20 Apr 2024

Elizabeth Kolbert: The A to Z of climate change

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 20 April 2024

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tells the story of climate change in her new alphabetised essay collection H Is for Hope.

As our world warms up, Kolbert hopes the book will help people understand both what's at stake and what is possible.

"How are we going to get our minds around this both in an honest way and also in a way that inspires the kind of action that we need, which is absolutely massive changes to our energy systems?" 

Elizabeth Kolbert and the cover of her book 'H is for Hope'

Photo: Supplied / Barry Goldstein

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of several books, most notably The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

While researching H Is for Hope, Kolbert had the "very sobering" experience of taking part in a Texan lab experiment investigating the human body's ability to withstand high temperatures.

"They gather volunteers who are willing to spend hours in this little room where they just pump up the temperature and pump up the humidity. The idea is you're wired to all of these devices that measure your heart rate and your circulation to try to see what the human body can actually withstand and when it starts to fail, how is it failing?

"It's very dangerous, because your body has to work very hard to pump blood to the surface to try to dissipate heat and keep your organs at the core temperature they can function at. Especially for older people, this becomes very dangerous. If you have a very severe heatwave, you get a lot of deaths basically from people's hearts not keeping up.

"Also what can happen is that your gut can start to stop functioning and you get this leakage of bacteria from your gut so you can die of ... sepsis."

Many people around the world are already living in dangerously high temperatures, Kolbert says, which are only going to rise further.

"Parts of the world that are very hot and very humid are going to get hit very hard."

One of the "really dismaying" aspects of the climate crisis for Kolbert is how many people, who did so little to contribute to it, are already on the frontlines.

"Already we see huge political and humanitarian problems around refugees and immigrants. This will be a big issue in places like island nations, as sea levels rise and saltwater intrudes into places that now are important farming areas and other places become simply too dry to farm or get flooded."

Researching that part of H Is for Hope was "very disheartening" for Kolbert.

"The incredible callousness of the developed world toward this problem that has been created - to a very large extent - by the developed world and toward the developing world, and the broken promises...

"We're very stuck in our ways and a lot of the effort is around just what can we do to substitute out one form of energy for another, so that we can just keep on doing what we're doing and not really fundamentally change anything because people are not keen on change."

That said, a lot of really smart people in material sciences are making "pretty amazing strides" with developing Earth-friendly alternatives to some of our more destructive products, Kolbert says.

Concrete production is responsible for a lot of carbon in the atmosphere, she says, and a Canadian company is now making concrete-free cinderblocks for construction.

"When you make concrete, one of the things you do is you heat up limestone and that releases CO2 so it's baked into this process. People are looking for creative new ways to make concrete and the folks that I went to visit up near Montreal are making a concrete-like substance ... out of mining slag. When they're done, this concrete actually absorbs CO2. So that is quite an interesting development."

Kolbert hopes H Is for Hope delivers a clear message that the problem of climate is "not going to magically go away" in our lifetimes - or even our children's lifetimes.

"We are going to have to deal with it and we can try to deal with it. We can try to ameliorate it, mitigate, we can try to reduce the scale of the crisis - although it's already pretty big, I don't want to minimise that.

"That carbon that we've put up in the air is going to be there, for all intents and purposes, forever, certainly for centuries. And it's going to be warming the earth for centuries. Even after we stop putting carbon up there, which Lord knows should be as soon as possible, we're just not making things worse anymore.

"We can try to react intelligently to the consequences or we cannot - and then we will all just bear the consequences in different ways, but there's no avoiding it.

"The obvious, intelligent response of we homo sapiens - truly an intelligent species - would be to roll up our sleeves and try to do the best we possibly can at this moment.

"The indicator of our true intelligence would be being able to stop and deal with [climate change] before the sea is literally lapping through our homes."