Berkeley Talks transcript: ‘Can we change nature — this time, to save it?’

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #131: ‘Can we change nature — this time, to save it?’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Acast or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

David Ackerly: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Rausser College of Natural Resources Fall 2021 Horace M. Albright Lecture in Conservation. I’m David Ackerly, Dean of the Rausser College. I’m joined by my colleague Geeta Anand, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and also author, Elizabeth Kolbert. It’s our pleasure to have the chance to speak with our special guests this afternoon. Elizabeth is a science writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction, and her most recent book, which we’ll be discussing is Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.

Before we get started, I’d like to share a bit of background on these lectures. The Horace Albright Lecture Series at Rausser College has been going strong for over 50 years. The lectures are a tribute to the achievements of Horace Albright born in Bishop California in 1890, a graduate of UC Berkeley in 1912, second director of the National Park Service, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by Jimmy Carter. We’re honored to have the opportunity to use the Horace Albright endowed lecture series for the public good, fostering a dialogue on the critical issues facing our society.

The Albright Lecture Series has brought to Berkeley a who’s who of the world’s most thought-provoking and innovative leaders in conservation and public service. The lecture you’re about to hear, actually more of a discussion aligns perfectly with the spirit and traditions of the series. We will be taking live questions in the comment section of YouTube Live where you are currently viewing this talk and a full recording will be live on our website shortly after we end today.

Now, let me introduce our distinguished guests. Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 1999. She has written dozens of pieces for the magazine, including profiles of Senator Hillary Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Her series on global warming, The Climate of Man appeared in the New Yorker in the spring of 2005 and won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine award.

In September 2010, Elizabeth received the prestigious Heinz Award, which recognizes individuals who are addressing global change caused by the impact of human activities and natural processes on the environment. She also won a National Magazine Award in the Reviews and Criticism category for her work in the New Yorker, the Sierra Club’s David Brower Award and the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism from the American Geophysical Union.

In March 2021, she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and these are just a few of her many awards and accomplishments. Prior to joining the staff of the New Yorker, Elizabeth was a political reporter for the New York Times. She traveled from Alaska to Greenland, and visited top scientists to get to the heart of the debate over global warming.

Her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a book about mass extinctions that weaves intellectual and natural history with reporting in the field began as an article in the New Yorker. The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, and the general nonfiction category is number one on the Guardian’s list of the 100 best nonfiction books and was also named as one of Slate’s best nonfiction books of the past 25 years.

Her new book is Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Elizabeth, welcome to Berkeley, and I’m only sorry that we’re not here together in-person for this event.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, likewise. I would love to be in Berkeley now.

David Ackerly: I know you’re maybe a little familiar where you are.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Exactly.

David Ackerly: So, Under a Why Sky is a wonderful book and a fascinating peek into the world of scientists, engineers, and resource managers around the world. If we look at the book overall, the theme is how our interventions in nature often pursued with lofty goals or in the name of economic development have led to unexpected consequences, which then require even more extreme interventions. You start with the example of electrifying the Chicago River after it was redirected to flow away from rather into Lake Michigan in an ongoing effort to prevent the invasion of Asian carp into the Great Lakes.

So, my question is, was there one story that was the light bulb moment, wow, we’re doing one crazy thing to fix the problems caused by the last crazy thing we did, when you saw that these examples are part of one story about how we relate with nature and that led you to pull them together into this book?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I wouldn’t say there was the aha moment exactly. But I can say that the story that really propelled me down this path is the story that’s actually at the very center of the book, I guess. And it was a visit I paid to Oahu back in 2016. And I went to visit a project that had been dubbed the super-coral project. And basically, the idea behind the super-coral project was pretty straightforward. Reefs are in terrible trouble. I’m sure all of our listeners right now know that already. They’re in trouble for all reasons. But a biggie is climate change.

They really don’t like it when water temperatures get above a certain range. And we’re seeing that more and more these coral bleaching events where the water temperatures rise beyond their tolerance. And they basically inject their symbionts and starve to death. And we’ll go into the biology of that although I’m happy to if people want.

So, there was very charismatic scientist at the Hawaii Marine Biology lab there named Ruth Gates, who had come up with this idea. Well, we can’t just let reefs die. We have to do something. And that something she came up with, she called assisted evolution. We’re going to direct the evolution of corals of the day. We could get ahead of this problem, nudge them along. And the idea sounded crazy. And it may, in fact, be crazy. But she was a very charismatic person, a very forceful person, and tragically died pretty young a few years after I met her.

And she said to me in various different ways, and I quote her in the books in various different ways, saying, “The future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural, we are going to be intervening in these systems more and more.” And while I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, and, well, the project may not ever really get anywhere serious, those ideas were really planted. What are we going to do with this world that we have remade? Are we going to continue the next level of remaking it? What are we going to do next?

And I started to see that pattern everywhere. The solution to the problem of having messed around with these systems is to impose another order of manipulation because we can’t undo what we’ve already done. In many cases, it’s extremely difficult. If not, impossible to simply roll back the clock. That’s just not happening. So, we don’t have that many good options. And that’s really what the book is about.

David Ackerly: Well, that’s a perfect segue because I wanted to jump right to the last section of the book. So, the title Under a White Sky refers to the possible effects of geoengineering. So, one of the crazy ideas to battle the ongoing and unfolding impacts of climate change is trying to reflect sunlight back to space. And one mechanism in terms of geoengineering is injecting sulfur dioxide. Perhaps one of your interviewees mentioned Crushed Diamond Dust that was a new one that I hadn’t read about.

So, depending on who you ask, this is either a deeply irresponsible act to think about manipulating how much sunlight comes down to earth or it’s something that we have to take very seriously. As each year passes, we failed our curtail emissions. And now, we’ve seen or not seen the outcome of yet another COP that is coming on.

So, after you met and interviewed the experts in this field, you write in the book that you were left at best ambivalent, but I wonder if you could reflect more on what you learned and what you’ve taken away and where do you think this… if you had a crystal ball, where this may, whether this plays a part in the future?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well. Geoengineering turns out to be, and this is something I do talk about in the book strangely old ideas. I guess soon as people, and when I say people, I really do mean scientists, realize that climate change was a problem. And that was quite a long time ago already, back in the ’60s really, the first report to Lyndon Johnson on climate change. Their reaction was, well, let’s stop burning fossil fuels because apparently, they thought that was not going to happen. And it turns out they were pression.

They jumped immediately to some form of geoengineering. If you look in this 1965, it’s a landmark report. It’s up online. You can find a PDF of it. Because it was the first report on climate change really first high-level report on climate change, and you’ll see a panel of people who discuss it and anyone in the field knows these are really distinguished people. They went right to, well, maybe we can create some reflective balls or something that we’ll dump in the ocean.

And they actually did a cost calculation of what that would cost. And that would reflect sunlight back to Earth. So, as opposed to reflecting it off the top, it’s transferred, it’s directed off the oceans, but same idea. And that is really striking, I think. So, this idea just keeps bubbling along as it were. It hasn’t gotten very far in terms of research, the first really rigorous test, not of the technology but simply of the machines that you might use to measure the effects of what you’re doing was scheduled for this past summer in northern Sweden. And it was canceled because there’s so much opposition to it.

So, the science has actually not progressed very far beyond computer modeling. It’s so controversial. And maybe that’s good. I don’t know. But I will say, I can pretty much guarantee you that the talk, the chatter is going to continue to bubble up and get stronger and stronger. And there was just a national academies report just a few months ago recommending $100 million research effort that hasn’t been financed, but you’re going to keep hearing things like that.

You’re going to find the UN taking it up. You’re going to find higher and higher-level organizations taking it up. It’s a tremendous challenge, not just technically, but the governance of it. We can’t govern our carbon emissions. How do we govern? How we’re going to try to counteract that given all the many potential side effects?

So, it’s a terribly, terribly difficult issue but I think we’re going to be hearing more and more about it because as you say, we continue not to do what we know we should be doing to ameliorate, mitigate climate change. So, we’re going to be forced more and more to consider some pretty, these Hail Mary ideas.

David Ackerly: Well, actually, it’s interesting. I wasn’t aware that the early idea was reflective surface of the ocean because, of course, that doesn’t create a white sky to begin with. And it doesn’t create issues. As a plant biologist, of course, the very first thought is if we diminish sunlight, what are the impacts on agriculture? That’s only one of the many, many potential effects before getting into the governance and the plan, and the politics. And you may know that there are places where black balls, not white balls, are being placed on reservoirs to reduce evaporative loss.

Elizabeth Kolbert: I do not know that.

David Ackerly: But of course, the black, if they are… I guess they wouldn’t have to be black balls to reduce evaporation because that’s absorbing heat.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Some surface to prevent.

David Ackerly: Yeah.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I’m going to pose this question back to you as a plant biologist because I was told by the geoengineering guys, we’re just talking about, let’s say 1% of all sunlight, which is a lot of sunlight. But I was told that plants actually like indirect light, and it would not have a major agricultural effect.

David Ackerly: That’s plausible, and I shouldn’t pretend to be the expert on it.

Elizabeth Kolbert: No, it’s a humongous question, obviously. The thing about geoengineering, the thing about reflecting sunlight, the thing, one thing is you keep pouring CO2 up there. You need to put more and more sulfur dioxide or diamonds, or whatever you’re doing. You need to reflect more and more sunlight to counteract those effects. So, anyone who talks about geoengineering with any sense of responsibility, and most of these are pretty serious scientists are talking about it now talks about it in conjunction with cutting emissions.

You can’t have uncontrolled emissions growth and geoengineering. That way, I think we can all agree, lies madness. The question of whether it buys you some time because of these locked-in impacts that we’re already seeing and going to see more and more of, that’s really more of the question on the table.

David Ackerly: Well. And that mirrors so many discussions that there’s no one solution. And there’s probably no one solution that even is more than half of actually solving the problem without bringing everything to bear and each small contribution adds up if we’re going to pull this off. So, I want to turn to, flip this on its head. So, you give other examples, which are, again, the example in the Mississippi River Delta creating a diversion to deliver sediment where the diversion alone, I think you said would be the seventh-largest river in the world just the scale of, that’s, of course, a scale of an enormous ecosystem.

I’m curious though as you met scientists and engineers and the resource managers, did you ever come across a story where someone gave you the opposite example of an intervention that was so small and so subtle and yet so effective? The other end of the scale of where we… once we know how the system works, we just find that just the small nudge can actually make a real difference. And it may not be a global, it’s not global climate necessarily, but any other examples?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Wow, that’s a really good question. I guess you find what you seek, and I was looking for examples where things ramified and they tend to ramify in ways that people hadn’t thought of. There are all examples, I guess, and I’m sure you know this better than I, where we imported some parasitic wasp or something like that to try to control something, which I think some of those have been fairly successful. I think people might say even in those cases that it seemed to be fairly successful that they had off-target effects that we may not be watching for.

And I think that is maybe one of the themes of the book, too, is that just as I said, you only find what you look for. That’s true when we monitor these unbelievably complicated systems. We only see what we go looking for. If you’re not measuring something, you’re not seeing it. And I will just give an example of some entomologists I know who are looking to see whether some of these wasps that have been imported by the USDA.

Very often when we get an imported insect, we then import some of its predators whether they’re having these off-target impacts and whether they’re egg parasites parasitizing the eggs of indigenous insects, and no one’s even looking at that. So, if you don’t look for it, you don’t know.

David Ackerly: And your use of the language off-target I think highlights us. There’s so many analogies to how we think about medicine and disease and treatment, in particular, that we can come up with spectacular drugs, but they have side effects. And then, there are the drugs which treat side effects. And in some ways that struck me is the entire analogy for your book, so maybe we can come back to think more about those analogies between medicine and the environment.

And more and more we see the language of health being used, healthy soils, healthy forests, which in some ways a very clear connotation. Certainly, health is a desirable property. But it’s actually much less clear among the academic community about how would you go to a forest and measure health and put numbers on that and make that an operational research capacity?

Now, the other topic I want to turn to, which is really rightly receiving so much more attention is, we started right from 1965 how can we stop climate change from happening, immediately moved on, and more and more to thinking about the problems of adaptation. Climate change is happening. We need to address it.

But now and not just now, many people thought for many years, but really paying attention to how much the benefits of burning fossil fuels have accrued to the wealthy either wealthy nations or wealthy sectors within nations and so many of the costs are falling on marginalized populations in frontline communities.

And I’m curious again with all the people you’ve met in all your travels, where did you see that thinking coming in as people are thinking about solutions? In what way are the solutions that have been thought about for climate change really paying attention to addressing impacts on those marginalized communities?

But also, how some of the solutions themselves bring equity issues and may perpetuate some of those problems? So, where’s that figured in to the reporting you’ve done?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well. I will say that that’s a whole book in and of itself, which some people have written and more books will be written. So, it’s a huge, huge topic. I think that indirectly, it comes into under white sky, and for better or worse, I suppose you could say, and we saw this in Glasgow once again, where the equity issue, I mean, there are so many equity issues as you point out, the impacts and also as you say as we move forward to try to solve this problem, whose back is it going to be solved on.

And when the developing countries came to Glasgow, India’s saying, Well, yeah, okay, we’ll be carbon neutral and 2070. That was a big concession for India already. But their basic point is why should we? We didn’t get the benefits of this first round of wrecking the planet. Or why should we be the ones now to take the costs? And no one has shown the path toward industrialization, toward economic growth without fossil fuels.

If someone were to do that, if some nation were to do that, if the U.S. were to do that, maybe we’d be having a very different conversation. But one of the reasons that I think that both carbon dioxide removal, which is a big part of the book and geoengineering are going to get more and more and you’re certainly seeing this carbon dioxide removal getting more and more attention is because there is a built-in, not just because everyone is just emitting too much, which is clearly, clearly true. But there’s also a built-in equity component.

You cannot ask developing countries not to develop the way we did. They’re not going to buy it. And it obviously has carries with it tremendous issues of equity. So, you have to leave a certain amount of room as it were, a certain amount of budget, which we as a developed world have already used up, but you really need to leave that for the developing world.

And when you put all those numbers together, it’s really, really hard to come up with a pathway that is both equitable and meets these goals. And I have to be honest yet to see that.

David Ackerly: Well, the only answers are usually fairly sobering as much as all of us I think are holding on to our optimism because if we give up that, we give up the passion to do this work. And on that note before I turn to Geeta, I want to ask, there are many students listening today. And I know you’ve spoken on other campuses. When you hear from students and they asked for your perspective on how to orient their careers and their own work, what do you offer from your perspective and everything you’ve learned?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, the one thing I would say to the young people who are starting out and thinking about what to do with their lives and facing a lot of daunting in dark news is there are great opportunities to spend your life doing really meaningful work to try to deal with these problems. There’s that curse, may live in interesting times, and we live in interesting times. And I think that there’s so much work to be done from the reengineering of all these systems from adaptation, in energy, in just about any field, education, any field you can name, there are ways to, I think, really make a difference or make a major contribution.

So, I guess I urge young people to think about where your talents are and where your passions are, obviously. But how could you participate in this massive amount of work that needs to be done? There’s definitely full employment out there for anyone who’s interested in the clean energy future. I feel pretty confident about that.

David Ackerly: I’m sure you’ve heard scientists and others say to you that they would be very happy to be out of a job if this was all solved and these things weren’t happening. But right now, that does not seem to be the case. And on that note, you’ve demonstrated with your own career, your words, the work you’ve done as a journalist and the impact it has, and in part bringing to light the work of scientists and many of our colleagues and then tying it together in the stories you tell.

And on that note, we are joined today by Geeta Anand, Dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism. Geeta is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a book author. She’s reported and written most recently for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and reported for 10 years from her home country of India.

Geeta and I have a real shared belief and we’re beginning to work together on this that just as journalists must become proficient in science if they want to report on it and to craft the narrative scientists can also benefit from a deeper understanding of journalism to enhance their ability to tell the story of their work, and not just to engage with journalists but to think more about their own storytelling.

And I’m going to pass the virtual Zoom mic to Geeta to continue this conversation and talk about the craft of writing behind your work and the intersection of science and journalism in today’s media environment. So, Geeta, I’m so glad we can be here together.

Geeta Anand: Thanks so much, David. I’m delighted to be here. And it’s wonderful to be in conversation with you, Elizabeth. And I’m excited to talk about the craft of storytelling and the craft of writing because certainly, we all know that we live in apocalyptic times. And the big challenge for all of us and for scientists is how are we going to convey the challenges and the dangers that we face to the general public.

I thought about that as a journalist in India, every year 50 or 100 people would die of heatstroke. And how do you prevent that from being a brief in the newspaper every year? How do you tell that story with impact? And your work shows me the most incredible example of how to do that. So, I want to talk to you a little about how you do that.

So, let’s just talk about the story structure, and in your case, the book structure. So, your book makes an argument in a really subtle, deep, rich way with story after story after story. Tell us how you figured out how to structure your book and why you structured it that way. Maybe you can talk a little about how you structured, what the structure is, and then why it’s that way.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, sure. And I want to say thank you for saying that. I’m not sure all that came through to everyone. So, I’m very thrilled to hear you say that there is an argument building through the book. Anyway. So, the book begins the way I see the structure, and I know that sounds odd that people could see it differently from the author, but I certainly think that you could. It begins with a very concrete story, a story of something that is happening. We reverse the flow of the Chicago River back in the 20, early 20th century, and now in the 21st century, a section of the river has been electrified to counteract the effects of it, that original intervention.

And that was very pretty easy to understand. I think I said in the book, first you reverse a river then you electrify it. You can say it as simple as that. And as I said, it had already happened. It’s not very high-tech. It’s pretty easily comprehended. And then, the book takes you along this path I hope where things become more and more both speculative and alarming. How is that? So, you might say, Well, that’s okay. And then, we go to an example of a fake habitat that’s been constructed for a fish, a very rare fish.

So, that’s another intervention to counteract or previous intervention that might say, Oh, of course, that’s okay. And then, you get led along until at the end we are talking about reengineering the stratosphere to counteract the effects of climate change.

And the structure is really a slippery slope, where is that okay, is that okay, is that okay? And there’s no answer to these questions, and that to be frank was the real challenge of writing the book that there’s an argument without being an answer.

Geeta Anand: That’s so interesting. The journey you took me on made me, through the structure of your book, understand in a deeper way than I ever had why we’re considering these-

Elizabeth Kolbert: Crazy.

Geeta Anand: … crazy alternatives. And then, made me realize that these crazy alternatives may actually be necessary. And that way, I thought it was just incredibly effective. So, talking about writing, as scientists and everyone do it… I’ve written about science and medicine, and the challenge is always if you’re a scientist or a doctor or writing about it, how do you write about complex things and make them understandable to people?

Yeah, how do you draw people in so that they can understand the relevance of these things to the larger context of the world and how interesting and strange they are and how to make the connections to them? So, I’m going to read from your book just one way I thought you did it well, and then ask you just to talk about what techniques you employ in your writing to do this. So, this is in the chapter about the interventions to save the pupfish.

And you’re talking about all these huge interventions, a dummy pond set up to experiment on how to save them and attempts to move them there. And then, you say, later, I did a calculation. Altogether, the pupfish at Devil’s Hole weighed about 100 grams. This is slightly less than the weight of a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich.

Talk about why as a writer, it does something like that, and what our listeners can learn, what they can take from that to apply to their writing?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I’m glad you like that moment. That is a little bit of a, well, I mean, on the one hand, that’s just implying to be honest, a classic as you know, classic journalistic trick. This way is something. What is that in your life? Well, I think one of the ways in which science, and we were talking about this earlier before we came on the air as it were that scientists and journalists really diverge, is numeracy in the general population. The crazy thing when you think about it is, for example, all scientific, 1.5 degrees C, it doesn’t even mean anything in a country where we deal into, Fahrenheit.

So, the units are wrong. And the numbers that people feel very intuitively, gigaton, I mean, who knows what a gigaton is? And so, I think that bringing it to… and that in this case to something very small that all of this fish that they are spending millions of dollars on and untold man-hours to save collectively have the weight of a McDonald’s Fillet-O-Fish, that is just, as I say, using this old journalistic trick of relating a number to a quantity that people can relate to.

Now, that was deflationary that was bringing it down. Bringing it up can be more difficult as you know because once you start dealing with really big numbers, that famous quote, whatever, a billion here, a billion there, or pretty soon, you’re talking about real money. The numbers are just so big and so vast.

When quantities are really vast, how would I illustrate a gigaton of carbon? There’s nothing that’s a gigaton except a gigaton. So, that gets really more difficult. It’s just beyond the realm of individual experience.

Geeta Anand: You’re so right, and I’m going to jump to a different portion of the book where you did it in the opposite way helping us understand just how much levels of carbon have risen. And I want you to just talk about the various strategies of writer employees to get across the impact of change. So, I’m going to read just a little bit. This is page 147. But this is how I saw you brilliantly explaining what’s happened with carbon and addressing the challenge you talked about of how do you express gigantic numbers again and have them be relevant.

And in this case, I don’t think there’s a McDonald’s burger or any type of mountain that couldn’t fully quantify this, but this is how you did it. And it’s a beautiful combination. It seems history and storytelling. So, you start this page saying when exactly people began altering the atmosphere is a matter of debate.

According to one theory, the process got underway 8,000 or 9,000 years ago before the dawn of recorded history. Then further down on this page, you say according to a second, more widely held view, the switchover only really started in the late 18th century after the Scottish engineer James Watt designed a new steam engine.

And then, further down, you say, in 1776, the first year Watt marketed his invention, humans emitted 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. By 1800, that figure had risen to 30 million tons. So, that’s 15 million to 30 million tons. And then, you go further down, now that the figure is close to 40 billion tons annually. So, again, people wouldn’t be able to grasp that.

So then, you say, so much have we altered the atmosphere that one out of every three molecules of carbon dioxide lose in the air today was put there by people. So, can you talk about what you did there and what you were trying to do in the context of the challenge all of us have of how to have impact in our writing and storytelling?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah, that’s a really good question. It’s a figure that I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. Once again, scientists deal in parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And it’s a trivial part of, yeah, carbon dioxide is a trace gas. I know that everyone here knows that already. We’re at whatever. I didn’t check today, 417 parts per million. And so, if you present that to a general audience, who cares? What’s the big deal? And if you say, well, it was 280, and it’s up to 420. It just doesn’t have a lot of impact. I don’t think.

So, you have to try to, as you say, bring home the scale of the change to people. And even saying, well, we’ve increased carbon dioxide by almost 50% at this point, didn’t seem that interesting to me. So, I tried to flip it around to one of the very few molecules of carbon dioxide. Now, does that really affect people differently?

I think maybe a little bit, and I wish I could explain why, but I don’t think I can but it gets back to, I think that most of us, and one of the good things about not being a scientist. I don’t have much of science education. I am not particularly scientific. I took physics my first semester in college and very nearly flunked out. So, I am a reader. So, I use myself as a guide, I think.

And what makes an impact on me, I hope, and this is always an act of faith when you are sending a piece of writing out into the world will have an impact on a general audience. And I’m sure to the scientific community, sometimes it’s too dumbed down or over-simplified. But that’s a hit I’m willing to take, I guess.

Geeta Anand: To me, when you said that, when I read that, it just conveyed to me the degree of change we’ve created. If now in the air, one out of three carbon dioxide molecules was put there by humans like, oh my god, it conveyed just the degree to which we have changed our world. And I felt that it’s very awful in that way. I know we’re at a time to begin to take audience questions. And I want to make sure that our audience, our listeners, get a chance to ask questions, and I’m sure some of them will be about writing and some about climate. So, over to you, David, to take the lead in moderating our questions.

David Ackerly: Thank you. Elizabeth, you made such an interesting comment that the scientists, it may be dumbed down. As a scientist, I want to offer a counterpoint. First of all, reading your book makes me so jealous because here are all these scientists whose names I know, I can’t call them up and say, Can I spend three days in the field with you? [crosstalk 00:40:05]. I might meet them at a conference. So, on the one hand, and we’ve spoken about this before, I’m always looking for how to convey these ideas very clearly, and it’s not only because we’re trying to speak to general audiences.

It’s actually not that different than what we’re trying to do in the classroom. Because we don’t walk into an undergraduate classroom and read from the primary literature. We’re trying to speak in ways that capture people’s attention and allow for Q&A, and there’s some real parallels, I think, between the ways we’re trying to define that clarity. So, I would not ever. I hope you never have to worry the scientist.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, well, thank you.

David Ackerly: So, I have two questions that I’m going to read and a third one. Geeta, you just mentioned the invention of the steam engine in Glasgow. I’m sure some people here have seen Boris Johnson said at COP it was 250 years ago in Glasgow that James Watt came up with the machine powered by steam produced by burning coal. And 250 years later, we brought you back to the place, the Doomsday machine was invented. So, a little dramatic there around the COP meeting in Glasgow.

But the two questions. The first was, are these multilateral agreements like COP26 enough to achieve what we need? That’s one version of it. The second that just came in is, what do you think is the most constructive outcome from the COP meeting? But let me add a third, which is, what’s the alternative?

And I don’t say that in a rhetorical way. I mean, absent multilateral agreements, what are the other forces in the world that can drive us towards solutions that may not depend on that international political process?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well. Wow, these are good questions. The first question was, did COP26 get us… What was the first question again, David?

David Ackerly: Is it enough to achieve what we need to…

Elizabeth Kolbert: That one is really easy. No. So, that one was easy. Okay. No. It is not enough. And there are two, but that’s a facile answer. But there are two parts to that. One of which is the way that the Paris Agreement was structured and that Glasgow is building on were these voluntary national. They’re called NDCs, Nationally Determined Commitments. This voluntary approach was done for a few reasons, one of which was that no binding targets were going to get through the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Senate is never going to prove anything. It has to be two-thirds votes or 50/50 doesn’t do it even to approve a treaty. So, they knew they’re never going to get a treaty through the U.S. Senate so they had to have this workaround. So, these are voluntary commitments. And even if we tally up all the voluntary commitments. You probably read this. We get to two and a half degrees, let’s say by 2100, assuming certain trajectories and those are big assumptions between now and 2100.

But more to the point, we don’t have enforcement negatives. Everyone announces these targets. Joe Biden announced this target of reducing U.S. emissions this 2005, which I should say is the year that was chosen because there was a peak of U.S. emissions. By 2030, well, you tell me how that’s going to happen. That’s nine years from now. So, we are nowhere near reaching that target.

And now that whatever Build Back Better, whatever the hell it’s been called now, the big reconciliation bill has really been watered down. I don’t know if anyone could point a way that the U.S. could actually meet its commitments but for 2030. So, you can make the commitment, but are you going to meet the commitment? So, those are two. The commitments are not enough and needing them is very dubious in a lot of cases.

The question of whether COP has just, a whole approach has just run its course I think is a really important one and a good one. And 25,000 people or whatever flew to Glasgow for this meeting that really may well not have been worth the carbon that was burned for it. So, are there other approaches? I am not an expert here, but I think that one approach that you are seeing people explore more and more are this notion of, for example, carbon taxes and carbon tariffs.

Are you going to show have to dispense with this idea that we’re getting a grand global agreement and actually just go with trade agreements and trying to clamp down on emissions in your own borders, and then by sending out the signal through global trade? That’s really what we need to do.

And this is really what Paris was about to, is about this virtuous cycle of we’re going to convince everyone that we’re going to get all fossil fuels, and that’s going to build on itself and the money is going to follow that. And that’s how we’re going to do this thing, not by national Commitments.

They never really thought we were going to get there. National Commitment is creating this vast momentum that then all the capital in the world, which is really controlled mostly by private entities is going to follow that. And that’s really what we need to mobilize under our current system, which I know many people is incapable of dealing with climate change. And we’re also going to find out whether that’s true or not.

David Ackerly: So, another listener posed the question in a much more succinct way. And the question is, is it too late?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, it’s too late for some things. Absolutely, it’s too late for those coral reefs that are already dead. I don’t think they’re coming back. So, there’s a lot of damage that’s baked in, and I think we need to acknowledge that. But it is not too late. We have to hope. Once again, there’s a lot of big uncertainties with climate impacts, which have a very long-time scale. Are we already melting the Greenland Ice Sheet? Very, very hard to say. But I think it’s never too late.

Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of talk of tipping points afterwards you lose control of the systems. Those are real. I don’t want to say they’re not real. But in much was made of them in a way to mobilize global action and the unfortunate flipside of that is people thinking, “Well, if those are already kicking in, why bother?” But there’s never a point, I don’t think.

And I think if you spoke to climate scientists, I’m not a climate scientist, but I think if you spoke to climate scientists, there’s never a point where it’s too late to avert something great. So, we have to operate and hope that it is not too late to avert some of the worst outcomes, which I’m happy to talk about if you want, but let’s just take melting the Greenland Ice Sheet We really don’t know what the threshold is beyond which that becomes inevitable. We have to hope that we can stay shy of that.

David Ackerly: Well, and as a university that sits at about 26 feet or so above sea level, I’m not sure exactly what that would represent. Maybe it’s the rare moment or maybe there are some people who are paid to actually think about what does it actually means to live in any coastal environment. Because with projections like those Antarctic ones, some of these simply don’t have a future of the places where we developed our current civilization. So, on that rather doom gloomy thought, let me flip the question around a different way. And again, I’m going to draw on a question from audience.

So, many scientists and many activists will project very optimistic scenarios about how well certain solutions could work. And the question is, if those are over-optimistic, can that backfire in our dialogue by, and I’ll paraphrase now from what was posed, either by making people think that it’s all going to be doable and easy or one solution is enough and therefore, let’s not worry but others.

So, do you feel like you’ve seen cases where you felt skeptical of the solutions and the language around the solutions, which is different than the language around the problem?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah. Oh, no. Oh, absolutely. There’s tremendous momentum. Is that the right word? Or social momentum, I guess, behind this idea of nature-based solutions that there was a paper printed. It was published. It was very influential paper. We’re going to plant a trillion trees. And that’s going to offset our emissions. And it was wildly criticized in scientific circles. It’s just really virtually impossible to plant enough trees to offset 40 billion tons of CO2 emissions every year.

And there’s a lot of talk about these win-win solutions. You plant trees, you get the benefit of having forests and you draw down carbon. And that’s true, that’s true. But it’s not as true as people might like to think how is that. It’s not that easy to plant a billion trees. The challenges are keep them alive while climate is changing. But even so, the carbon impact of that, the drawing down of carbon impact is often wildly exaggerated.

So, that’s one example where, I don’t want to say I’m skeptical, but if you just really look hard at the numbers, and once again, I’m not the person to do it, but I have read those who have done it. You find that that is not nearly as likely to work even if we were to do it as we thought.

And I’ll just add another thing, where are you planting all these trees? Some of the places where the authors of that paper suggested was the land that we can plant trees was tundra, which you do not want replanting trees and because you change the reflectivity of the place. And so, there are just so many issues here that get glossed over in this win-win talk, and I do find that worrisome.

David Ackerly: Yeah. And I think reducing emissions and that’s not one solution because there’s many things necessary, is the one we can all agree. So, in terms of the impact on climate, no downside to reducing emissions, the challenge is, of course, the trade-offs and what it means economically in terms of the international development and well-being, but it is maybe the one solution on the technical side.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Yeah.

David Ackerly: So, changing our topic. And again, from our audience, in what ways do you think that anti-racism and feminism and related areas of both study and dialogue in society can contribute to conservation issues and then also contributing to climate change discussion?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I think really crucial to this conversation, and it’s not given nearly enough play in conversations about climate change in the U.S. or we can’t even get half of the country to acknowledge that climate change is a problem. But the issues of global equity, if we were to take equity issue seriously, both internally into the U.S. and externally towards the rest of the world, the obligations that we would have to really dramatically rethink how we are doing things, and really, honestly, to rethink how we are living would be very, very high.

I think they’re so high, to be honest, that it’s very hard to break through on these issues because it’s a little bit like at COP. There’s talk of what’s called loss and damages, which is countries that are on the frontlines of climate change, coming to those countries that have caused most climate change like the U.S. and saying, really, you owe us for that, for the losses. We are suffering and are going to suffer. And the U.S. always says,” We are not touching that.”

But I think that issues of, if you want to call them racial issues, if you want to call them transnational issues, issues of I guess what I will just very broadly call global equity are huge. And if you take them to heart, they mean that Americans who, I don’t know what the latest figures, are burning on average 14 tons of carbon a year have to really, really radically change the way we do business and probably can’t do all the things that we all like to do. And that’s a very, very tough, tough message. How is that?

David Ackerly: Yes, it is. I’m going to also invite Geeta to weigh in on this. The question is in the natural resource and environmental arena, can science writing be value-free? And Geeta, I would also be interested to think about this in health reporting and health writing. Or is even the way the question is framed perhaps not the way to approach thinking about that question of where values play into journalism.

Geeta Anand: I want to make sure Elizabeth has space but I can definitely say values affect how you frame a story. So, I think one thing that the vigorous debate in the journalism community in recent years has brought to light is that the concept of objectivity was flawed. It was based on a White male perspective of… It’s the perspective of the person sitting in that seat. That’s not to say that the world should now be a free for all in which we all just frame stories however we want to. But it’s that we need to be thinking deeply about what the truth is, what facts we’ve gathered and be cognizant that we’re framing a story based on our values.

So, if we’re trying to look at climate change and what the solutions are, suppose you were doing a story, such a story, the solutions that you think about would just… the prism you view that question from would be where you stand. And if you’re sitting in the U.S., that would be very different from if you were sitting in Mumbai, and you were looking at what the solutions to climate change are.

So, I do think values influence how you see a story, how you frame a story, how you tell a story. But over to you, Elizabeth, for your thoughts on that.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I think this gets back to this question, the discourse of science, and I know it’s much-criticized, and there are critiques of scientific discourse, but I do think that the language of science represents in an attempt to bleed those values out of the discourse to just say, Okay, this is what we did, we ran this experiment. Anyone could run it, right? You could run it in Mumbai. You could run it in Detroit. You could run it in Beijing, and you would get the same results because we have constrained the problem, and it is reproducible.

And that makes a bad story. That is not what storytelling does. And storytelling brings a certain amount of heat to any issue that is scientific writing just to use cliched terms, I guess, is very cold, trying to bleed out the human emotion. And that is incredibly powerful. Science has been incredibly powerful. We are sitting here on Zoom. This is the power of scientific inquiry, and storytelling, which is much more ancient than science brings some of that, that human emotion back and whether that can be done value-free, I basically agree with you.

I don’t think that we can frame a story with that implicitly bringing certain values with us. Now, in American journalism, those values are unspoken often although increasingly, they’re overt. And that’s another interesting trend in American journalism that we are now in two camps.

And each camp reads its own stories with their own frames, and we all understand what the implicit frames are. And we hate the other guys. But I agree that I think it’s very hard to frame a story without bringing to the table certain values even ones that are hard to tease out.

David Ackerly: Well. And I think there’s two really important overlaps with science here. One is the journalism and science have developed these very distinct methods of asserting truth. And I say that, and I hope not too positivist in a way, and the amazing thing to me about journalism is that New York Times has to be able to say by tomorrow morning that there’s some fact-checking and truth behind this. Whereas for scientists, it can take years to come to the point of being able to put something out in public with that claim.

So, that is, I think, a lot of room for a deeper discussion. But the value side, we have a very rigid set of rules about how to conduct an experiment, for example, how to analyze data. We do not have any rigid set of rules about what questions we should ask and which experiments we should do, or which studies are in science and which ones are varied and obscure journals.

There’s a lot of implicit values that I think scientists are often not reflecting on about why they’re asking their questions, which questions are receiving more attention, and in which scientists are getting the most recognition for their work, and this comes back to both the gender and race history of the scientific discipline.

Geeta, I think this is where our continuing dialogue between journalism and science has a lot to unpack. There are more wonderful questions, and I’m going to offer an apology to those that we didn’t get to. Before we wrap up, Elizabeth, any final words you want to offer to our Berkeley audience?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I want to say thank you for a lot of really, really thought-provoking questions. And I also just do want to reiterate what I hope for a lot of young people out there. As I said, you live in interesting times so don’t despair, but get moving.

David Ackerly: Geeta, final words?

Geeta Anand: I would agree with Elizabeth. Get moving and use whatever your skills are whether they’re scientific discovery or they’re storytelling or they’re organizing. Use whatever those are to have an impact on this world.

David Ackerly: Elizabeth and Geeta, this has been a real pleasure, enormous pleasure. And again, I’m really sorry, we’re not in-person to continue this with what we would normally… we would have a reception after the Albright lecture, and hopefully we’re all back to that soon enough. But also, it makes us possible to bring in an audience from far and wide and reduce our carbon footprint, which we are all increasingly cognizant of.

It’s been a wonderful conversation. And from Rausser College of Natural Resources, thank you all for being with us here. Stay safe and healthy, and have an enjoyable holiday season coming up. So, thank you all very much.

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