“We are the asteroid”: Pulitzer-winning journalist speaks on extinction, the climate crisis and science reporting

by Bethany N. Bella | April 13, 2018

Ohio University welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, as part of the University’s Frontiers in Science Lecture Series, held at Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium on Tuesday, April 3, 2018.

Kolbert was also honored by the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism with the Carr Van Anda Awardin addition to presenting her evening lecture.

Though internationally recognized and awarded for her coverage on environmental issues, Kolbert hasn’t always written about the environment.

Kolbert filed her first major story on science from Greenland’s ice sheet in 2001, in which she covered what was then still an emerging scientific consensus on climate change and its related effects.

“Through a long series of twists and turns, I ended up going to Greenland,” Kolbert said in an interview. “That was a really important experience for me – it taught me a lot about the world, and that [experience] really made me think there was an important story to be told about climate change, which at the time was still being treated as a topic of debate.”

Yet even after writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book on the sixth mass extinction crisis, Kolbert admits, “I don’t really consider myself in science or environmental journalism – I’m just a journalist who has happened to write a lot about, mainly, environmental science.”

Covering the science of environmental change has had a sobering effect on Kolbert, who repeatedly called our current state of climate change affairs a “very dangerous situation.”

“Right now, if you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention,” Kolbert said to a group of staff and students before her evening lecture event. “There’s definitely a sense of why – why bother?”

Kolbert compared her repeated sense of urgency in her reporting to feeling like “a broken record.”

“I feel like I’m reaching the point of repeating myself,” Kolbert said. “How many times can you say, ‘This is really screwed up’?”

Kolbert spent five years reporting on The Sixth Extinction, her second nonfiction title and first Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2014. Kolbert has also published a collection of climate change stories in her book, Field Notes From A Catastrophe in 2006, in addition to her numerous articles for The New Yorker.

During her Kennedy Lecture Series talk, Kolbert compared the Earth’s fifth mass extinction event – the “death of the dinosaurs” featuring a pulverizing asteroid strike – to what scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction event and its relation to human activity.

Summing up the science, Kolbert stated, rather succinctly: “We are the asteroid.”

Thanks to globalized markets and penchant for transnational travel, humans “in a biological sense, are pushing the continents back together. We are running geological history backwards.”

Worse yet, according to Kolbert, the ramifications from our changing climate – and the politics of climate change inaction — aren’t helping biodiversity matters, either.

Despite the fact that the science on greenhouse gas emissions and their related effects on the Earth’s climate “has been settled since the 19th century,” Kolbert said, the general misperceptions about ‘scientific uncertainty’ have created real roadblocks for implementing policy changes at the highest levels of American government.

“Unfortunately, the facts just don’t have anything to do with it anymore,” Kolbert said. “How do you talk about environmental problems with people who have made it an article of faith to say, ‘I don’t believe that’?”

Instead of responding to the existential threat of climate change, “we are moving in precisely the opposite direction,” Kolbert said. “We have people in very high places – the presidency, the head of the EPA, the head of the energy department – who are still peddling, what amounts to, just complete nonsense.”

After years of listening to scientists on these issues, Kolbert echoes that climate change is a phenomenon decidedly not up for debate.

“We can have many debates – perfectly appropriate debates, and ones that journalists would be happy to write about – on what should we do in response to this really serious threat to all of life on Earth,” Kolbert said. “But to say that pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere does not warm the Earth is virtually akin to saying the Earth is flat. There may be people out there who believe that, but we don’t consider that worthy of coverage.”

Despite these rather dire straits, Kolbert encouraged students of journalism and environmental science at Ohio University to persevere in their studies.

“We are going to pay – I cannot stress this enough – if you actually talk to the scientists, they say we are going to pay a very, very high price for this,” Kolbert said. “It is today’s young people who will be paying the highest price, and that is why I urge young people to make progress on this” issue of climate change.

This story also appears on Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs

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