Author: Gretchen Schrafft
Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and author of a recently published book on global warming, lectured before an audience of students, faculty and community members in McCardell Bicentennial Hall last Monday. Kolbert is touring to publicize her book, “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change,” and spoke at Middlebury as a part of the College’s “Meet the Press” series of guest lecturers.
Kolbert explained that the topic of her book arose from an article she undertook to write for The New Yorker about research being conducted in the field of paleoclimatology, or climate history. Kolbert shadowed a research team which based its findings about climate change upon readings conducted from samples of ice drilled in Greenland. Kolbert’s wry humor reveiled itself as she discussed public reception of the article, which appeared in print on Sept. 10, 2001. “You can imagine how many people were interested,” she said.
The article did, however, generate enough interest to prompt The New Yorker to offer Kolbert a three-part series assignment on the topic of global warming and climate control. Kolbert’s somewhat-surprising reaction to this proposal introduced a crucial point which seemed to lie at the heart of her lecture.
Kolbert struggled with the decision to accept the assignment, well aware of the inherent difficulties in creating a compelling article on the gradual effects of global warming.
A perfect example of the subject’s “unreportability” lies in the fact that much of scientific information is communicated in numbers and technical phrases, often incomprehensible to the average person.
In Kolbert’s attempt to attach narrative to her topic, she utilized a variety of tactics in each article. The first focused on the current plight of an island town in the Arctic that is grappling with the effects of global warming. The second employed the anecdote of a drought that devastated the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia as a cautionary message applicable to the planet’s own future. Lastly, Kolbert provided an alternative approach to the current United States policy of describing events taking place in the Netherlands where government-sponsored ads about the dangers of global warming are routinely aired on television.
Kolbert’s book is a more in depth examination of the climate control issue, which she elected to draw to a close in Burlington, in order to demonstrate positive combative efforts. Kolbert looks at Burlington as something of an oasis in the desert, because it is “frighteningly hard to find a place where people are actually doing things.” Burlington’s “Ten Percent Challenge” is an endeavor to cut back on energy consumption by 10 percent. Unfortunately, this goal has yet to be achieved.
The question and answer period demonstrated the overwhelming concern of audience members, many of whom expressed eagerness to effect change on the country’s production of greenhouse gases. Kolbert lamented the fact that global warming has been politicized, detracting from any unified attempts to address the situation. She noted the irony of taxpayers’ dollars funding scientific studies on the matter, only to have the results ignored or distorted. The simple truth of the matter, as Kolbert explained, was that “until you lead a lifestyle that is all but inconceivable to Americans, you are still producing more greenhouse gases than anyone else in the world.”
When asked during the question and answer segment how best to draw attention to the issue on campus, Kolbert responded: “Media thrives on news.” She charged students to give the media something newsworthy, something that would allow it to turn the eternal lament over global warming into a captivating story. However, Kolbert also cautioned that the one thing such movements should avoid is becoming hypocritical, using the example of a student driving a car to a hunger strike to illustrate her point.
In her remarks, Kolbert mentioned that since conducting her research, the climate has undergone “scary changes.” The town in Alaska, which she focused on in one of her articles, now has open water on its beaches in the dead of winter. She characterized climate change as “the running story of our lives.”
Kolbert ended the lecture by restating that global warming is an increasingly serious problem with no immediate resolution in sight. If global warming is to hold a central place in world events for generations to come, it needs to be more than simply newsworthy; it needs to demand our undivided concern and attention.