If human activity is killing the planet, can humans devise a solution to save it? This was the question that ran through “The Climate of Attention,” a discussion at Harvard with Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, on November 15. This is also the theme of Kolbert’s latest book, “Under a white sky: the nature of the future.
The Divinity School event, hosted by writer-in-residence Terry Tempest Williams, was part of the “Weather Reports – The Climate of Now” series, a partnership with the Center of the Study of World Religions, Religion and Public Life, and Planetary Health Alliance. It also starred Samuel Myers, director of the Planetary Health Alliance and principal investigator at the TH Chan School of Public Health.
Williams began the conversation by citing the impact of sea level rise and asking, “How do we navigate these waters? “
“Everyone is fighting,” Kolbert said, “even though the struggle is to push back information.” Her goal, she said, is to communicate the truth about what she sees on her pace: climate change. “When I go around the world, I can see what is missing. I can see all the invasive species that are here in New England. I can watch all the ash trees die from the emerald ash borer.
“One of the things that shocks me is the way we move,” said Kolbert, whose 2014 book “The Sixth Extinction” received a Pulitzer Prize. “Not every loss is marked, and I see my role in a large measure as a testimony.”
Williams and Kolbert discussed the Devil’s Hole puppy case, recounted in “Under a White Sky”. Probably “the rarest fish in the world,” according to Kolbert, the 1½-inch-long iridescent blue fish lives only in a heated thermal pool in the Mojave Desert. This pool is fed by an old aquifer which began to be noticeably depleted by human use in the 1960s. Although the Supreme Court sided with environmentalists, the pool and the puppies did not recover and they did not recover. attempts to breed animals in aquariums have failed. In the last answer, conservationists built a replica of Devil’s Hole, down to the shape of the rocks, as a “reservoir” environment. “People started doing all these crazy things to make the fish spawn,” Kolbert said. The results remain uncertain.
Such interventions are now being considered on a global scale, including attempts at geoengineering or solar radiation management to counter global warming. As Kolbert noted, when volcanic eruptions darken the sky, temperatures cool. “The idea is that we could mimic volcanoes and counteract some of the warming,” she said. However, the first experiments to test the equipment have sparked protests and Kolbert is not convinced by the idea of a technical solution. “I put geoengineering in this long line of interventions that have had very mixed effects.”
Part of the problem, Kolbert said, is that there is a big lag in climate change. “We are just feeling what was emitted 20 to 30 years ago,” she said. “Any smart coastal city needs to think about how we’re going to protect ourselves against what we know to be embedded at this point. “
When Myers joined the conversation, he compared humanity to “an ape on a spaceship”. For much of our history, he said, we were just passengers, “running around.” Over time, however, we “made our way to the cockpit and started pulling the levers and turning the dials.” These actions disrupted the flight of the spacecraft. “We have very little time to learn how to fly this rocket before it crashes,” he said.
Kolbert was skeptical. “Do we have the knowledge to do it? ” she asked. “Our record is not good.”
“If we have any hope of going through this moment, it’s a political moment – what we need is not more science, but emotional and spiritual,” Myers said.
To conclude the discussion, Williams asked the two participants about the future and what they say to their own children. Kolbert, whose oldest son studies climate science at Harvard, said she couldn’t tell him anything he didn’t know. “I feel there is a transmission to the next generation,” she added. “The thrill of discovery and the pain of discovery.”
Myers, whose daughters are “just old enough to grab” the crisis, describes a world of possibilities. “I tell them what I tell the students, which is that this is the most interesting time to be a human in the history of our species. There is no skill set that is irrelevant, and you have the ability to make a contribution that hardly anyone has.