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Extinction and climate change: An interview with Elizabeth Kolbert

June 23, 2014

The New Yorker staff writer explains how she researched and why she wrote her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Los Angeles, London - A large proportion of Americans do not believe climate change is occurring. Prominent environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert explores the denialist phenomenon, the challenges of saving wildlife from extinction, and the journalist’s role in communicating science in an exclusive interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published by SAGE.

Kolbert interviewed scientists around the globe to investigate the issue of mass extinction, delving into the impacts of our current global warming scenario, in the context of the other five mass extinction events our planet has endured as research for her popular science book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Few people realize that the rate of extinction, on the scale we see today, is a rare event linked to climate change.

Climate change is happening, and humans are in part responsible – these are the facts according to 97% of researchers, an extraordinary level of agreement in the realm of science. So why are Americans outliers in their views? Kolbert explains that the US (and Australia) has quite a different worldview to other countries when it comes to accepting anthropogenic climate change. Some of this she puts down to a well-financed campaign of disinformation in the US, in addition to the interests associated with large fossil fuel reserves.

According to Kolbert:

“We’re putting a lot of carbon into the air very fast, at a rate last seen during the Permian Era. We’re already geoengineering the climate, but we won’t admit it.”

Diverging politics over the past 30 years (Europe’s centrist politics would be considered left wing in the US) are also a factor, she says. “I think Europe is much more run by a technocrat […] which means that certain facts are accepted.” She adds a personal anecdote of a Dutch politician from a right wing, conservative party who discussed climate change “like a Greenpeace guy,” illustrating a very different political landscape from the US model.

Environmental topics can be hard to sell, in part because the big picture is highly complex:

“Each individual part is complicated enough; for example, our understanding of just one component – ocean acidification – is pretty new.”

But should we blame scientists for our current predicament? Kolbert says we should blame ourselves. Information is available, yet we as a society don’t want to deal with it. Referring to the gulf in communication between science and everything else:

“If people don’t appreciate or understand what scientists are doing and why, that spells trouble.”

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Now a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, Kolbert’s career began at The New York Times, covering politics. Her 2005 three-part magazine series on global warming won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine writing award, a National Magazine Award, and a National Academies’ communications award. She has written several books about environmental issues, including Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and her latest work, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, came out in February.

Dan Drolette Jr. “Elizabeth Kolbert: Covering the hot topic of climate change by going to the ends of the Earth” an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, is published in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. A free copy of the paper can be access here.

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The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences. Scientists, engineers, and other experts who had created the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project established the Bulletin in 1945. http://bos.sagepub.com

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