Kolbert’s Under a White Sky
We know we can change the world, but should we?
It’s World Environment Day (who knew?!), and the Independent published a collection of hopeful messages despite the world not being on track to keep temperatures below two degrees this century. Some are pinning cautious optimism on youth climate movements. Others are hopeful that this time, at COP26, things might be different since tackling climate can transform society. If we fix this one big problem, then everything will be better. Others point to stats: 70% of GDP in the UK is covered by net-zero targets, up from 30%, and the G7 is taking steps towards decarbonizing the power system. And others focus on a court case won against Shell as a reason to look forward to the future. Generally, they acknowledged that “the geopolitical landscape around climate change has shifted seismically.” I’ve seen that shift too, in my classroom, where climate change is finally (finally?) a concern for students, but I’m not quite as hopeful.
And then I finished Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.
Kolbert wrote the provocative Sixth Extinction, and her writing here is just as clear and concise but far more poetic and often humorous. This new book has a few black and white photos but should really be re-released with colour pictures of all the incredible things she describes in her journey through beautiful landscapes to talk with fascinating people in order to find solutions to the problems plaguing our planet. Although they discuss many of the same things, this is the antithesis of Mann’s most recent book both in style and in substance. Kolbert’s book focuses on specific examples to explore each new technology, which makes it more accessible for the non-scientist, while also looking more profoundly at the conundrum we’re in.
Kolbert’s guiding question is the Jurassic Park nugget: now that we know we can change the world, should we? If we fix one mistake, it often creates another, but “What do you call natural selection after The End of Nature?” (97). Do we even have a natural environment to make unnatural with our technology? This is “a book about people trying to solve problems create by people trying to solve problems” (200).
She starts with water, explaining how the hydrology in Chicago affects most of the U.S. “People have, by now, directly transformed more than half of the ice-free areas on earth . . . and indirectly half of what remains. . . . Planes, cars, and power stations emit about a hundred times more carbon dioxide than volcanoes do. We now routinely cause earthquakes” (7). One transformation was the introduction of Asian carp, and the later attempts to keep it from spreading. The problem, ironically, started with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which advocated against pesticides and in favour of “‘setting one biological against against another. For instance, a parasite could be imported to feed on an unwanted insect.’. . . In 1963, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought . . . Asian carp to America . . . to keep aquatic weeds in check” (14–5). They worried about chemicals but not non-native species. Then they opened a portal between two aquatic realms, which helped the voracious intruders get a deeper foothold in the lakes and river systems throughout the U.S. and into Canada. It’s possible to rebuild the separation, but it will take 25 years and cost $18 billion. The fish tale gets us into the thick of the problem with fixing problems.
On to Louisiana, which has shrunk by more than 2,000 square miles from flooding. When Katrina hit in 2005, 80% was underwater. Then the oil industry dug canals through the wetlands. “The canals pulled in salt water, and, as the salinity rose, the reeds and marsh grasses did. The die-off widened the channels, allowing in more salt water, causing more die-off and more widening” (55).
“As I wandered past empty homes plastered with NO TRESPASSING signs, I could see the economic logic of the island’s ‘planned deconstruction.’ At the same time, the injustice was pretty glaring. The Biloxi and the Choctaw had come to Louisiana after they’d been dispossessed of ancestral lands, farther east. The Isle de Jean Charles Band had been able to live peacefully on the island only because it was too isolated and commercially irrelevant for anyone else to take an interest in. The band had had no say in the dredging of the oil channels or in the layout of the Morganza to the Gulf project. The’d been excluded from the efforts to control the Mississippi, and now that new forms of control were being imposed to counter the effects of the old, they were being excluded from those, too. . . . A Mississippi that’s been harnessed, straightened, regularized, and shackled can still exert a godlike force; it’s no longer exactly a river, though” (56).
Then she tells an engrossing story of, of all things, pupfish. Devils Hole pupfish are threatened by the radioactive water from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. Wild turkeys, Eastern elk, passenger pigeons, bison: “the advent of technologies like the railroad and the repeating rifle turned extinction into a readily observable phenomenon” (73). One option is to accept the losses as the way of the world, but we don’t want to let them go, which has just created many thousands of species that are ‘conservation-reliant’ — dependent on their persecutors for basic survival.
Under the water, global bleaching events in 2010 and a three year heat wave from 2014–17 and that “fossil-fuel emissions were making the seas more acidic” (91) have destroyed the Great Barrier Reef, a collection of 3,000 reefs over 135,000 square miles in “an area larger than Italy” (104). Ruth Gates wants to save the reefs with super coral, potentially saving 10% of it:
“I’m a realist.’ Gates told me at one point. ‘I cannot continue to hope that our planet is not going to change radically. It already is changed.’ People could either ‘assist’ corals in coping with the change they’d brought about, or they could watch them die. Anything else, in her view, was wishful thinking. ‘A lot of people want to go back to something,’ she said. ‘They think, if we just stop doing things, maybe the reef will come back to what it was’” (94).
Gates explains, “We need to buy time. So I see assisted evolution as filling that gap, being a bridge between now and the day when we’re really holding down climate change or, hopefully, reversing it” (101). Kolbert argues that our efforts aren’t in the same ballpark as nature,
“When Darwin juxtaposed ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ selection, there was no question in his mind which was more powerful. Pigeon fanciers had done amazing things, breeding varieties so distinctive that to many they seemed different birds entirely. (All the varieties, from fantails to pouters, were, Darwin realized, descended from a single species). . . . In the grand scheme of things, artificial selection was just tinkering at the margins. It was natural selection — indifferent but infinitely patient — that had given rise to life’s astonishing diversity. . . . All of theses ‘elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner,’ had been produced by the same mindless, inhuman force” (109).
And then she gets into genetic modifications and cane toads.
We can make pigs that resist swine fever and make chickens glow, and we can make cane toads less prolific and unstoppable eating machines.
“It’s too late in the day to be worried about a few genes here and there. . . . What people are not seeing is that this is already a genetically modified environment. . . . Invasive species alter the environment by adding entire genomes that don’t belong. Genetic engineers, by contrast, alter just a few bits of DNA here and there. What we’re doing is potentially adding on maybe ten more genes onto the 20,000 toad genes that shouldn’t be there in the first places, and those ten will sabotage the rest and take them out of the system and so restore balance. . . . We are using our understanding of biological processes to see if we can benefit a system that is in trauma” (119).
“Rejecting such technologies as unnatural isn’t going to bring nature back. The choice is not between what was and what is, but between what is and what will be, which, often enough, is nothing. . . . Stick to a strict interpretation of the nature and these — along with thousands of other species — are goners. The issue, at this point, is not whether we’re going to alter nature, but to what end? .. . We are as gods, but we have failed to get good at it . .. We are Loki, killing the beautiful for fun. We are Saturn, devouring our children . . . . Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Sometimes it is the other way around” (139).
That brings us to carbon capture. Climate change started 9,000 years ago, “when wheat was domesticated in the Middle East and rice in Asia. Early farmers set to clearing land for agriculture, and as they chopped and burned their way through the forests, carbon dioxide was released” (147). Sure it exploded after the industrial revolution, but we’ve affected the planet for millennia. Now we have the ability to affect it by turning CO2 into stone sucked from the air. Klaus Lackner, who is said to have invented the idea of ‘negative emissions’ argues that it “offers a way to change the math” (149). “If technologies to pull CO2 out of the environment fail, then we’re in deep trouble. . . . Since global emissions are now running around 40 billion tons a year, if you build a hundred million trailer-sized units, you could more or less keep up. . . . The iPhone has only been around since 2007, and there are now almost a billion in use” (151). “Cutting emissions is at once absolutely essential and insufficient. Were we to halve emissions — a step that would entail rebuilding much of the world’s infrastructure — CO2 levels wouldn’t drop, they’d simply rise less quickly” (154).
BUT there are lots of issues with the idea:
“If people thought there was some way to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they’d just emit even more of it. . . . Burning fossil fuels generates energy. Capturing CO2 from the air requires energy. So long as this energy comes form burning fossil fuels, it will add to the carbon that has to be captured. . . . Once captured, CO2 has to go somewhere, and where it goes has to be secure. . . . Finally, there’s the issue of cost. . . . burying a billion tons of CO2 — a small percentage of the world’s annual output — would run to $100 billion” (157–8).
We can try planting more trees: “Grow a new forest, and it will draw down carbon until it reaches maturity. A recent study by Swiss researchers estimated that planting a trillion trees could remove 200 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere over the next several decades” (159). BECCS — bioenergy with carbon capture and storage — is favoured by the IPCC: “The idea is to plant trees that can pull carbon from the air. The trees are then burned to produce electricity, and the resulting CO2 is captured from the smokestack and shoved underground” (160). She writes about the need for two million workers to be ablet to do this work as if that’s a bad thing. Spun differently, this is an amazing job creator! But, “Take that much arable land out of production and millions could be pushed toward starvation. . . . There ‘s a danger of moving ‘two steps backward in justice for every gigaton step forward’” (161).
Michael Mann thought direct air capture and reforestation were both feasible partial solutions to the problem, but was completely opposed to so geoengineering. Kolbert explains solar radiation management, which was first explored in the 70s, when we recognized the need to stop fossil fuel use and the reluctance of any nation to actually do so:
“Throw a gazillion reflective particles into the stratosphere and less sunlight will reach the planet. . . . If there’s pressure from the public to do something fast, my concern is that there will be no tools at hand other than stratospheric geoengineering. . . . You’re interfering with a highly complex system. . . . As I see our lack of action on climate, I sometimes get quite anxious that this may actually happen” (169). “Of all the substances that might be deployed, Keutsch was most enthusiastic about calcium carbonate” (172).
Like discussions of GMOs, “Whenever anybody makes a statement that solar geoengineering will imperil millions or save the world or whatever, you should aways ask, ‘What solar geoengineering? Done what way?’” (176) There are many substances that can be added to the atmosphere in a handful of ways, all with slightly different effects. Again, there’s a moral hazard problem: If people think geoengineering will work, then it reduces their motivations to cut emissions. BUT, “opening up the range of options could inspire greater action. . . . People might be more willing to spend the big money to cut emissions as part of a project that, overall, wasn’t going to just limit the damage but was actually going to make the world better” (178).
Geoengineering would definitely be faster but another argument against it is that it addresses symptoms, not causes: “Geoengineering has been compared to treating a heroin habit with methadone, though perhaps a more apt comparison would be to treating a heroin habit with amphetamines. The end result is two addictions in place of one. . . . If the SAILs flew for a few decades and then, for whatever reason — a war, a pandemic, unhappiness with the results — they stopped, the effect would be like opening a globe-sized oven door . . . that’s become known as ‘termination shock’ (180).
Kolbert is clearly concerned with the problems of geoengineering, but also recognizes its potential for use:
“I’m a scientist. My job is not to tell people the good news. My job is to describe the world as accurately as possible. . .. If we stop CO2 emissions tomorrow, which, of course, is impossible, it’s still going to warm at least for centuries, because the ocean hasn’t equilibrated. . . . We’re going to be lucky to stop at 4 degrees celsius. That’s not optimistic or pessimistic. I think that’s objective reality. . . . You’re a world leader and there’s a technology that could take the pain and suffering away, or take some of it away. You’ve got to be really tempted. I’m not saying they’ll do it tomorrow. I feel like we might have thirty years. The highest priority for scientists is to figure out all the different ways this could go wrong” (185).
“All of civilization falls within this period of relative tranquility, and so this sort of calm is what we take to be the norm” (195). “Why did human beings not make civilization 50,000 years ago? . . . This ice age was so climatically unstable that each time you had the beginnings of a culture, they had to move. Then comes the present interglacial — 10,000 years of very stable climate. The perfect conditions for agriculture . . . the calm of the last ten thousand years is clearly coming to an end. Without intending to, or even realizing it, humanity has used the stability it lucked into to create Greenland-scale instability. . . . Obviously, our ancestors dealt with this tumult, or we wouldn’t be here. But, in contrast to us, they traveled light” (197–9).
“Geoengineering may be ‘entirely crazy and quite disconcerting,’ but if it could slow the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or take some of ‘the pain and suffering away,’ or help prevent no-longer-fully-natural ecosystems from collapsing, doesn’t it have to be considered? . . . [Andy Parker’s] preferred drug analogy for the technology is chemotherapy. No one in his right mind would undergo chemotherapy were better options available. . . ‘We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it’. . .. But to imagine that ‘dimming the fucking sun’ could be less dangerous than not dimming it, you have to imagine not only that the technology will work according to plan but also that it will be deployed according to plan. And that’s a lot of imagining” (200).
But, hey, COP26 is just five months away. And the youth are still fighting for change. The question is, what will that change look like?