Whenever we spot Elizabeth Kolbert's byline in The New Yorker's table of contents, we know what page we're turning to first. For over a decade, Kolbert has doggedly reported on the environment (among other things) for the magazine, and also written two books; the most recent is titled Field Notes from a Catastrophe. In recent years, she's chronicled in unsparing detail the causes and effects of global warming, America's role in its acceleration, and Washington's scandalous failure to do anything about it. In this week's issue, Kolbert ponders what a Republican-controlled House of Representatives means for the future of climate change legislation. Would you believe it's not a pretty picture?
Were you surprised by Obama's failure to lead on climate change? Well, that's a really good question. I think that if you asked me two years ago, "Would we be in this situation today, where nothing has happened in the last two years?"... I can't say I have been wildly surprised, because our record for doing nothing is so outstanding and so consistent now that you can't really be surprised anymore! On the other hand, if you'd asked me, "Will the White House be so timid and absent on this issue?" I am somewhat surprised by that. I would've thought that simply on political grounds they would have made more effort. I also know that Obama has around him, quite close to him, people who really understand what's at stake here and have staked their whole careers on doing something about climate change. I assume he has personally disappointed them and I don't know what those conversations are like, but they can't be that comfortable right now.
How do you explain all of this? What's going on? This is a major crisis, and the severity of it seems to stand in stark contrast to what's happened politically, which is nothing, like you said. Well, I think that the easy answer is that I don't have a great explanation. To review for a second, there was a bill that came out of the House in June of 2009 and that will now look, for the foreseeable future, like the real high point, the one hopeful moment of the last 20 years when you had a bill in the House—and it always seemed like it was going to be hard selling it in the Senate but it seemed like we'd probably get something out of it and then it just dragged on and dragged on and eventually we essentially got no bill. We didn't even really get a decent draft of a bill. So what's going on? Well, we have subsequently seen the election results and so in retrospect you can say that a lot of people were doing a lot of polling and they decided they didn't like how the issue was polling and they couldn't find a message that they felt was really a winner for them. I think that's clearly what was going on in the White House, though I have no inside information that has not been published in another place. I think the thinking was, "We've taken a huge hit on health care. We don't have a winning method on this and just can't get 51% of the vote."
And that, I think, is a big disappointment in two ways: First of all, someone has got to find that message. And if it's not Obama, who? And if not now, when? The fact that [the Obama administration] didn't even try, it really speaks to the question of why did we elect this guy? Then, the other part of that is that we just don't have very much time left and I think that Obama understands this. I think that this is really the tragedy of his situation and of what our situation is. You know, we're just going to sit around and wait until really calamitous things happen and we just accept this sort of torpor. And in some ways it's happening now. As many people pointed out, there's such a huge time lag in the system, so we really don't know how close we are to the irreversibly bad effects. We just can't sit around and wait.
This is just crazy. I really appreciate everything you've written on this subject and I've been looking forward to speaking with you, and— [Laughs] And you wish I had something more useful to tell you!
I just feel like there's some sort of analogy to be made—you know there's the idea about being a Good German. We're all part of this unsustainable system and it's driving the world into this terrible catastrophe but there's this disconnect from that. We've just decided to ignore this huge unfolding ecological collapse. You say Obama is aware of it, but I don't know how that can be true when he really hasn't made it a priority, at least not publicly. I certainly agree with this. The head of the UN has put it very starkly: this is the defining issue of our day. And anyone who has spent the time, and not even that much time—a couple hours of really looking at the evidence and science and the very basic physics of this says, "Whoa, we are really careening down a highway here without any brakes." And eventually that is going to end very badly and we really have to do something very soon and change our trajectory.
The problem is, this it is not the kind of problem—and interestingly enough, it was John McCain who put this to me most eloquently. John McCain, who has now completely abandoned the fight against climate change in favor of some really, really frightening rhetoric, and picking Sarah Palin as his running mate and excoriated Barack Obama for his own energy policies, which he himself had supported a few years earlier. Can our political system deal with a problem like this? And that's a point that many people have made. We have these political systems and these brains even. We have brains given to us by millions of years evolution and these political systems that we've created over hundreds and hundreds of years and now we have problems that we are in the process of creating very, very quickly because we are technologically so advanced. And things are moving so fast and it's really unclear whether our brains and our society are equipped to deal with this kind of problem. We just don't know at this point.
So what do you see happening in the short term, now that the midterm elections are behind us? A lot of really smart people are trying to figure exactly that and once again, I wish I had a good answer to that and a really intelligent and insightful answer, but I think that everyone sees that absolutely nothing is going to happen over the next few years. I don't know what kind of a miracle it would take. So in the absence of national legislation, what do we do? People look at regional stuff, they look to corporations. A lot of people are saying it's in our economic interest, we're being lapped by all the Europeans and by the Chinese and all these technologies. So is there enough critical mass of people who take an economic interest?
People wonder what's going to happen with the Environmental Protection Agency, which does have the legal authority now to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act—there was a very important Supreme Court case in 2007. And now we will see whether the Obama administration has any gumption whatsoever. We will see whether he is going to go through with these regulations, which the EPA has the power it implement. While I don't see that as a solution to the problem, I do see that as taking a step forward and maybe that will focus the attention of Congress. Now the other problem that you have there is, I should point out, is that there's really the question of whether there's going to be Congressional action to take away that authority from the administration. That would mean they'd be left with virtually nothing. It's really hard to look forward until getting another Congress and God knows only what that's going to look like. It's very hard to imagine what that's going to be.
You know, as a blogger, I have the luxury of being self-righteous and shrill, and I just want to ask some of these guys, "How do you sleep at night?" But you, as a journalist, have standards. But have you ever been tempted to go beyond those limits? Have you had any provocative debates with people on the other side of this issue and what have they said? You know, I really try... I was invited to be part of one of these things, a panel: Is global warming a problem? Yes or no? And I was invited to be one of the Yes-it-is-a-big-problem people. I really try to avoid those because I just have a really hard time with people who present—you know there's that old saying which is attributed, probably incorrectly, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but they're not entitled to their own facts." You have people out there who have millions and millions of reams of what they call facts and they spin this kind of web of half-truths and misinterpreted truths and lies and it's very difficult for a lay person to go through them.
So I try to leave that kind of thing to the scientific community, who are really steeped in scientific literature. But just having one of these kinds of arguments, unfortunately, people like me and you and those of us who feel like this is really a big problem that we are criminally negligent in not addressing, have kind of lost that public debate right now. And that's really scary I think, to be honest. That's the word I would use, not just depressing but downright scary. There happens to be one side, on the scientific front, that's just unassailable. All the things that were predicted 20 or 30 years ago are all happening or are happening even faster than people predicted they would happen. That's the only way the predictions have been wrong, is that they were actually too conservative. And yet, politically, it's the other side of this that's won the debate. You really have to ask yourself, "What kind of society do we live in at this point?"
Yeah, I was going to ask you. Why has this debate gone to the people who don't have science and evidence and facts on their side? Is it just because we're self-serving consumers and whatever way we can rationalize our lifestyles, we'll do that, even if it's total bullshit? That certainly would be a reasonable inference from the data. It's really hard to know. Although there's been a lot of public opinion polling on this issue, I don't feel people have really gotten to the heart of the matter. I would like to see some really good focus groups of people who claim not to believe in climate change. Many of them probably don't know anything beyond what's been said by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, to be honest. But I think there's a huge resistance to anything that would require us to change in any way. Even though something like the cap-and-trad bill would have a really, really marginal impact on people's lives right now. I think the fact is that people are very, very slow or afraid to open the door to the possibility that we all need to change the way we live. That is a real possibility, that in order to deal with this problem at all effectively, we'll have to just ignore it. That's a pretty simple psychology but is that really what's going on? I'm not 100% sure.
That brings me to my next question. You're a journalist, you're not an environmental activist, so I don't know that you want to answer this question, but I'm just wondering: What do you suggest in terms of concrete personal actions, say for someone who lives in New York, to try to participate in turning this thing around somehow? I think people need to... it's kind of a little bit lame. All the things that you personally can do, they're significant. If you live in New York City, you're sort of lucky because you have really good public transportation and chances are, you don't live in a huge house that you have to heat all the time. And if you don't fly around—flying is very, very carbon intensive—you're already doing a lot of the things you can do to cut your carbon impact. But what I always do tell people, and once again if you live in New York, it's more marginally useful because your representatives tend to vote the right way on this issue already. But this should be a priority. To be frank, I don't think this is a priority for Chuck Schumer. I think he would've voted the right way, but I don't think he's fighting on this issue. And Kirsten Gillibrand. People should be asking them at every forum they go to, "Where are you? Why aren't you doing something?" People need to feel the heat on this issue. Forgive the pun.
Do you see anyone out there with a great idea for changing public opinion about this? Once again, everyone is sitting there saying, "We've got to go back to the drawing board." Because there was a lot of energy that went into Copenhagen about a year ago, and that was a debacle. And all this energy went into getting something through the Senate, and that was a debacle. And I have yet to see someone come up with something that everyone else will rally around or that strikes me as something that will change the situation dramatically. The only hopeful thing I can say is that at least people are thinking about it. As a journalist, I'm not part of that conversation but I know it's going on in groups large and small across the country.
You're certainly a public figure in this debate which is so polarizing. Any hate mail? Sometimes, absolutely. I get, "You're a dumb bitch" and worse. But I am not on the front lines of this. Other people have sent me the e-mails they receive and they are really horrifying and verge on death threats. And these are people who publish scientific papers and they're getting death threats! So you wonder what is it that is making people so irrational.
I guess that's a question you don't have an answer to. I don't. I was just at lunch with some people and urging them to commission some research into that. Maybe it's out there but I haven't seen it.
Last question. You've written extensively about Colony-Collapse Disorder. What's the latest on that? I don't want to call it news, but there was news somewhat recently around a paper that claimed the problem was a virus in conjunction with a fungus, that some genetic testing seemed to suggest was the cause. But that's a correlation, that's not a causality. No one can say we know that's the case and you'd have to do more sophisticated testing to get that. And that hasn't been done yet. So that is one hypothesis that's out there. And another thing I read recently is that some people are very convinced that a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids is the cause. They mimic nicotine and fry insects' neurological systems. They're supposed to be used very carefully and they're very toxic to bees, and many bee keepers would argue that they're not used very selectively. And they're definitely getting into the bee pollen. And so many bee keepers are convinced it's the pesticides. So there are still a lot of conflicting hypotheses out there and no one, as far as I know, has a definitive answer.
Has the problem gotten worse, better, or is it the same? My understanding is that it continues to be bad, and there are still big losses. The losses tend to occur over the winter. That was the first time that people really noticed it. Bees are not dormant but they are also not making honey. They're sort of living off their stores. Bee keepers check on them but sort of leave them alone. It was in the spring of 2007 I believe, I can't remember the exact year, when people noticed big losses. The problem has not gone away. It hasn't completely wiped out all the honey bee colonies, which it seemed almost on track to do. So it's in that sort of not-quite-complete-collapse mode, but it's pretty bad. I think it's pretty bad to be a bee keeper now.