Elizabeth Kolbert looks beyond inconvenient truths to explore ingenious solutions

In ‘Under A White Sky,’ the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses scientific interventions to stop the effects of climate change

For more than two decades Elizabeth Kolbert has traversed our blue planet to tell the story of the anthropocene—the geologic time period that denotes man’s increased imprint on the natural world. A staff writer at The New Yorker, Kolbert is the author of several books, including the Pulitzer Prize winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

“The problem with global warming—and the reason it continues to resist illustration, even as the streets flood and the forests die, and the mussels rot on the shores—is that experience is an inadequate guide to what’s going on,” Kolbert wrote of Greenland in 2016. In her famously witty prose, paired with trenchant reporting, Kolbert has sought to illustrate the calamitous effects of man-made climate change, from Greenland’s swiftly melting ice sheet, to an acidifying ocean, to the schizophrenic political tenor of America’s climate politics—its manic alarmism and woeful dithering—distilling the discourse of climate change with unmatched clarity and unrivaled alacrity.

Kolbert’s latest book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, is an investigation into man’s efforts to intervene in the natural world, an exploration of possible technological solutions: From saving a sinking Louisiana, to engineering super coral, to a sky blanketed in trillions of aerosols, writing: “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control.” Whether we’ll experience a future of graceful intervention or push further into anthropocenic quagmire, is, as Kolbert tells us, an open-ended question. It’s up to the reader to decide where, if at all, we close the book on human interventions.

Alex Hodor-Lee: After reporting out this book did you see anything that offered a glimpse into restorative intervention? Or are we just digging further into the quagmire?

Elizabeth Kolbert: That’s a super open question, and I leave that question open pretty purposefully—how’s that? The book starts off with interventions that are already going on and are very much in the design phase and moves to the more speculative, let’s put it that way. One very valid response is: I’m really glad these very smart people are thinking about this and working on this. Another very valid response is: oh my god, here we go again.

Alex: You introduce us to a great many number of scientists, researchers, technologists, and engineers who are committed to these interventions, do you have any sense of what drives these people?

Elizabeth: There isn’t a single motive. Some of them are very committed to conservation or solving big problems. Some of them are academics. Some of them are paid by state agencies to do very specific projects. Some people are motivated by this is my job, some people are motivated by this is humanity’s biggest problem, let’s try to solve it. Some people were fooling around with the science; this might be interesting. There were a mix of motives I think.

Alex: And some people are just making food, right?

Elizabeth: To explain to your readers, the first chapter is about how we reversed the flow of the Chicago River back at the turn of the 20th century and that was done for purposes of getting Chicago’s sewage out of Lake Michigan, but it had the unintended consequence of uniting the Great Lakes drainage basin and the Mississippi drainage basin. A big question now that hovers over the waterways are Asian carp, which are not one species but several species. They are making their way through this created wormhole through these two drainage systems and into the Great Lakes.

People are very worried about this because Asian carp are imports, and very voracious feeders. They leap out of the water. They cause a certain amount of havoc. What has been done is that [civil engineers] have electrified part of this waterway to try to keep the carp on one side of the divide but people have the thought, ‘Well, humans are really good at eating things to oblivion, let’s interest humans in eating Asian Carp.’ Even those people who are working on their carp cakes, which I ate and I thought were quite tasty, were motivated by this big problem. ‘Can I, in my own way, as a chef, help solve this problem?’ I felt like everyone I spoke to was trying to solve a problem in their own way.

“I’m not a scientist; so, whenever I go out and report on these concepts that are unfamiliar to me, I have to start from scratch myself.”

Alex: Do you want to explain the title of Under a White Sky?

Elizabeth: [Laughs] Sure, so the title comes from this idea, which has been out there for a long time, almost as long as people have understood that carbon dioxide was warming the Earth. Interestingly enough, one of the first responses people had was to create fake volcanos to counteract the impact of pouring a lot of CO2 into the air. The first person I was able to identify who had come up with this idea was a Russian scientist in the early ‘70s. We could pour sulfur dioxide or some compound into the stratosphere and reflect sunlight back out to space before it hits Earth. And that has a cooling effect. If you were really smart about it, you could get the two to balance out. One of the many, many side effects of doing this, which is called ‘solar geoengineering,’ or ‘solar radiation management,’ if you like the sound of that better, is that it could change the appearance of the sky. Where you’d now expect to see a really bright blue sky on a sunny day, it would have sort of a milky tinge. That’s why I call the book Under a White Sky.

Alex: You once said that climate reporters are routinely accused of focusing on the problem. I’m wondering if you see Under a White Sky as a challenge to that way of thinking or reporting?

Elizabeth: I don’t know if I said that, but okay! [laughs] The problem is easy to document. The problem is news. The problem is fact. Journalism is always focusing on problems in a sense. We focus on what we consider news and people often accuse journalism of being very bad-news focused. And the climate certainly is bad news. Is the book a response to, ‘Oh, you’re just too focused on the bad news?’ In a way, I suppose. And in a way it’s honestly playing with these ideas of solutions. ‘Okay, you want a solution? Here’s a solution. See what you think of this.’

Alex: What are the biggest challenges you find in communicating this complex science to everyday laypeople?

Elizabeth: The big problem is kind of an obvious problem. Some of the science is just not intuitive. Most of us are dealing with the hugely macro, the global climate system, which is incredibly complicated. Take climate science, the fact that pouring a certain amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide—which is present everywhere, which we’re breathing—is essential to life, as the climate denier community likes to point out. But explaining why bumping up the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is going to lead to tremendous change and tremendous damage—that’s not an intuitive thing. People don’t intuitively understand that. It involves black body radiation. I’m not a scientist; so, whenever I go out and report on these concepts that are unfamiliar to me, I have to start from scratch myself.

Alex: A lot of prominent climate writers, it seems, undulate between writer and activist. I’m wondering how you toe that line? It must be so, so difficult, especially in a country like ours, where half the country denies this glaring problem at its premise. How do you resist the temptation towards activism and remain journalistically objective?

Elizabeth: The media landscape is really changing. In part, because we’re such a polarized country, I am sure that the climate denier community considers me a terrible climate activist or whatever. I consider myself, on the other hand, someone who’s just imparting information [laughs]. And I do have an old-school attitude towards journalism, which is, you’re trying to tell stories that people will read. I really do try. I wrote a book on climate change 15 years ago and I really tried, with that book, to write in a way such that, even if you were one of these people who came from a red state and weren’t sure what to believe, you could read it without feeling like you were under attack. Now, did I succeed? Who knows; you put your book out there and you don’t know. Obviously, I didn’t overcome climate denial [laughs]. That would have been a pretty tall order.

“We don’t ask flat Earthers what they think of geography and we shouldn’t ask climate deniers what they think of climate science—it’s completely irrelevant.”

Alex: It seems like the more on course you stay to remain objective and to answer really big questions, the smaller your audience gets these days.

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah. [laughs] There’s a danger there.

Alex: When and why did you start reporting on the climate?

Elizabeth: I covered politics for quite a while. I went to The New Yorker in 1999. I was supposed to revive a column, actually, about City Hall and I did that for a while. The news cycle was really speeding up at that moment, owing to the web basically. One really had to rethink how a weekly like The New Yorker was going to function. It was hard to write about City Hall and the way it had been in this leisurely weeks-after-the-fact sort of way. It got me thinking: what are the big stories that could hold for a week or month and still be the big story? I came to climate change as that story. As you know, once you start looking at climate change and its humongous implications, it’s like a black hole in a way, you sort of get sucked in [laughs]. So here we are 15 years later.

Alex: Early on, when you started writing, climate change was maybe still seen as a debate, especially since the general public lagged behind on the science—it makes me wonder: how has climate reporting changed since you began 15 years ago?

Elizabeth: [In the early 2000’s] some people were still saying, ‘This is the end of the world, the most serious issue we’re faced with,’ but most people were just saying, ‘It’s all overblown.’ It seemed to me, since I was at The New Yorker, I had a great vehicle for trying to solve that problem. And maybe the first five phone calls I made to scientists, they all said, ‘Yeah, this is really huge, there’s no doubt about it. This is basic geophysics.’ And that convinced me to write this series. But there was a very concerted effort on the part of the fossil fuel companies to obscure some pretty basic fundamental Earth science. They did a really good job of convincing journalists and editors that every story on climate change had to have two sides, that there were two sides. Now, are there two sides to, you know, quarks? No. Are there two sides to gravity? Are there two sides to the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun? We don’t ask flat Earthers what they think of geography and we shouldn’t ask climate deniers what they think of climate science—it’s completely irrelevant.

Alex: I’m always awestruck by how much research goes into your writing—historical, academic, literary. What sort of stuff do you read, what’s your informational diet? You’ve got such incredible information metabolism!

Elizabeth: I’m not particularly plugged in, or, wired in. Once again, I’m kind of old school. I had, while I was writing the book, literally a floor just covered with books. So I do really try to read as much as I can on the subject. That includes online, but it also includes going into the archives, as it were, and reading other people’s books—what’s been written about before. I do try to get out into the world. COVID has been a serious problem in that respect, because I don’t think there’s any substitute, unfortunately, in the reporting world for just being there.

Alex: Finally, any advice you’d give to young climate journalists or science journalists?

Elizabeth: [laughs] Do as much reporting and writing as you can. The good thing about the media landscape now is almost anyone can write almost anything and post it somewhere. The bad thing is that journalistic institutions are having a really hard time. Getting the financing to get out there and report is complicated. But wherever you are, there’s a story.

Click here to read Document Journal’s Geoengineering roundtable moderated by Elizabeth Kolbert.