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Elizabeth Kolbert Interview
Alex Steffen, 22 Apr 05

Here's a great little interview with climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert:

"It’s true that the climate varies naturally, and some of the recent rise in global temperatures may well be part of a natural cycle. The point that’s important to keep in mind is that the greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere are overwhelming the natural forces that cause climate variability. In effect, we humans are becoming the drivers of the climate system, and we are doing so without knowing where we are going. ...

"In terms of adaptation, it’s a nice idea, and certainly it will be necessary; the amount of warming that is already inevitable is quite significant and may cause severe disruptions. At a certain point, though, the changes will become so great that adaptation will become extremely difficult; a five-foot rise in sea levels, for example, would put parts of the state of Florida underwater. If you imagine that sort of scenario being played out all around the globe, it gets pretty frightening."

(thanks, Jenny!)

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Kolbert's Part I in the New Yorker and this interview are among the best lay language discussions of this issue I've ever seen. One minor quibble: she uses the word "mitigate" to mean actions to reduce emissions. Although the dictionary supports this use, the entire climate dialogue uses it to mean accomodations such as sea walls, planting crops in different parts of the world, and fertilizing the ocean to increase algae bloom (which doesn't work, but people are still seeking grants to research it). "Response" is a better term for actions to reduce emissions.

And without knowing what parts II and III get into, I hope she will address the acidification of the ocean in more detail. Although discussed in scientific papers since 1957, the only online resource I know of is the web page at
(go there, and download the Abstract Book, on the left bar of the page, for about seventy brief discussions of issues related to high carbon in the ocean that may make it impossible for the major forms of algae, plankton, and possibly even vertebrates to reproduce if we do not stop raising atmospheric CO2 levels by making reductions of about 2% per year, starting extremely soon.

The importance of this issue is simply that it is an equal threat to the health of our environment and our ability to feed the current population of the planet, but it is completely unrelated to warming, and a great deal simpler, so that most people with high school educations can understand what is at stake with a little bit of information.

The worst omission of all, in this public debate, is the discussion of the enormous potential for energy efficiency. Many people dismiss it because it cannot "do it all", but we can eliminate all new growth in energy emissions by doubling the current rate of efficiency improvement. To do so in the electric sector requires wind to increase it's current contribution over 40 times, and there are no viable renewable technologies for many energy-using sectors like natural gas and aircraft fuel.

We MUST start examining efficiency and doing everything possible that saves money and reduces fossil fuel use. Ironically, if you work from the cheapest to the most expensive, and include realistic numbers for efficiency potential, you never get to the point where nuclear power is needed. Many people are talking about nuclear, carbon sequestration and other strategies that add fifteen or twenty percent to the cost of energy, but if we start with efficiency and those renewables which are cheapest, we will never need to spend that much money.

And it's a safe bet that the disinformation campaign Ms. Kolbert talks about is funded in part because the fossil and nuclear industries KNOW that efficiency and renewables are strong enough to do the job, and that once this becomes apparent, the entire marketplace will change. After all, who would hand out a billion dollar loan to someone who wants to build the most expensive power plant ever, if we're going to be slowly and steadily reducing the need for power?

For your information, I'm a volunteer advisor to the national Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Committee, and I've been following climate issues for about twenty years. I welcome personal contact at

Posted by: Ned Ford on 27 Apr 05



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