Climate Change Conundrum

By Mary Grauerholz

In researching her new book, The Sixth Extinction, author Elizabeth Kolbert traveled to the Andes, Africa, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia to examine the real-time impacts that humans are having on this planet.

A conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert on the subject of the health of our planet.


The world is in serious crisis. Rising sea levels, destruction of habitat, loss of farmland, and a host of other outcomes of climate change are destroying the earth’s ecology and could destroy its most dangerous interloper, homo sapiens.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, has devoted years of travel, research, and writing to the situation and what we can do to get back on course. Kolbert will bring her message as a Master Series speaker to the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, on Thursday, November 19, in her talk, “The Sixth Extinction.”

In a telephone interview from her western Massachusetts home, Kolbert says she will explore how fossil fuels and rising CO2 levels are brewing disaster with the climate. But, as she explains, that will be just a piece of her message to the green building community.

“The world that we inherited is really a world that has been evolving since the last major extinction 66 million years ago,” Kolbert says. “By causing this extinction, we’re undoing that; we’re unraveling this very complicated web of life. Predicted results include shorter food chains and ecosystems that are much less rich.”

Kolbert says her Greenbuild talk will explore the many ways in which we are bringing about this extinction event. “Unfortunately, it is not limited to climate change,” she says, which was the subject of her previous book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. There is also acidification of oceans, which Kolbert has called “the evil twin of climate change”; land conversion and introduced species, defined as those that are living outside their native range due to human activity.

The Sixth Extinction, which took the author to rainforest jungles, mountain ranges, and typical American backyards, details the world’s first five extinctions. A “sixth extinction” would be a game-changer, a human-driven extinction of a variety of plants and animals.

In the book, Kolbert details the damage that already has been done, including the near extinction of the Panamanian golden frog. “Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Kolbert writes. “But also heading toward extinction are one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and sixth of all birds.”

She expects her Greenbuild talk to push attendees beyond typical discussions of climate change, although whether U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) members should be doing anything differently in their work is another matter. “That’s a good question,” Kolbert says. “I don’t claim to be an expert on green building practices. I’ll ask people to think about this constellation of issues, as opposed to just focusing on climate change. Unfortunately, we need to be thinking of all these issues, which is a big ask.”

Kolbert’s work has brought her into close contact with the world’s political figures with the clout to push environmental change. The 21st COP (Conference of the Parties), an international climate conference, will be held in Paris beginning November 30, on the heels of Greenbuild. The conference is being promoted as a historic event—Kolbert quotes Fatih Birol, the incoming director of the International Energy Agency, who called it “our last hope.” Kolbert realizes how dire the words sound.

“I think that when people say ‘our last hope,’ they mean we really need to curb emissions downward if we’re going to avoid some of the very worst effects,” Kolbert says. “We really don’t know where the border is, the threshold. If we can’t bend that curve—if it keeps going up, up, up—we’re locking in more and more damage. This situation is pretty serious; I can’t overstate that. But there’s not a point at which it wouldn’t still be smart to change things.”

Scientists have commonly thought that limiting the average global surface temperature increase of 2°C (3.6°F) would be adequate to avoid dangerous climate change. But there is a question, Kolbert says, as to whether we have already reached that limit.

“Are we going to lock in massive changes that cause mass migrations of people, that are very destabilizing for the world? There are 7.3 billion people in the world today. Everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs a place to live. If you really start to mess with where people can raise crops and live, you’re obviously creating a recipe for disaster.”

The Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Kolbert says ambivalence about climate change in the general public has many sources. “I definitely feel there is a disconnect,” she says. “There’s a constellation of reasons. There have been purposeful disinformation campaigns. A lot of people don’t want to believe it.”

The last chapter of The Sixth Extinction is titled “The Thing with Feathers,” a reference to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.” Having hope is human, and Kolbert lauds the many people who are environmentally conscious and want to create change. At home, she is used to talking about the subject with her three sons, a 21-year-old and 16-year-old twins. “They’ve really grown up with this issue,” Kolbert says. “I think this has sort of been a part of their childhood, for better or worse.” When people in the public ask her what they can do to help, the first place she points is to government.

“You really need to become active politically,” she says. “If people organize politically, then that will make a difference. It means getting candidates to pay attention to these issues. I urge people to get out and vote, to run for office themselves, or anything in between. People need to understand the issues and write their congressman.”

“In almost every municipality there are issues and debates,” Kolbert continues, including environmental topics and utility law questions. “As everybody knows,” she adds, “there’s a lot of money on the other side.”