Elizabeth Kolbert talks climate change and the Sixth Extinction in Assembly Series lecture

| Editor-in-Chief

(Jasmine Li | Student Life)

Award-winning journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert spoke at Washington University about climate change and the extinction crisis, Feb 12. 

Kolbert is the second speaker brought to campus by the newly reinstated Assembly Series lecture. Her lecture, titled “The Fate of the Earth,” to the almost 750 people in Graham Chapel, started with an anecdote about a Hawaiian crow, one of the last of the Alala species.

The crow’s caretakers, desperate for him to mate to help save his species, would stroke him “in a way that crows are supposed to find very exciting,” Kolbert said. “To me, [this crow] sort of came to sum up this very strange, sad situation that we find ourselves in … people are going to fantastic lengths to save the species. They are, in effect, giving hand jobs to crows.” 

In the rest of her lecture, which was around 45 minutes long, Kolbert continued to explain the scope of the climate crisis, focusing on atmospheric warming, ocean acidity, and invasive species. 

Kolbert narrowed her lecture on the idea of a “Sixth Extinction” — the first five being over 65 million years ago — and its implications. One extinction, the Cretaceous-Tertiary, famously involved an asteroid that killed most of the dinosaurs. The current extinction, however, would involve the rapid loss of many plant and animal species if the climate continues to change. 

“Some scientists would say maybe we can still prevent it. And some say we are pretty deep into it already,” Kolbert said. Her book, “The Sixth Extinction,” argues for the latter. 

Alongside stories of dying bats, bleached coral reefs, and invasive rat species, Kolbert brought up a handful of statistics to illustrate the depth and breadth of the climate crisis. 

“CO2 levels have not been above 300 parts per million for at least the last hundred thousand years and probably a lot longer. And we are heading very rapidly towards 600 parts per million,” Kolbert said. 

She added that despite the Paris Agreement in 2015, which proposed to hold warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and was signed onto by 175 global parties, we have already surpassed that increase. 

Kolbert also said that the odd weather that St. Louis has been experiencing — extreme cold to spring-like warmth in just a few weeks — is a result of climate change. 

“I think what people need to think about when they say ‘Oh it’s great to have a 60-degree day in February’ is what it’s going to be like in July,” she said. “It’s not stopping. [First] it’s a 60 degree day in February, and then it will be a 65 degree day in February and a 70 degree day.” 

As for the University, Kolbert said that investing in research and education on climate warming is important, as well as taking direct action in response to their scientific findings. 

“I mean, if everyone’s research shows we need to cut carbon emissions, then universities need to be at the forefront of doing that. I believe that universities need to walk the walk,” she said. 

However, Kolbert is skeptical that any one intervention — either biotech innovation or scaling back carbon emissions — can reverse damage to the environment. 

“We haven’t shown ourselves inclined to cut back, and at the same time, I don’t have faith that technology is somehow going to save us,” she said. 

Kolbert herself makes some small climate-conscious decisions — she has solar panels on her house and an electric car. But in many ways, Kolbert says that she is like everyone else. 

“I did fly here,” she said, referencing how she traveled from her home in upstate New York to St. Louis. “I have the same carbon footprint as everyone else.” 

Mostly, Kolbert channels the anxiety she feels about the climate into her writing. She contributes regularly to the New Yorker and has a new book — “H is for Hope”— coming out in March. But still, she’s nervous about the future. 

“I have kids … and I’m very worried about what the world is gonna look like in a couple of decades from now,” Kolbert said. 

Despite her dire warnings of global warming, Kolbert said that she doesn’t have a guidebook for what people should do after consuming her climate journalism. 

“I believe in the importance of information and facts,” she said. “I hope that it shocks people, and makes them take some form of action, but I don’t have a prescription [for that].” 


Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.