’s a phrase you hear in climate circles and that is “manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.” That’s a situation we’re in. It’s not an “either-or” situation at this point. We are already in the adaptation mode: sea levels are rising, temperatures are rising, and that is not stopping in the lifetime of anyone alive today. Obama’s chief science advisor is a very smart guy named John Holdren who was at Harvard for many years, and he has said there’s a menu of options: one is mitigation, one is adaptation, and one is suffering. The more you do of one, the less you are going to do of the others, so if we mitigate we’ll have to do less adaptation and less suffering. You can take your pick, but there’s no one solution here at this point. We’re past the point of saying, “we’re just going to stop this thing.”
One adaptation measure you described in The Sixth Extinction was with vials in San Diego, where they kept cultures of species about to go extinct. Could you picture a future in which we have an ocean that is like a vacant lot, large areas of land with very few species, and just isolated aquariums or oases where we have man-made conditions that allow these species to thrive? Would that be a plausible future?
It’s a plausible future, but you tend to think that the landscape is not going to last very long in a sense that we would consider habitable. I mean it would technically be habitable, but at the point where our oceans are empty and our forests are empty—and we are in the process of emptying them out—the end point of that is not going to be “Oh, we’re going to live the same way we live today, it’s just that all the interesting animals are going to be in aquaria or in zoos.” I think unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, there’s a lot between here and there and it’s not going to be business as usual but animals in zoos. Part of that is that we actually depend on a lot of what are unfortunately called “ecosystem services” that we are not even aware of as we sit here and breathe oxygen and eat food. If they were to disappear or to go into decline, we would feel that, and we already are to a certain extent.
Have you encountered any optimism for potential solutions in your recent discussions with climate experts?
Well, I think there is; I mean I was just with someone recently, another Harvard scientist, and he was saying he felt optimistic for the first time. The Paris agreement, global emissions are flat, the U.S. and China—despite all the attempts in U.S. politics, there is a sense of progress that we are going to eventually change our energy systems. These things are slow, but they are happening. The problem is that it is sort of a race against the clock. The question is once again how much damage are we going to do between now and the time we eventually transition to different energy systems or different ways of doing things.
You’ve traveled and reported extensively on the environment for many years. Over time, have any of your own attitudes changed toward the climate problem?
The one thing I’ve really come to feel is we’re not going to have some miraculous breakthrough; you often hear people say we’re going to have a technological breakthrough, some miracle energy source, but I don’t know what that’s going to be because energy can neither be destroyed nor created. It’s not something you could come up with from nowhere. Unfortunately, the idea that we need a great global change in consciousness or certainly change here in the U.S., I believe that to be true. Even if you were to find some great source of carbon free energy, we’re still going to have to change our ways, we can’t just go on doing what we’re doing without thinking about it more carefully.