I recently heard Elizabeth Kolbert speak. Last year she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Sixth Extinction—An Unnatural History. I read it over the summer. It’s brilliant and beautiful and disturbing. So I wanted to see her, but from a distance.
The event was at Bucknell University, a posh private college about 20 minutes from my house. I’m actually kind of shy in large public settings, unless of course I am the one on stage.
Kolbdert began by talking about one of the responses she has gotten in the past to the same talk she was about to give. Audience members complained: You tell us about all these problems with extinctions, but you do not tell us how we should feel about it or what to do.
She said that she was going to do the same–leave us to figure out our feelings and come up with our own solutions.
When she said this I thought, You going to drop mass extinctions on us because of climate change, then not give us any direction?!? It’s true that is how her book ends. But surely she has answers. For whatever reason she is holding back.
She then forged into her talk telling us about species that have gone extinct long ago or recently.
No More Questions? I am terrified to stand up
I can be in a sea of college students with no one over the age of 22 in sight. The talk ends, and the man appears. My one goal in life is to never be that man. And sure enough a man stood up and asked a question to clarify a point Kolbert made. She answered. Then nothing.
Hundreds of people and no other questions. The microphones stood exposed to the crowd.
I am terrified to stand up in a room like that and ask a question. Sure I perform all the time, but its different somehow. But suddenly a question popped in my head. I approached the mic.
For so much of the past 10 years we have been distracted by the topic of climate denial. It has eaten up news articles and the public discourse. We have had to maintain a very simple discussion about the reality of climate change. But what if for the past 10 years there was no climate denial? What if people agreed back in 2006 that the planet was warming and human actively, particularly fossil fuel pollution, was the cause? What would we be talking about today?
She liked the question. And something marvelous happened. In answering the question, she ended up doing what she said she could not—give answers and direction about what to do next. She shared practical solutions.
You can hear her answer (and audio of the encounter) here:
So I pose the question to you.
What if, there was no climate denial? What if for the past 10 years, people were convinced: The climate is warming rapidly leading to disastrous consequences. The cause is human pollution. What would news coverage look like? What would we talk about in school, church, during family meal?
On one Quaker FB page someone suggested we would talk about the kind of things they are already talking about in Northern Europe and other places that have not had the same history of climate denial. That may be true, but the American influence in the denial narrative has had a global reach. It has interrupted the flow of the discussion and has cast doubt on scientists internationally.
I’d love to hear your response in the comments section below. Or feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org Or tweet your answer: @Climate_Stew