Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert

The award-winning journalist unpacks her new text on the state of our planet, The Sixth Extinction.

Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999, with bylines that include political profiles, book reviews and comment pieces. She's written extensively on climate change and won several awards for her three-part series on global warming, “The Climate of Man.” She previously worked for The New York Times, where she was a stringer based in Germany, a political and media reporter and Albany bureau chief. Kolbert also studied at the Universität Hamburg in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship. The author of several books, her latest, The Sixth Extinction, is an account of how humans are causing mass disappearances around the globe.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: There have been five epochs where catastrophic events have wiped out life on Earth. The fifth extinction, which scientists suspect was caused by an asteroid, wiped out the dinosaurs.

Now, best-selling author Elizabeth Kolbert, who covers the environment for “The New Yorker,” says we’re living in the middle of another mass extinction; this one, though, caused by human activity.

Her tome is called “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” and is the result of years of research. Elizabeth, good to have you on this program.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: Let me start at what might be, and maybe not so much, an unlikely place, which is this notion of why there is still so much debate. You’ve got scientists, you have researchers, you have best-selling texts about the reality of what we’re enduring today.

Yet on Capitol Hill and beyond, because this obviously connects to the politics of our time, there’s still so much debate about it. And depending on what point of view one wants to hear, one can find a congressman, a senator, a president, that will support your point of view.

Kolbert: Well in the scientific world, as you say, there is virtually no debate over certain things. For example, that we are changing the world. Humans are changing the world very radically, very dramatically. Climate change, which I assume is one of the points you’re alluding to, is at the heart of this.

It’s not the only way we’re changing the planet, but it’s a major way we’re changing the planet. In the scientific world, you just don’t find anyone to debate that. Carbon dioxide’s a greenhouse gas; it has the property of warming the planet.

But why we’re still debating this on a political level seems that it’s very – to quote Vice President Al Gore, it’s inconvenient. It’s politically inconvenient for us to acknowledge this, because a lot of changes would be necessary.

As soon as you acknowledge that we’re changing the planet on this scale, that it has very potentially massive repercussions and very damaging repercussions, then the next question is okay, what are we going to do about it?

There are a lot of vested interests, obviously, that prefer things the way they are, and I think that’s pretty clearly why we’re having this debate.

Tavis: I’ll come back to -

Kolbert: “Debate.” I’m going to use that in quotes. Okay.

Tavis: Yeah, in quotes, I got you, yeah. We’ll come back to the science which is at the heart of your text in just a second here, but I want to stick with this first point here about the politics, because it seems to me that with all the work that you’ve done and all the work that others have done to make clear what the science is telling us.

If we cannot, in the realm of the body politic, make the research come to life – that is, to have a real debate on the floor of the House or the Senate, have a real debate inside the White House about what we’re going to do about this, then what does it really matter?

I guess my question is you’ve done all the work here, (laughter) but if people don’t take it seriously, what difference does it make?

Kolbert: Well you’ve really cut to the heart – you really know how to hurt a girl. (Laughter) Yeah, you cut to the heart of the matter, and I want to say that one of the reasons that I wrote this book was precisely to try to put the information in front of people.

That’s all, as a journalist, that you can really do, and to tell it, I hope, in a way – there are a lot of stories there, I went, as you said, I traveled really to amazing places. I went to the Great Barrier Reef, I went to the Amazon, I went to the Andes, to try to bring people stories of sort of what’s going on out in the world and bring this issue alive, in a way, and put it out there.

Beyond that, in terms of – as you say, many people have tried to bring this to the public’s attention, and the politics seem to be stuck. So we’re still, to a certain extent, at loggerheads over this, and the only thing that I feel I can do as a journalist is put it out there.

Tavis: So let me make you feel a little better now -

Kolbert: Okay, good.

Tavis: – by hitting you in your sweet spot. So you traveled the world. What’s the through-line for what you saw no matter where you went?

Kolbert: Well that’s one of the interesting things about – I went to really some of the most remote places that a person can get to, and everywhere that I was going, I was going out with scientists, very dedicated scientists, schlepped, as I say, to the Andes and into the Amazon.

Everywhere that we were going, people were looking, these scientists were looking at human impact. So in some cases, for example, when I was on the Great Barrier Reef it was with a group of scientists who were studying the impact of what our carbon emissions are doing to the oceans.

Because what’s sometimes called global warming’s equally evil twin, as you know, is that a lot of our carbon emissions are ending up in the oceans, and they’re changing ocean chemistry.

For example, the Great Barrier Reef has lost something like 50 percent of its coral cover just in the last 30 years.

Tavis: When you subtitle the book “An Unnatural History,” that in and of itself gets a debate going about whether or not this is natural or whether or not it’s unnatural. Obviously, you think it’s unnatural. Tell me why you chose that as a subtitle.

Kolbert: Well it’s sort of a bit of a play on words, I guess. But one of the key questions of the book and of our time, and ever since Darwin, I guess you could say, is where do humans fit into the natural order?

For a long time, science has gone in the direction of sort of putting people in their place. We learned that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth, the Earth revolves around the sun; we learned that we’re just another species, evolved, like all other species, so we’re just another animal, really.

But part of the point of my book is really to get people to push things back the other way and say yes, we’re just another species, but we’re a very, very unusual species.

We turn out to be really unusual, not just in our time, but when you look over the real expanse of geological history, we turn out to be a very unusual force – a force not unlike an asteroid.

Tavis: That makes us unusual; it doesn’t necessarily make us special. Is there a point there?

Kolbert: Yeah, it’s a very interesting point, exactly. We have, as it turns out, largely without intending it – that’s another theme of the book, largely without intending it, we’re changing the world.

When you drive to the grocery store, your intention is not to change the world, it just happens to have that impact. So we’ve done a lot of things without even realizing it, and yes, just being unusual, as you say, does not put you above, in a sense, any of the other organisms with whom we share this planet.

Tavis: How much of what you saw convinced you, to the extent that it did, that the damage that’s already been done is irreparable?

Kolbert: Well as the saying goes, extinction is forever. Even in the course of four or five years of researching this book, I saw animals – for example, these remarkable frogs from the tropics, I saw some of them, and they are not here anymore.

You cannot find any of them anymore, so they are extinct. There’s no going back from that. There’s no reversing the clock on that. Now can we minimize our impacts? Absolutely.

There are a lot of things that we could do to minimize what we’re doing, but we’re not getting back those frogs that I saw that no longer exist.

Tavis: Give me some sense of the scale that it would take vis-à-vis our commitment, our engagement, to turn the clock back on what you lay out in the text that’s already happening.

Kolbert: Well to take climate change, as I say, as a central example, because I do talk about a couple different phenomena in the book, ways that we’re changing the world that are not climate change.

But people sometimes say we need to be really almost on a wartime footing if you want to change. Our whole economy is based on burning fossil fuels, which is taking CO2 out of the ground and putting it up into the air.

That’s what we’re doing. If you want to change that, you have to really, really concentrate on it, and everything has to go in the right direction. So one of the reasons that people, many people, many environmentalists are critical of President Obama’s policies towards global warming is on the one hand he says the right things and he says he’s committed to trying to reduce our current emissions.

But on the other hand he’s been promoting a lot of oil drilling, gas drilling, that tends to increase our carbon emissions. So you’ve got to do everything, everything’s got to be pointing in the same direction and you’ve got to really turn this whole economic engine from one that’s based on fossil fuels to one that isn’t.

That’s a massive undertaking, and we need to be starting not now, last year, basically.

Tavis: So Barack Obama, to your point, Elizabeth, might be saying more stuff that environmentalists want to hear as compared to, say, a guy like George W. Bush, but whether the president is a Republican or Democrat – I think it was Calvin Coolidge, speaking of presidents, who once said that the business of America is business.

So again, whether the occupant of the Oval Office is a Republican or Democrat, we get this pabulum, oftentimes. Not a whole lot happens, which leads me to this question: How much of this sixth extinction will have to be blamed on the business of America?

Kolbert: Well that’s a really good question. One of the points I make in the book is we’ve actually sort of been at this world-altering project for quite a long time, and that includes when humans arrived in the Hawaiian islands 1,500 years ago.

A lot of the native fauna was destroyed by rats they brought along, for example. So it’s nothing that we just woke up in with modern American industrial society said okay, now we’re going to start really changing the planet.

But it’s really, really ramped up, obviously, with industrialization, and as you say, we in this country are at the forefront of that. So it’s going to, but it is certainly at this point a project that most people on the globe are part of, and it’s going to take massive, massive, global scale change.

That’s another problem that we face, which is even a lot of blame game going on. What are the Chinese doing, what are we doing, what are – so we need, both the developed world and the developing world, really need to be moving, once again, getting all your arrows in the same direction if you want to have any impact.

Tavis: The industrialized nations of the world are doing the lion’s share of the damage, and these developing nations, as you put it, every time there’s a conference, an international conference, they’re pointing their finger and they’re saying hey, USA, hey, China, you all are making all the rest of us suffer.

Kolbert: Right, yes.

Tavis: Say a bit about the damage that we’re causing not just to the environment, not just to the planet, but how so much of this is, in fact, on us as compared to these developing nations.

Kolbert: Well absolutely. If you look at – there are charts, I should have brought along one of these charts that look at how much CO2 the average American puts into the atmosphere – let’s say it’s up here – and how much the average Ethiopian is putting up into the – there, it’s like that.

Then you look at okay, what are the consequences of climate change going to be? They are going to be potentially most severe for those people who have contributed the least.

So the issue of global justice here is very, very intense. It hangs over all of these global climate talks. It’s one of the many reasons we don’t seem to many any progress. Increasingly developing countries are asking for aid to help deal with the consequences of climate change, which we don’t want to give.

We’re still, as you say, debating in the Congress whether climate change is taking place; meanwhile, increasing numbers of people are feeling it very strongly in their own lives.

Tavis: It’s just fascinating to me when you think about it that whether we want to hear this or not, we may end up killing off the rest of the world without a tank, without a drone, but because of the way we maltreat the environment.

Mention just two other things right quick, two other ways that we are causing the world to move closer to extinction beyond climate change.

Kolbert: One of the things we’re doing is we’re moving a lot of things around the planet. So for example there are estimates that in ballast water of our supertankers, something like 10,000 species are moving around the planet every day.

When you think about it, that has the effect of bringing the continents together, all these creatures that evolved separately for tens of millions of years. We can bring them together overnight, and in the case, for example, of frogs in the tropics, many of these species, some of these species that I mentioned that are now no longer with us were killed off by a fungal disease that was moved around the planet by people.

So that’s one way we’re changing the planet that’s not climate change. Another way that people are very familiar with, obviously, is we’re just mowing down forests. We’re fragmenting the landscape.

You’re an animal that needs to move across the landscape, you can’t anymore, and that’s another way we’re just changing the surface of the Earth in very dramatic ways.

Tavis: It may be the best book written about these matters in quite some time. It’s called “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” written by Elizabeth Kolbert, who covers these matters for “The New Yorker” magazine. Elizabeth, thanks for the text, and good to have you on the program.

Kolbert: Thanks a lot.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 20, 2014 at 8:46 pm