Two systems in crisis converged at the Saybrook Master’s house last Thursday, when Elizabeth Kolbert ’83, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” discussed journalism and the fate of the environment in a Master’s Tea.
Kolbert, whose book Saybrook Master Mary Miller called “a call to arms,” traveled the world speaking to scientists and laymen for her 2005 New Yorker series “The Climate of Man,” which discussed the politics, science and social impacts of global warming. The series won the 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science magazine journalism award, and her book, released a year later, expanded on the series’ themes.
Kolbert cited Bill McKibben’s 1989 book “The End of Nature” as Americans’ first lesson in global warming, but said that after 15 years, no major media outlets were covering the issue. She said she realized that someone had to cover the phenomenon and thought it might as well be her.
“No one was going to do it; I was going to do it,” she said.
A literature major who had sampled many majors by graduation, Kolbert went straight to The New York Times, where she eventually became the paper’s Albany bureau chief, covering state politics. She advised young journalists to cover local news, calling Albany “peculiarly dysfunctional” but “a tremendous education.”
When Kolbert joined the New Yorker in 1999, she continued to cover politics in a column called “Around City Hall.” But her interest soon turned to the unaddressed issue of climate change, she said. At the Master’s Tea, she told students that global warming was a problem for their generation and that the lack of activism on campuses needs to be remedied.
“Get angry,” she said. “I’m not sure any more has ever been at stake.”
Ali Adler ’07 said many students who are not activists would like to do something but are not sure how, given the apparent ineffectiveness of traditional activism.
“The political climate is such that this administration is completely unresponsive to us,” Adler said.
Adler is a former city editor for the News.
Kolbert responded that the government reacts to voters’ anger and to money, but activism does have an impact. She said she hoped protesters could find a way of getting to demonstrations without using fossil fuels.
“So far, the entrenched economic interests are winning … we [consumers] are all part of the problem,” she said. “Nothing can be done without federal action, but we are all part of it.”
Kolbert infused her speech with urgency, impressing upon students that though conservation and new technology traditionally take time to catch on, global warming is already a global crisis. She expressed relief that it has become “socially unacceptable” to claim that climate change is not a problem, but said her greatest fear was that the world would acknowledge the crisis but fail to act.
“This is qualitatively different from other political crises,” Kolbert said. “The train has already left the station.”
She said journalists may have hindered an early response to climate change by trying to be too objective, giving credence to “bad science.”
She ended the discussion by noting that the 2008 presidential election will be crucial in the fight against climate change, since the Kyoto Protocol will lapse in 2012. If the new president reaches out and negotiates with the rest of the world about climate change, Kolbert said, he will almost certainly be met with goodwill, simply because the current administration has ignored the issue to the extent that other countries are getting desperate.
Afterward, audience member Dennis Hamilton said Kolbert’s comment that “one Yale student can make a difference” resonated deeply with him. Hamilton is the associate director of Amman Imman, a humanitarian project to dig wells in the Nigerian desert to provide water for nomads whom Hamilton calls “victims of climate change.”
As audience members were leaving, Miller, a professor of Mayan art, noted that according to the Mayan calendar, the world will end in 2012 — the year the Kyoto Protocol lapses. Kolbert raised her eyebrows and smiled tightly.