Elizabeth Kolbert addresses the crowd at the Quarry Amphitheater. Photos by Crystal Birns.
Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist and bestselling author Elizabeth Kolbert offered no simplistic solutions to the climate crisis during her on-stage discussion with New York Times columnist, podcaster and UCSC alumnus Ezra Klein this weekend at the Quarry Amphitheater.
If anything, Kolbert’s talk, the culminating event of this year’s fourth annual Deep Read initiative – an annual program of The Humanities Institute at UCSC – served as a strong and sobering corrective to anyone who over-promised about remedies ranging from “electrified rivers” to the use of invasive creatures such as cane toads and Asian carp to solve environmental crises without the use of pesticides that harm wildlife.
Instead of providing empty platitudes, Kolbert, author of Under A White Sky: The Nature Of The Future, encouraged the crowd at the Quarry Amphitheater to work for solutions with a combination of wisdom and humility while considering the unintended consequences of even the most well-intentioned efforts to address climate change.
Under A White Sky, in Kolbert’s words, is “about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”
Ezra Klein (right) interviewing Kolbert as part of the culminating Deep Read presentation for 2023.
Much of the book hinges on the stories of scientists who believe they have no choice but meddle in nature to reverse the unforeseen consequences of previous meddling.
The trouble is that this counter-meddling, no matter how complex, far-ranging and expensive, can create even more problems that demand more remedies, creating an endless cycle of accidental harm and harm abatement.
And yet, as Kolbert states in her book, many of the people she interviews also believe that doing nothing can also have a devastating impact. Many of the scientists in Under A White Sky believe the world has been altered to the point where humans have no choice but try to manage the catastrophe they’ve created.
The book gets its title from an emerging technology called solar geoengineering, a highly controversial proposed method of cooling the planet and reflecting the sun’s rays by seeding sulfate particles into the stratosphere, a method that could turn the skies from blue to white in the process.
The audience of Deep Readers filled the Quarry Amphitheater on Sunday.
Kolbert and Klein also discussed the delicate issue of stakeholder engagement in regard to the use of solar geoengineering. Who should be included in conversations regarding the wisdom of using it? This is an issue that UCSC associate professor of environmental studies Sikina Jinna, an environmental governance expert, has studied in detail, while calling for a “broad and inclusive process” for planetary decision-making.
One of Under A White Sky’s most memorable passages comes from Andy Parker, project director of the Solar Radiation Management Initiative, who says, “We live in a world, where deliberately dimming the (expletive) sun might be less risky than not doing it.” Klein told Kolbert that “this is one of my favorite quotes of all time.” Whether or not the audience agreed that solar geoengineering is a good idea, Parker’s quote speaks to the hubris and foolishness of the human race and the mess it is in, Klein said.
At times the book is darkly comic in the way it delves into strange and counterintuitive solutions to climate catastrophe. But the book is also full of stories about people who are passionate about their work and sincere in their efforts to solve intractable problems.
Considering the fate of coral reefs
Kolbert said the writing and research of this book began when she went to Hawaii and spoke with marine biologist Ruth Gates, widely recognized for her research into increasing the resilience of coral reefs.
Gates, who died suddenly in 2018, focused on developing “super corals” that could resist bleaching and other environmental impacts.
“Her words set me on this whole journey, and I often think about them,” Kolbert said. “At the time, super corals were very controversial – this idea that we screwed up the ocean so much that we have to intervene if we want reefs. A lot of people said, you weren’t getting reefs back if you had to manipulate them. Reefs are just huge. They are whole ecosystems. But her point was, we don’t have any choice, we are in this too far. I don’t know if she had the answer but she asked an important question.”
Klein asked Kolbert about humanity’s tendency to categorize itself apart from nature at a time when the boundaries between ‘natural’ and human processes and impacts are blurred. In response, Kolbert said that human beings diverged from the rest of the natural realm when it began to use technologies that could change entire landscapes, including weapons.
Even in ancient times, peoples hunted animals to extinction, Kolbert said. Humans are also prime drivers of ‘speciation,’ the practice of moving species all across the earth, including rats.
She also talked about the complications of solutions that may seem natural but have enormous consequences of their own. “I don’t know if we can get out of that cycle,” she said. “Think of all the mining we have to do for electric cars, all the rare-earth minerals.”