New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert on her ‘depressing’ beat

By Maxine Joselow | 01/18/2019 01:02 PM EST

Elizabeth Kolbert makes a living documenting catastrophe.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert covers climate change for <em>The New Yorker</em>.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth Kolbert covers climate change for The New Yorker. Kolbert/Special to E&E News

Elizabeth Kolbert makes a living documenting catastrophe.

The New Yorker reporter has been covering climate change since 2001. She’s traveled the globe to see the impacts of warming firsthand, from melting ice sheets in Greenland to disappearing species in Vermont.

The 57-year-old has racked up accolades along the way. Her book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History," which makes the case that humans are causing another mass extinction event, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.


It’s been exhausting.

"It’s a beat where there’s never really any good news," Kolbert said in a recent interview from her home in Williamstown, Mass., where she lives with her husband, John Kleiner, an English professor at Williams College.

"And it’s a hard beat because climate change is always happening," she added. "It’s always going to be happening for as long as we’re alive. And for kids born today, the climate’s going to be changing because of what we’ve already done."

The graduate of Yale University and winner of the National Magazine Award has her hands full these days. She’s working on another book as well as a New Yorker piece on land loss along the Louisiana coast.

Kolbert recently took a break from writing to speak with E&E News about how climate journalism has changed, what it’s like winning a Pulitzer and how she’s liking the catastrophe beat.

When did you first start writing about climate change?

I went to Greenland back in 2001 and wrote a piece about paleoclimates and what we’re learning about the climate from the ice cores there. That kind of got me started.

What was climate journalism like in those days?

If you go back and look at the coverage, you’ll find that human-caused climate change was portrayed as a much more debatable issue. Even a lot of the big scientific organizations in the U.S. had not yet come out with a definitive statement on climate change.

Was that related to efforts by fossil fuel companies?

Well, there was this shifting dialogue in the science community that was not really reflected yet in the news coverage. And as many people have very diligently documented, a lot of that had to do with a pretty concerted effort by fossil fuel companies to cloud this issue and politicize it.

When was the inflection point? In other words, when did it become the mainstream scientific consensus that the planet is warming as a result of human activity?

I think it was right around 2003. A lot of 30-year data sets came together showing things since the beginning of the satellite era. And the American Geophysical Union came out and made a pretty firm statement that climate change is happening, and we’re seeing its effects now.

People like [NASA scientist] Jim Hansen predicted early on that the signal would emerge from the noise around 2000. And that’s exactly what happened.

What’s your favorite story that you’ve ever written?

I actually still really like that first story I wrote from Greenland about ice coring. Greenland is such a cool place, and there was so much interesting science going on there that it really was very, very eye-opening for me.

Your 2014 book "The Sixth Extinction" won a Pulitzer Prize. What was your reaction? Were you surprised?

Well, you don’t really know what’s going on until they announce the winner, so I was completely taken by surprise. I was actually not in the country at the time. I was in Bonn, Germany, reporting a story.

So how do you like the catastrophe beat?

Well, it’s a beat where there’s never really any good news. And it’s a hard beat because climate change is always happening. It’s always going to be happening for as long as we’re alive. And for kids born today, the climate’s going to be changing because of what we’ve already done.

What has continued to be true about the beat?

I think what has continued to be true about the beat is the disparity between what scientists are saying and what the public seems to absorb. On some level, though, it has only gotten wider.

Can the beat be depressing at times?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve been doing this for nearly two decades. And on the policy front right now, we’re running in the wrong direction. That’s certainly depressing.

Speaking of the policy front, have you been disappointed by President Trump’s environmental rule rollbacks?

Yes, absolutely. It just shows a level of disregard for science, for future generations, for the rest of the world, that’s just appalling.

I think that when our descendants look back on this moment — a time when the damages from climate change were becoming increasingly apparent and we moved in the wrong direction — they will not look on this kindly. It will be seen as a moment of either madness or horror.

What were the biggest climate stories of 2018?

I think the rollback of the auto fuel efficiency standards was a big one. It went even further than the car companies wanted. And then there’s the dismantling of the Clean Power Plan, the effort to open up public lands to drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I think the overarching theme here is trying to get as much fossil fuel infrastructure up and running before this — I don’t know what to call it — orgy of fossil fuel burning comes to an end, and it must.

What will be the biggest climate stories of 2019?

I think one of the interesting stories of this year will be what happens now that the Democrats have the House. How is climate change going to play towards 2020? Some people are pushing a Green New Deal; [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] is now bringing back cap and trade.

So are the politics around this issue finally going to move? I’m not sitting here holding my breath, I’m going to be frank. But I’ll certainly be watching.

What is your next book about?

It’s a complicated one to explain. Let’s just say it’s about life on a human-dominated planet. I’ll leave it at that.

What is your family like?

I’m married to an English professor, and I have three boys. My oldest is in graduate school, and the young two are in college.

Do you talk to your sons about climate change?

Yes, absolutely. We talk about it all the time. My oldest is actually studying atmospheric science. So from the scientific standpoint, he’s way ahead of his mom already. There’s not much I can tell him these days that he doesn’t already know.

What are you reading now?

Well, I’m actually working on a piece right now on Louisiana, so I’ve been reading a lot of histories of New Orleans. I have a huge pile of them here, including John Barry’s great book "Rising Tide," which I recommend.

What do I read for fun? I don’t read nonfiction for fun. I tend to read novels for fun. How’s that?

This interview has been edited and condensed.