On Monday, Elizabeth Kolbert, Class of ’46 Environmental Fellow-in-Residence, participated in a question and answer session with the audience, moderated by Ralph Bradburd, chair of environmental studies at the College.
Kolbert studied literature at Yale and attended the University of Hamburg on a Fulbright Scholarship before writing for The New York Times in Germany. She has also worked for the Metro desk, served as the Albany bureau chief and written the Metro Matters column.
Kolbert’s recent book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, was the Williams Reads book this year. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2015 and focuses on the effect of human action on the planet’s ecosystem through the use of natural history and her reporting in the field.
Kolbert has written Field Notes from a Castastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change and The Prophet of Love: and Other Tales of Power and Deceit. She is the editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009 and won several awards for her three-part series on global warming.
The conversation started with statistical information about carbon emissions. Kolbert stated that when she wrote her first book, CO2 levels were 380 parts per million (ppm). They are now 401.63 ppm, just 10 years later. Kolbert used an animation to show the rise of global temperatures since the 1880s when scientists started recording them.
“Climate change is a driver of extinction,” Kolbert said. She stated that while climate change is not yet a major driver of extinction, it is another way that humans are changing the world.
The conversation then switched to ocean acidification. Bradburd asked why climate change and changes in global temperatures get more attention than ocean acidification despite the fact that Kolbert focused a large portion of her book on this issue.
Kolbert stated that changing the chemistry of the oceans requires the rapid release of CO2 that the world is experiencing now. This has not happened in the past and therefore has no precedent, so people do not see it as a pressing issue.
In the Bay of Naples, there are naturally occurring vents where CO2 bubbles out.
“You see that a lot of the species have dropped out,” Kolbert said.
That could occur throughout oceans if the acidity continues to rise.
The next question asked was how to combat climate change. Kolbert believes one way is through an understanding that nothing can reverse it but that it still needs to be confronted. The other aspect is practical problem solving.
“I certainly hope that this year will be used for both of those,” Kolbert said.
Bradburd believes this will be a matter of personal choice, and people need to ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice to reduce climate change. One example of this is standard of living. Some of the choices include staying at the same level of consumption and energy use but using a new source of energy or altering consumption or accepting a lower standard of living.
“If we don’t change the amount of fossil fuel energy that we as humans use in pursuit of a higher standard of living, we will in fact end up with a lower standard of living,” Bradburd said.
The speakers also discussed the topic of political interference. Kolbert believes that political agendas should dedicate more time should to this issue.
Bradburd believes that it is possible to implement change to renewable energy. Despite that it would take 30 to 35 years and trillions of dollars, he thinks that it will be worth the cost.
One person in the audience asked what animals were being portrayed on the slide show screen. Kolbert answered that most of the species projected were near extinction.
Another student asked for Kolbert’s and Bradburd’s opinions on the Divest Williams movement. Bradburd argued that if the College divested money away from fossil fuels, it would not have much of an impact on fossil fuel companies and could reduce the amount of money in the College endowment by about 0.5 percent, or nearly 10 million dollars a year.
“If we eat down on the endowment, then what we are doing essentially is punishing the students who will come here in the future,” Bradburd said.
He believes that it would be more powerful for students to take a stance about internal changes that can be made within the College.
While Kolbert agreed that a more powerful statement would be to look at change within the campus, she still believes that changing the College’s investment portfolio would be beneficial.
In regards to political change and getting people to understand that climate change is a problem, Kolbert said, “Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it needs to happen pretty soon.”