Words By Catharine Livingston
Photo By Livia Corona
For journalists, the rule is simple: Tell the untold story. Which is why, shortly after the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, Elizabeth Kolbert decided to investigate global warming. "Even as we were warned that the world was getting warmer and warmer, no one seemed to care," says the 46-year-old staff writer for The New Yorker. "I thought, either this is a really big deal--in which case it's being horrifically under-covered--or it isn't, in which case we could forget about it."
Since then, Kolbert has carefully exposed the facts of climate change--that carbon dioxide levels are approaching those of prehistoric days, that the Arctic ice cap has a good chance of disappearing by the end of this century, and that the world is, without a doubt, getting problematically warmer--in articles like "The Climate of Man" for The New Yorker and one book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her reporting has taken her from the messy New York City office of a leading climate modeler to the tiny Alaskan village of Shishmaref, and has earned her a science journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Until a few years ago, most media outlets shied away from climate change--in part due to a concern that the science simply wasn't in it, and because bad environmental news was thought of as too depressing. Kolbert quickly learned that the vast majority of scientists had arrived at a consensus: that our world had already begun to change. Her reporting takes readers to the front lines of climate science. "People are doing fascinating things and they've made fascinating discoveries," she says. Like the glaciologists drilling a five-inch-wide, 10,000-foot-deep hole in the Arctic ice cap whom she profiled in her 2002 article on climate history, "Ice Memory." Or the paleoclimatologist featured in her three-part series in 2005, "The Climate of Man," who counts the bodies of dead plankton. "One thing I've tried to secure is science writing as opposed to environmental writing."
Kolbert's journalism career began at The New York Times, where she started as a copy girl shortly after college, sorting the mail and answering phones. She stayed at the paper for 14 years, and ended up covering state politics, before joining The New Yorker in 1999. Without a set beat, Kolbert gravitated toward environmental stories, and has since devoted much of her writing to climate change and topics such as the mysterious disappearance of honeybees.
For a recent New Yorker article, Kolbert raised a hive of bees in her back yard, hoping to better understand the causes of the mysterious disappearance of the insects across the country.
Thanks in part to her reporting, Kolbert is now one of many journalists covering the signs and causes of our changing climate. But while public awareness has certainly increased, she's not convinced it has been met with a will to action on a grand scale. "People still think, 'Oh, it'll get warmer, maybe we'll get more hurricanes, but we'll basically carry on as before.' I don't think they realize that we're taking the climate somewhere it hasn't been for millions and millions of years."
It's hard to avoid sounding alarmist when you're talking about potentially cataclysmic events. The last line of "Climate of Man" reads: "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing." Kolbert says she agonized over such a stark assessment, but in the end decided it wasn't worth glossing over the truth. "The point of the whole series was: No! Global warming will not happen slowly. It could happen very fast."
In the end, Kolbert suggests, the solution to global climate change will require more than the sacrifices of individuals. "You just don't solve a problem of this magnitude by everybody chipping in," says Kolbert. "We need to elect someone who's going to do something."
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