Notes on nature

World traveler, journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert brings her observations on climate change to Chico

IN THE FIELD <br>Elizabeth Kolbert traveled extensively for a three-part New Yorker series on climate change. Her experiences and research evolved into a book heralded as being palatable for the masses.

Elizabeth Kolbert traveled extensively for a three-part New Yorker series on climate change. Her experiences and research evolved into a book heralded as being palatable for the masses.


Engaging visit: Environmental author Elizabeth Kolbert is speaking at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Wednesday (March 11) at 7:30 p.m. Her appearance is part of the On the Creek lecture series, sponsored by the College of Natural Sciences and the annual Rawlins Environmental Lecture series. Chico Performances tickets ($15 adult, $13 senior, $10 student/child) are available at the University Box Office (898-6333)

The 2006 publishing of her acclaimed, groundbreaking book, Field Notes From a Catastrophe—Man, Nature, and Climate Change, helped cement author Elizabeth Kolbert’s reputation as the kind of communicator who can take the often difficult-to-understand, scientific facts about global warming and transform them into highly readable stories indicating why the average person should be concerned.

Kolbert (pronounced just the way it looks, not as in Stephen Colbert) is a former New York Times political reporter who currently writes for The New Yorker. It was a three-part series she did for the latter publication on her investigations into global warming that evolved into Field Notes.

She traveled around the world—to Alaska; Greenland; Iceland; the Netherlands; Yorkshire, England; and Eugene, Ore.,— talking with local scientists and local citizens, and observing telling details such as the people moving from the tiny Alaskan island town of Shishmaref because the steadily melting sea ice ceased to protect them from storms that were carrying their houses away.

On Wednesday (March 11), she will bring her observations on global warming to Chico State as part of the university’s On the Creek lecture series.

Reached recently by phone at her home in Massachusetts, Kolbert, when asked if she has seen any changes, either positive or negative, in global warming since the publication of Field Notes, answered that “the only change is toward more observable and extensive change”—in other words, global warming is increasing.

“The whole Arctic ice cap is disappearing,” offered Kolbert, an articulate, easy-to-engage woman who doesn’t pad her conversation with umms. “It’s frightening data. It’s undeniable. It’s very, very striking. The only real change [in the last three years concerning global warming] is that it is accelerating. There’s absolutely no good news.”

Greater and greater carbon emissions over the past few years from the United States and China (which last year, Kolbert said, surpassed the United Sates in carbon emissions, from everything from factories to fireplaces) are responsible for causing a rate of global warming that she said is “much faster than expected.”

“It is good news that people are more conscious and concerned,” she acknowledged. “But people need to understand that what we’re talking about—the magnitude of it—has not really sunk in. It’s not enough to change your light bulbs.”

She cited electricity and transportation as the two biggest culprits causing the alarming rate of global warming we are starting to see, as evidenced, for instance, in California by predictable and increasing annual drought conditions that down the road promise to wreak havoc upon the state’s huge agricultural industry.

Kolbert also mentioned the “terrible multiyear drought and terrible heat projected” in Australia, and increasing drought conditions in the Mediterranean countries of Spain and Cyprus as further evidence of the global-warming trend. (The drought-stricken island country of Cyprus, she pointed out, recently needed to import drinking water from neighboring Greece.)

“The burning of coal is probably the biggest source of [U.S.] emissions,” she said. “Coal-burning power plants are everywhere, but they tend to be in the Midwest.”

Kolbert would like to see increasing reliance upon solar, wind and biofuel power, and “the most effective of all—not using energy,” as in riding bikes more often and relying less on cars. She cited airplanes as “very big” contributors to carbon emissions.

Kolbert also advised decreasing air-conditioner use, and reiterated the importance of switching to solar power for electricity and such things as heating a home’s hot-water supply“especially in California,” where there is plenty of sunshine.

“Every time we move around [by some fossil-fuel-powered vehicle], turn something on or buy something that was made in a factory—all those consumptions—we are contributing to global warming,” she said.

We need to be much more conscious, she warned, of how all of our actions are related to the increased carbon emissions/global warming equation.

“The climate takes a long time to respond to any actions that we take. It’s a very big system,” Kolbert said. “It all depends on what we do. But by mid-century, it will look pretty ugly in parts of this country and parts of the world. And it could be much earlier than that.”

“People need to really take an interest in this issue,” she stressed. “There’s going to be a big battle in Congress in the next year or two. California has been leading the way, but there will be a big push back from the Midwestern states who provide coal power.”

President Obama, she added, “certainly understands the problem and knows what needs to be done. Whether or not he has the power and the willingness to get it done remains to be seen. … He should do pretty much what was in his platform. It’s all dependent upon raising the cost of processing fossil fuels, which will make other forms of energy more competitive. That will make changes, as we saw when gas prices went up.”

After being asked to sum up what generally needs to happen, Kolbert thought a moment before saying: “What needs to happen is a real, real, wholesale—not a marginal—change in how we produce and consume energy.”