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Warming to Reality


May 22, 2006

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In researching her new book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, Elizabeth Kolbert’s extensive travels included Alaska, Greenland, the Netherlands, and England. Along the way she interviewed climate scientists, biologists, and politicians on the topic of global warming. In the Northern climes, Kolbert discovered a world that is quickly disappearing in eerie prescience of the broader changes global warming will bring.

Field Notes evolved from a three-part series Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker where she is a staff writer covering politics. Guernica met with Kolbert to discuss the current political and public perceptions of global warming versus the reality of climate change that is already upon us.

[Interview by Elyssa East for Guernica]

GUERNICA: Earth Day was just here. Was the programming relevant to your findings on global climate change?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: I wish. I mean, there probably was [something], but nothing huge.

This notion that it’s just a theory… Gravity is just a theory, but I wouldn’t test it by putting my head under a guillotine.

GUERNICA: I find that even in talking to people who support the idea of global warming there is still a decent amount of skepticism and belief that it’s just a theory and therefore not real.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: The basic principles of global warming are as well proved and as well accepted as any in the earth sciences, and they are simply this: there are certain gases—one of them is CO2 and another one is water vapor and another one is methane, and there are many more—that have the property of absorbing infrared radiation. That property of being partly opaque in the infrared part of the spectrum has been known about for 150 years. It is that property of these gases that makes the earth habitable. If we had no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the average temperature would be about zero degrees. Once again, that is simply well established, so the “theory” is that as you add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere you get higher temperatures. This is beyond dispute, absolutely beyond dispute.

I think scientists would say it’s just basic radiative physics, Physics 101, which is how it was described to me by one very eminent person. Scientists would say, ok, the problem is that there is a huge time lag in the climate system so at what point can you say this is the effect of the CO2 that we’ve put into the air? It’s complicated by this time lag; it’s complicated by other gases that are in the other kinds of forms of pollution that we’re putting in the air that have the opposite effect of greenhouse gases. But I don’t think that you’d find more than a handful of scientists, many of whom have been at various times on the payroll of various oil and gas and coal companies, who would say it’s just a theory. It’s something you would just never hear scientists say. This notion that it’s just a theory is—there is a good quote on that, ‘Gravity is just a theory, but I wouldn’t test it by putting my head under a guillotine.’

Whole books have been written—good books, I totally recommend them—on where the spin doctoring has been coming from and how it’s basically taking a page from what the tobacco companies did in the ‘70s, saying we’re not sure, trying to put a hole in the science. But it’s mainly being funded by the Exxon Mobiles of the world; it’s not coming from the scientific community.

GUERNICA: What about the government?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: The Bush Administration has done its best to talk about the uncertainties that remain. But even if you go on the EPA website or the NASA website, you will not see this presented as just a theory. You will see—we could go online right now and I’ll show you—“This is the science of climate change and this is what’s happening.”

GUERNICA: In Field Notes you also quote Republican pollster Frank Lundtz who claims, ‘voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community.’ Do you have any ideas as to why people are accepting this?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Frank Lundtz says voters believe that, he doesn’t say it’s true. In fact, he says the scientific consensus is closed. But, yes, I think that one of the reasons people believe there isn’t a consensus is because, to be really frank about it, it’s easier to believe there is still some gray area. Once you start to believe the opposite—that the evidence is indisputable—you have to take action. And it’s a very hard problem to deal with because of the way that we live and are dependent on fossil fuels, so there’s no easy answer here. It’s easier just to say, ‘I don’t believe in the problem,’ than, ‘I need to confront this problem that doesn’t have a clear solution.’

GUERNICA: So there are political incentives in denying global warming?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Absolutely. Absolutely. If you take it seriously, you have to do things that in some circles would be considered unpleasant and politically unpopular.

GUERNICA: What would some of those things be? Have there been U.S. efforts to run something up the flagpole, so to speak?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, the Kyoto Protocol was clearly such an effort. The McCain Lieberman Bill, a watered down version of the Kyoto Protocol on the federal rather than the international level, was voted down. We can go down the list. But people pretty much know what needs to be done; people in high places in Washington know. They just realize there will be screaming and yelling from some parts of the world and politicians don’t really like that. They would rather just deny that it exists. It’s way easier. If I’m George Bush, it’s just way easier to say that we don’t understand this than to take the steps that need to be taken. Even Bill Clinton and Al Gore—both of them surely knew how high the stakes were, especially Al Gore—but they didn’t take the steps either. Why not? Because it was not going to be politically easy for them.

GUERNICA: How is Kyoto doing now? Has the lack of U.S. involvement greatly affected things?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: The U.S.’ pulling out of Kyoto had the impact of putting Kyoto into effect. I think that’s an interesting irony that Americans don’t really appreciate. Everyone was sort of shuffling along on Kyoto and it was only after George Bush decided to pull the U.S. out that the Europeans decided, ‘We’re just going to have to do this on our own.’ George Bush in a round about sort of way should be thanked for getting Kyoto ratified by other countries. Now the problem is that Kyoto only lasts until 2012 and they’re supposed to be having talks for a successor for Kyoto. The U.S.’ refusing to participate in those negotiations could prevent there being a successor to Kyoto and that would be a shame, to put it mildly.

It’s easier just to say ‘I don’t believe in the problem,’ than, ‘I need to confront this problem that doesn’t have a clear solution.’

GUERNICA: Why does the U.S. have so much say in this specific situation?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Because we represent 25% of the problem. So getting the rest of the world to take steps that are not easy when the world’s largest—by far I might add—producer of greenhouse gases is not doing anything…you can imagine a negotiating session where the biggest player isn’t even at the table. It seems ridiculous and futile and why should we bother.

GUERNICA: What about China and other developing countries who often argue that, essentially, they’ve walked into a room where everyone is smoking and they’re being told that they can’t light up?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: I think that people who deal with them would say that the Chinese are more willing to talk than the Americans. The Chinese have signed Kyoto and the Chinese would like to benefit from their technology transfers. There are all sorts of investments to be made in developing countries, of which China is considered one, as part of Kyoto and presumably as part of any successor to Kyoto. We can’t, as you pointed out, just say, ‘forget it, now we’re all going to stop smoking.’ It’s a hugely complicated issue and raises tremendous issues of equity, but it’s not an insoluble problem if people would be willing to face up to it.

GUERNICA: Do you think that any of these corporate initiatives that you see in America, such as General Motors’ “Live Green Go Yellow” campaign, will have any positive effect?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: GM really doesn’t have anything that I would consider to be remotely effective. If GM is going to continue to produce some of the biggest gas-guzzlers in the world, I wouldn’t say that their efforts amount to much. But there are some companies who are making genuine efforts.

GUERNICA: Such as?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: General Electric has made a commitment to make an absolute cut in its emissions, and even Synergy, which is a huge utility, has made a for-real cut in emissions. Anyone who has made a commitment, a genuine cut in emissions— I’d say those are real efforts. GM might, but I don’t think they’ve made a commitment to cut emissions in their own operations. They certainly haven’t made a commitment to cut emissions in their cars. In fact, they are in California right now fighting what could be a very significant measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars, which basically means just raising the gas mileage. They’re in there fighting that and the Bush administration is in there helping them. Now a lot of the car companies are jumping on to hybrid technologies but most of them, sadly, are using those hybrid technologies to soup up the power not the gas mileage.

GUERNICA: So the emissions would still essentially be the same in spite of the hybrid technology?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Emissions are directly related to how much gas you burn. There is absolutely no distinction between how much gas you burn and your emissions because there is no way to capture that CO2. There are certain pollutants from low emissions vehicles and there are other pollutants, but with CO2 there is this one to one relationship: you burn the gas, the CO2 goes in the air. If you are getting 25 miles per gallon or 27 or whatever a Subaru Outback is, and you trade it in for a Civic hybrid next time you buy a car, you are probably doubling or almost doubling your gas mileage, which in a person’s lifetime is probably 20% of their emissions or so. Depending on how much you drive, you could cut your emissions by 10% instantly.

GUERNICA: What about other contributors to global warming? In the book you go to Burlington, Vermont, where the city launched an initiative to lower energy consumption. You mentioned that this campaign was successful in its initial phase, but then was unsuccessful.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: I think that the complication that Burlington ran into is not that it’s not possible, but that a lot of the trends in our lifestyle go in the opposite direction. Electricity usage is one part of it and we are constantly adding things, so now we all have “load,” electric load, in our house—not all of us, but many of us—that we didn’t even have 10 years ago. I mean, your cell phone charger and your DVD player, for example. All of these things are drawing power even when they’re off. That’s the way that our modern technology has worked. It’s just more and more energy-intensive. That’s really what they were coming up against—not that it is not doable, but that it’s not easy and it’s nothing that you do naturally. It’s something that requires constant thought as opposed constant adding of load without much thought.

GUERNICA: If the automobile emissions are 20% of the problem, what are the other large contributors to the remaining 80%?

The Bush Administration says ‘We don’t know where that threshold is, therefore how could we do anything?’ The rational person would say ‘We don’t know where that threshold is, therefore we ought to be damn careful as we approach it.’

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Probably heating and air conditioning. They are very big.

GUERNICA: Followed by?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: In your individual life, between driving and heating and air conditioning and electric usage, then you’ve covered the three biggees. But the biggest is probably heating and air conditioning and once again that probably depends on where you live and things like that, so you would have to do your own personal calculation. If you’re commuting a long distance then your auto emissions are going to be a big proportion. But if you’re living in New York they are probably very low.

GUERNICA: Yeah, like most New Yorkers I don’t have a car.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Exactly! You can cut that right out! In your situation it’s probably heating your apartment, which you probably don’t have that much control over, which can be another problem.

GUERNICA: But it’s more efficient to heat an entire apartment building than to heat one home on a 1/2-acre lot. I’ve lived in many “green” places—Oregon, Maine, Colorado—but I had to drive everywhere. It is easier to be energy efficient and environmentally responsible here, though New York is not considered a “green” city.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: It’s really true. Urban life is far more energy efficient than suburban and exurban life.

GUERNICA: Going back to the beginning of our conversation, I think a large part of the issue with global warming is perception. Living in Maine, I thought I was living a nice green lifestyle but the reality is I was likely contributing more to emissions than I do here, except for the summer air conditioning that I didn’t have in Maine.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Once you start to think about all of these things you realize—and it sort of starts to take over your life unfortunately—but you realize how energy intensive our lives are and it’s especially true of American life and statistics bear that out. We Americans on average produce roughly twice the CO2 of every European living at a pretty comparable socioeconomic level. It’s just everything we do. We have different houses. We drive more. We could cut our energy consumption in half by living like Europeans. We could cut it much more dramatically by living like the Japanese who are incredibly energy efficient. There is a lot of efficiency there without radical changes; and then there are radical changes, too.

GUERNICA: But it seems that some of those changes go against what many people take to be fundamental tenets of American culture.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I think that’s why we’re sitting here. Because we are very committed to the notion of cheap energy. To impose a carbon tax, which we absolutely need, is anathema. It has never been proposed in Washington. Things that have even gotten close have been voted down. Once again, European countries—Norway, which has a lot of oil, they have a carbon tax—they just are sort of more…I would have to say more oriented to face up to the facts of what we’re doing and what’s needed here.

GUERNICA: Have any projections been made on health issues and global warming?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: There was just a big study several months ago out of Harvard. Health issues are also a little bit tricky because there are so many other variables, like are you getting decent health care and things like that, but there are tremendous health implications, absolutely.

One thing people look to is disease vectors, such as will malarial mosquitoes live in areas that they can’t now. We are definitely seeing already certain agricultural pests that can live in places where they once couldn’t. You’re seeing huge swaths of the Canadian and Alaskan forests being done in by beetles that once couldn’t overwinter in that part of the world. They could overwinter but they were basically kept in check by the cold and now they are not. When you start to think of the ramifications, they are huge. Everywhere you look.

GUERNICA: You use the example of a mosquito in your book that is already evolving according to the warming climate in its area. Is global warming predicted to drive evolution on a larger scale?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: A biologist will say that some species will adapt and some will be lost. There are estimates of whole extinctions, some of which are horrific, done by very eminent biologists. Clearly some species will adapt—the most likely candidates are mosquitoes, not trees and not vertebrates—they are invertebrates, they are bacteria, they are viruses. Yes, some species will adapt. No one expects climate change to wipe out life on earth, but I don’t think very many biologists would say raise the temperature of the earth by seven degrees and not to worry. A lot of that also has to do with the rate of change. There are real limits on how quickly many species can evolve because they don’t reproduce that much. You are giving an advantage to fast reproducing species of the sort that we are often at war with in one way or another.

GUERNICA: How has researching and writing this book changed your life? Do you think about global warming all the time?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Yeah. It has been kind of daunting and scary. I have little kids, so it’s very scary and on the positive side it’s definitely prompted me to take a look at what I do. I’m putting solar panels on my house and things like that. You realize your own contribution. There’s not a lot of good news out there in the climate area, but it also gives you a tremendous sense of responsibility and the more you know about this the more you feel a real sense of obligation to try to get out the word.

We should be trying to prevent real catastrophe but people are still, as you say, sitting there saying, ‘I’m not sure I believe this.’ It’s a very interesting subject where people sort of take their own beliefs—whether or not they believe in abortion, these kinds of beliefs just don’t matter to the laws of physics. They are just irrelevant.

GUERNICA: I think people feel helpless.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: I think that is the real danger, obviously. There is the danger of helplessness and Al Gore has his line about going from denial to despair, and I do think that is a real danger. If parents across the country were up in arms about it…we will leave a legacy to our children and it’s really unforgivable. Armed with this knowledge, if we just sit on our hands for the next ten years it’s really pretty much unconscionable.

I do feel there is movement and I feel like if there were more time this would be done. The problem is there is not a lot of time left. We are talking about a 50-year time scale and some people will tell you we don’t have any time and that we have about a decade to turn this thing around. The problem with all of this is we don’t know exactly when we’ve crossed the threshold to disaster, which could come in many different forms. The Bush administration says, ‘We don’t know where that threshold is, therefore how could we do anything?’ The rational person would say, ‘We don’t know where that threshold is, therefore we ought to be damn careful as we approach it.’ We ought to try to avoid it as much as possible. So I think if people understood that fact—that we’re getting awfully close to a pretty dangerous threshold—then they would feel differently about these things. The sort of muddying that we were talking about at the beginning, the muddying of the science, it’s really, really, really, really dangerous and we’re doing a disservice to the whole world and generations to come.

GUERNICA: What have we not covered or do people never or rarely ask you about global warming?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: The only other thing I would say is we live in such a technologically optimistic time and believe that technology will rescue us. We can all hope for that, but technology takes energy and this is precisely the problem. People talk about taking CO2 out of the air, but that takes a lot of energy. You’re just back to the problem that you started with. So I don’t think anyone in a responsible position or any scientist you talk to, certainly not any climate scientist, would say, ‘oh let’s sit around and wait for a tech fix.’ The stakes are way too high.

GUERNICA: In the book you mention CO2 trapping and using aerosols to counteract global warming. Is there anything that seems to have real potential amongst these and other technological developments?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, some people are saying you are going to have to make manmade volcanoes because aerosols have the opposite effect of CO2. They are cooling and spread sulfur dioxide. I don’t know how you would do it. You would just dump it up in the atmosphere, but, wow, that causes a lot of other problems; so once again it’s a Rube Goldberg solution and every possible disaster ensues. It’s like the Cat in the Hat when he tries to clean up a paint spill with something else. It’s just not a good idea to put the mess there to begin with.

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