A Reporter’s Field Notes on the Coverage of Climate Change

For nearly a decade, The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert has been reporting on climate change. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, she talked about the responsibility of both the media and scientists to better inform the public about the realities of a warming world.

As a journalist, Elizabeth Kolbert has played a major role in trying to bring the issue of climate change to the attention of the U.S. public. Her award-winning series on climate change in The New Yorker in 2005 became the basis for her influential book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, and she has traveled from Greenland to Alaska to the Netherlands reporting on the emerging impacts of global warming.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Kolbert discussed a wide range of issues: how the media and scientists are both responsible for the lack of public understanding on climate change; the Obama administration’s chances of passing climate-related legislation; and the prospects of geoengineering the planet to mitigate the effects of warming. On whether there is a moral or ethical dimension to this issue, she observed, “It seems to me that if there’s not a moral dimension to potentially leaving a totally impoverished planet to future generations, all future generations, I don’t know what would be.”

Yale Environment 360: Surveys show that most Americans don’t actually know that much about climate change and don’t consider it much of a priority in terms of issues that need action or attention. Why do you think that’s true? And related to that, how good a job has the media done in conveying the issue to the public?

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert: I think the reason it doesn’t register in the polls is partly just due to the nature of the problem. I mean, if you look at polls, you see right now, for example, that obviously the economy is just through the roof. So whatever is going on at that particular moment that is really affecting people’s lives, that’s what ranks high in the polls. And climate change has often been described as a slow-moving catastrophe, and it’s precisely the kind of issue that once you actually really feel the dire effects in your own life, then it’s way too late. That’s what the science tells us and what scientists have been telling us for 25 years now really. So it’s a very, very difficult problem for the political system to deal with.

I went to interview John McCain, and he made this point. He was very honest and it was back in the straight-talking John McCain days, where he said, “It’s very unclear whether our political system can deal with a problem like this because usually we wait for a crisis and then we deal with the crisis, and that’s just not the way climate change works. You can’t deal with it once the crisis hits.”

I think that’s one of the reasons that it doesn’t register very high in polls as a concern — it’s just not in people’s faces all the time right now. So it really is the obligation, you could argue, of the media and also of the political system, to put it there. And the political system has been very consciously ignoring the problem for a long time now, eight years of really trying to suppress discussion of climate change and reports about climate change. So I think that also contributes to the public sense of “I don’t have to worry about that,” because they’re not hearing people talking about it in Washington. And now that is changing to a certain extent.

I think that the media has contributed to the general sense of it not being an urgent problem because it’s not the lead story of the paper every day. It’s a very hard issue for the media to deal with precisely because the news business is about news — it’s about something that happened yesterday. And global warming is just happening all around us all the time, and it’s going to continue to happen and it doesn’t present itself as news very often.

e360: But why has the media not done more to get it out there? Is it more than just the headline issue?

Kolbert: Well, look, the Australians are now having a terrible heat wave, and they’re having a terrible drought. And it’s just generally agreed that they’re having a long-term drought, and that this is climate change, a climate change signal. They’re really in dire straits. They have no water in parts of the country that used to be significant agricultural areas, the Murray-Darling Basin. And it has woken the Australians up pretty quickly, and there’s a lot of coverage on climate change issues if you are reading the Australian media.

So unfortunately, I think it does take something that’s very, very palpable, really affecting people’s lives. And as I say, precisely the message that scientists have been trying to give us is, do not wait until that drought hits you, because that’s too late.

e360: You did your series in The New Yorker on global warming in 2005 and that became the basis of your book Field Notes From a Catastrophe. But you had actually been writing about global warming even before that series. How was it that you, who came not out of the history of writing about environmental issues but had written about New York politics, how was it you came to focus on this issue?

Kolbert: I just really was interested in it and thought that even I, who read the papers every day, didn’t really have a very clear sense of what was going on. Even at that point, it was basically 12 years or whatever after [NASA’s] Jim Hansen had announced that we can see evidence of global warming. He was 99 percent sure that we were seeing global warming happening. But we were just sort of in this fog. Nothing was happening. It wasn’t really being talked about. And so, in part to satisfy my own interest of what was going on, I set out to write a piece.

e360: What was the first story you did on global warming?

Kolbert: Well, a couple of years earlier, I had gone up to an ice-coring operation in the middle of Greenland, which was a very, very eye-opening experience. It’s now become sort of a standard line in global warming coverage to note that we’re seeing the beginnings of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise sea levels by 20 feet. And it seems perplexing if you’ve never seen the ice sheet, because like, what could raise sea levels globally by 20 feet? When you actually stand on top of almost 11,000 feet of ice, it becomes more comprehensible. It’s such an amazing place, and you realize how startling the world is and how very contingent and fragile the conditions that we live under are.

There’s a lot of water locked up in that ice sheet. That’s a function of having been through an Ice Age not that long ago in geological terms, and we’re sort of still living off of the ends of that Ice Age. And if you start pushing things too far in one direction, you’re going to change the planet very, very radically. And it really struck me in ways that I hadn’t really comprehended before when I went up to the top of the ice sheet. So that had a big effect on me. It’s still one of my favorite places in the world, just to be on top of the Greenland ice sheet.

e360: We’ve talked about journalists and generally the challenges in conveying this issue to the public. But what about scientists? I mean, scientists have a responsibility to get their information out to the public whether it’s through the media or through their own writings and work. How good a job do you think they have done in conveying this whole issue?

Kolbert: Oh, I don’t think they’ve done a good job. They have some of the same problems that journalists have, which is that scientists are interested in introducing something new in their work. They want new results, new information. They want to break new ground. They need to do that to get funding, really. And global warming, the fact that global warming is happening, that is really old news in scientific circles. It’s just a settled question in scientific circles. So scientists moved on to other issues having to do with climate change”.

e360: But not whether it exists?

Kolbert: No, absolutely not. That would be considered — you’d just be laughed at in a scientific discussion. But that message really never reached the public, and you could argue that that’s the journalists’ fault, and I do fault journalists for that. But I also fault scientists because they sort of have just left things to the journalists. And now that we’ve sort of moved to a new stage of the debate, a policy debate, they’re not going to be involved in that either. They’re going to leave that to the economists or to the political scientists.

And I think that’s a big mistake because when you read a lot of economic analyses of climate change, you are struck with a very worrisome sense that the economists don’t understand the science, don’t appreciate the gravity of the situation. And they don’t seem to be factoring in the notion of we’re not talking here about small, inconvenient changes that are not worth changing our lifestyle to avoid. We’re talking about a desolate planet, not really in that long a time, okay?

In terms of generations that we will touch, certainly our grandchildren will be facing a very, very bleak future if we just sit on our hands for not that much longer. So I really urge scientists to make their voices heard, and I think there’s a certain moral urgency to that — and I think some scientists feel that way.

e360: There have been scientists who have been out there — James Hansen, most publicly and most notably — trying to get the message out in every way they can. But when this message does get out, there is some public reaction that these scientists are like Chicken Little — you know, the sky is falling.

Kolbert: Right.

e360: If you turn on the TV news, the weathermen are making global warming jokes, saying, “This isn’t global warming. Hey, who said anything about global warming? It’s cold today.” There’s still this reaction, even when the facts are presented to them.

Kolbert: Absolutely. This is a total system failure, okay? We’re not talking about an isolated little problem, and that’s the problem. It’s a total system failure that we’re in this situation and it’s a total system failure that we can’t seem to steer away even when the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that we better do something.

It gets back to this issue of whether the public believes in science, which, to be honest, we do not. You can still find a lot of people who don’t believe in evolution, okay? So we’re talking about a country that has a very lax relationship to science. And what you need in order to grapple meaningfully with global warming is to believe that this is not a speculative thing. This is the way geophysics work, and we have established that very clearly both in a laboratory setting and on the ground — and we need to take very seriously these predictions.

I mean, Freeman Dyson has done a tremendous amount of damage saying, “I don’t believe models. We can’t model this.” Well, we actually can model it very accurately, it turns out. And we’re talking about very fundamental science. It’s not a very complicated science. And so when you have people like that out there sort of blowing smoke, really, I would say, it is hard for the public to know what to do. So I think scientists need to try to convey how virtually unanimous this consensus is, because otherwise people will just believe that the science is fuzzy or foggy.

e360: Well, we now have a new administration that certainly has come into office with very different ideas about this issue and the urgency of dealing with it than the previous administration. What do you see as the prospects for some real meaningful action on climate change by the U.S. and by the world community?

Kolbert: Well, I think it’s going to be really hard. I think Obama’s platform was very ambitious. He has a good plan put together by good people, but to translate that into a legislative action is going to be very, very difficult because of the way that our system can be held hostage by a minority. My fear is that in order to get something through Congress, it will be so watered down as to be meaningless.

But Obama has a lot of people around him who know a lot more than I do about climate change and are very passionately concerned about this issue and know what needs to be done to have a meaningful effect. So we’ll see whether they can prevent that sort of inevitable watering down.

e360: What is it that the U.S. needs to do that shouldn’t be watered down?

Kolbert: What the U.S. needs to do — and it’s like so simple as to be almost laughable — is it needs to start bringing its emissions down. We just need to do that virtually immediately, and we need some intermediate targets, and we need some long-term targets. Obama’s long-term target was 2050 — that’s when we’re going to have an 80 percent reduction in CO2. Well, you can’t get that all in 2045. You need to start yesterday”.

If we start on a downward trajectory, we will be doing the right thing. We need to start turning this line that’s sloping upward — it needs to peak tomorrow and then start turning downward. And if we did that, or if you’ve just committed to doing that, we would send a very strong signal to the world that a new era genuinely was beginning. You can yak all you want about green jobs, about green stimulus, blah-blah-blah. But until you actually turn emissions down, it’s pretty meaningless.

e360: Do you think that there is a moral and ethical dimension to the issue of climate change?

Kolbert: Yeah. Well, I’m no moral philosopher, but it seems to me in that if there’s not a moral dimension to potentially leaving a totally impoverished planet to future generations, all future generations, I don’t know what would be.

These are changes that last thousands of years. They’re not things that you could turn around. What we’ve done to the oceans, for example, in terms of adding CO2 or, really, carbonic acid to the oceans, changing the chemistry of the oceans. That is irreversible for on the order of 10,000 years, okay? So we’re talking about, basically, for all intents and purposes, forever… What is our ethical obligation if not to hand off a planet that’s habitable? I can’t really see a higher ethical obligation.

e360: There’s increasing talk recently about the need to proceed with adaptation strategies to find ways to geoengineer or manipulate things on Earth to compensate or reduce the impact of climate change. What do you think about that and the prospects of that?

Kolbert: Well, I think that you do hear more and more conversation about geoengineering, absolutely. A lot of people are thinking about it, but I have personally yet to hear a credible sort of scheme. All these things so far that people have come up with have significant damaging properties of their own. What you’re talking about, you’re talking about trying to block sunlight basically. You’re literally talking about trying to have less sunlight reach the Earth. That’s pretty serious. And then you have to think about if you keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere, then you have to block more and more sunlight, so eventually it really gets pretty ugly.

I think that some emergency measures will have to be taken to, for example, prevent Greenland from melting. But it has to be in concert with bringing emissions down, because otherwise you’re just in this kind of arms race of combating more and more CO2. You’re forcing the climate in one direction basically, and then you have to force it back in another direction. It sort of comes to this game of tug-of-war, and you could see how that would really get out of control.

And I should also point out that there’s a U.N. treaty that prevents us from screwing around with the weather, and there are a lot of international impediments. You can’t just go up there, one country, and shoot something into the upper atmosphere that will have a global effect. You need international cooperation on that too. And it seems like the fact that we’re willing to contemplate these things as opposed to taking the steps we already know how to do to reduce CO2 emissions — which have to do with such simple things as mass transit systems — that we’d rather totally change the atmosphere in a new way strikes me as kind of this techno dream we’ve been living in for a hundred years now or whatever. And it seems to me this is like a bad science-fiction story, and you kind of know where that one’s going to end.

e360: You’ve covered the science of this, covered the politics of it. How optimistic are you that we’re going to actually do what needs to be done to deal with this?

Kolbert: Well, I’m not at all optimistic. I do see a lot of energy in Washington from very smart and committed people, so that’s a very helpful sign. But I don’t see any sign as a society that we’re really willing to do what needs to be done.

That being said, I think that people surprise you, and I’m hoping to be surprised. I mean, I was one of those people who was pessimistic about Obama, the prospect of electing a black president seemed to be not that plausible, and here we are today. So things do happen that surprise you. And I’m hoping to be surprised over the next four years and to see some really serious legislative action.