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How technology enables conservationists to take action: My long-read Q&A with Elizabeth Kolbert

By James Pethokoukis and Elizabeth Kolbert

Should humanity spray Earth’s atmosphere with calcium carbonate to cool the planet? How about using gene-editing to combat invasive species? More broadly, what does it look like when humanity tinkers with the environment to try and fix the unintended consequences of past actions? Are such efforts forward-looking or reckless? Unthinkable or inevitable? I recently discussed these questions with Elizabeth Kolbert.

Elizabeth is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at The New Yorker, as well as the author of several books, the most recent of which is Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, released this past February.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation, including brief portions that were cut from the original podcast. You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis: When I was reading about the geoengineering possibilities you outline in the book — from reflecting sunlight to moving carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — I thought about Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative at the end of the Cold War. Back then, there were all sorts of ideas about how to create an anti-missile shield. The whole concept really signaled an end to the Cold War status of mutually assured destruction.

So the fact that we’re now talking about engineering the climate in some way — as well as these other adaptations you write about — does this signal an end to the status quo in the environmentalist movement? Does it change it in some way, where we now need humans to be less risk-averse and to intervene more in the natural world?

Kolbert: One of the points in the book is that we’ve jammed ourselves up. And the technologies that you talk about — which are often grouped together under the term “geoengineering” — I think will be increasingly separated out. On the one hand, we’ll have carbon dioxide removal, which refers to getting CO2 that’s already up in the air out of the air. And on the other hand, there are solar geoengineering techniques of literally blocking sunlight from hitting the Earth.

Carbon dioxide removal is still controversial in many ways, but I do think it’s going to be increasingly discussed and tried. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: We actually really need it. It’s already built into a lot of the scenarios provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — this international body that has been tasked with trying to peer into the future. For the scenarios that they’ve devised that try to hold global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius — which is actually quite a lot — all of the 1.5 degrees scenarios have already negative emissions (getting CO2 out of the air) built into them. And the vast majority of the 2 degrees scenario also have negative emissions built into them. So this is one of those weird cases where we’ve sort of come to rely on technologies or techniques before we really know how to put them into practice.

It seems like a lot of the focus of environmentalists is on things we need to do differently in our everyday lives, whether it’s taking fewer flights or trying to use less energy. In the long run, does any of that matter? I’m very skeptical about people engaging in big lifestyle changes, accepting slower growth, or living simpler lives. Yet there still seems to be a lot of talk about those kinds of things. Is any of that really going to matter, ultimately, if those geoengineering technologies don’t work out?

What’s going to profoundly matter is changing our energy systems. It’s the question of whether we can switch out carbon-emitting energies for non-carbon forms of energy and simply go on as we are now, or whether we need more to really reach these targets of net-zero emissions that many countries are now subscribing to — and which are really fundamental in dealing with climate change.

Via Twenty20

I can’t stress this enough. The atmosphere is often compared to a bathtub, because even if you slow carbon emissions, it’s like slowing the amount of water that’s pouring into a bathtub. If you don’t stop it, the tub is still going to overflow. And that’s the same for our atmosphere and for climate change. If we don’t really reach net-zero emissions, the climate is going to keep changing. We’re going to just keep warming up the world in perpetuity, basically.

That is extremely dangerous to contemplate. As you and I are speaking, there’s a very severe drought in the western United States. There’s just a piece in The New York Times today about how the drought is affecting the Pacific Northwest, as well as the Southwest. And we’re going to just see more and more of these kinds of stories.

So one can be skeptical of whether people want to change their lives. And certainly, I think that we haven’t shown a great appetite for that. But change is coming at us. The climate is changing. There’s just no getting around that. And at a certain point, if we just decide to sort of throw up our hands and say, “Well, we really don’t want to change our lives at all. We don’t want to change our energy systems at all,” we’re going to face massive changes of a different form. So the choice is, unfortunately, up to us at this point.

For professional environmentalists or activists, what has been their response to your book?

Well, I haven’t gotten a particular response to the book from a specific community. I’d have to ask people who consider themselves climate activists. But the book is kind of open-ended. It lets you decide whether you find some of these technological fixes on the horizon to be hopeful possibilities or very scary possibilities.

I love technology. I think technology creates problems, and then it helps us solve those problems and probably creates more problems in the solution. But I’m also a child of the post-Silent Spring 1970s. I’ve watched a million scary, dystopian movies and documentaries. So even though I love technology, when I hear about geoengineering and its forms, my first impulse is always, “This is going to go wrong, right?”

That’s probably a pretty healthy response, yeah.

So for the people who really think, “This sounds like a terrible idea,” what is their argument? And what is their alternative scenario? What do they want to do if not engineer our climate?

Well, there are people who really oppose geoengineering or even any discussion or research of geoengineering — and that’s what we’re really talking about right now. We’re not talking about doing geoengineering. We have no really good idea, to be honest, if it would even work. It’s pretty theoretical at this point.

And people who say we shouldn’t even do research into this would say it really distracts from the major issue at hand, which is changing our energy systems so that we no longer burn fossil fuels and no longer emit vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Now, the people who work on geoengineering — the scientists who say, “Well, we really ought to research it” — they would also say. “We really, really need to reduce our emissions.” Because if you just continue to let emissions grow, then the amount of geoengineering you have to do — the amount of sunlight you have to block — also continues to grow. And I think pretty much everyone would agree that’s not a tenable situation. So people who say we should be researching geoengineering say, “It’s something that we could use potentially to buy some more time to reduce emissions.” But the ultimate goal — I think both groups would agree — has to be reducing emissions.

The book isn’t just about geoengineering. You write a number of reporting vignettes about efforts to adapt the natural world. What did these examples teach you about the idea of adapting our world?

Well, the book begins with a very paradigmatic, vivid example: the Chicago River. This river runs right down the center of Chicago, which gets dyed green every year for St. Patrick’s Day and is just a much-abused river. It used to flow through Chicago east into Lake Michigan, and Chicago used the river as its sewage system, basically, for many years. So it was basically pouring its sewage into Lake Michigan, which is a drinking water source.

So at the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago River was reversed through this amazing construction project — perhaps the largest construction project of its day. And in the process of reversing the Chicago River, what happened was that you ended up connecting the Great Lakes and the Mississippi systems, which were previously distinct. And over the course of the 20th century, both of those systems became highly invaded bodies of water.

A boat travels down the Chicago River a day after record rainfall caused widespread flooding of the riverfront on Wednesday May 20, 2020 in Chicago, IL. Via REUTERS/Christopher Dilts/Sipa USA

I’m sure many of your listeners have heard about the problem of Asian carp moving up the Mississippi towards the Great Lakes. So one of the amazing things that we’ve done — one of these interventions to counter previous interventions — is the Army Corps of Engineers actually electrified part of the Chicago River (basically, the canal that was built to reverse the Chicago River) to try to discourage invasive species from crossing from one base into the other. And because no one quite trusts this electric barrier, the Army Corps is also considering a new barrier that will cost close to a billion dollars. It will have bubbles and noise. It was described to me as a disco barrier.

So that’s one example of the kinds of wonderful interventions to solve previous interventions in the book. There’s also a long discussion of gene-editing. I’m sure most of your listeners have heard about CRISPR, which is this really revolutionary gene-editing technique that has made it much, much easier to transfer genes from one organism to the other, basically. And it raises the question: We have many, many conservation problems — many, many species being driven to the brink of extinction for different reasons including climate change and invasive species. So are we going to start tweaking the genomes of creatures in an effort to protect them against these threats that we ourselves have introduced? I think that conservation is on the horizon.

This notion that we live in the world, we change the world, and we’re not going to stop so let’s figure out ways to adapt the world to what we’re doing so we can keep moving forward — is that how people think about things in other areas? Is that how they think about it in Europe, for instance, or in other parts of the world?

That’s a really interesting question, and I think different cultures and societies will have very different responses. We in the US tend to be pretty pro-tech. We’re kind of in love with technology, and that’s one of the themes of the book. And a bunch of these projects are in the US.

But a bunch of them are not. I went to visit a project to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. This is happening right now in Iceland, and it’s not a significant dent in climate change, but it’s had a lot of EU money behind it. But, for example, the Europeans are much more opposed to genetically modified organisms. Here in the US, most of our corn and most of our soy are GMOs. The Europeans have really resisted that. So I think you will find different responses in different parts of the world.

What do you think about American culture explains this? Sometimes I worry that we’re too risk-averse, even if we may be more willing to take risks in some other places. Have you thought about why we seem to be more willing to think about these technologies, perhaps?

Well, I think we’ve always been a very gung-ho, the-next-big-thing society. And many of our fellow Americans have become very, very wealthy off of inventing the next best thing. That’s sort of what we do best, and then we export it to the rest of the world if we can. So I think that our very innovative, very creative economy is the reason.

You’re saying that we’re too risk-averse, but I think many people would make the opposite claim — that we actually often tend to deploy technologies only to later find out the consequences and then have to try to track down who is responsible. And that’s a huge legal morass.

I read a lot about AI when people discuss the next great technology. It seems to me that we should be talking more about CRISPR — both the risks and also the benefits. As you’ve done your reporting, how significant of a technology is it? We’re still in the early days, but where might that take us?

Well, I think that it is very significant. And I think you’re right — there probably should be more discussion of it, because while the possibilities that are opened up are not qualitatively different — we were already able to do quite amazing things with gene-editing — CRISPR makes it so much cheaper and so much easier.

One of the things I do in the book is buy a kit from a company out in California that allowed me, in my kitchen, to gene-edit a strain of bacteria — E. coli — to be antibiotic-resistant. So any high school kid can basically do that these days with the right tools. There are a lot of potential dangers here. And people in the bio-weaponry world are extremely concerned about what you can now cook up — potentially much, much more easily than it used to be. What could you do if you had evil intentions? That’s a very scary thing, and that’s one whole subject.

But then there’s the question of using CRISPR for good. People will have very, very different views about where we should take this. It’s already huge in terms of research, but are we going to take it the next step and let these genetically modified organisms out into the world? Are we going to do gene therapy for humans? You can theoretically — and quite possibly, practically — gene-edit human embryos. There was even a case in China where a guy claimed to have gene-edited twin girls. We don’t really know the truth there, but we are entering into Brave New World territory, absolutely.

I suppose if I was sitting in front of a panel with the button that was going to let the gene-modified mosquitoes out into the wild, I’m not sure that would be a very easy decision for me to press that button.

Yeah! And there’s another thing that CRISPR makes possible, and I do talk about this in the book. It’s hugely on the horizon, and I don’t know what we’re going to do about it. I think it will require a very, very public conversation.

A Chinese medical worker performs genetic testing on fertilized eggs or embryos for test-tube babies in the lab of Shanxi Province Reproductive Science Institute in Taiyuan city, north China’s Shanxi province, 29 November 2018. Via REUTERS

Regarding the gene-editing mosquitoes that you’re talking about, nowadays you can gene-edit mosquitoes that contain what’s called “gene drive,” so that a trait that you have gene-edited gets passed down from generation to generation basically a hundred percent of the time (these mosquitoes exist in a biosecure facility in Italy). That’s done using CRISPR, and it is an incredibly powerful technology.

The theory is that you could use that to create these mosquitoes that pass on some trait that makes them unable to reproduce. And you would pass that on from generation to generation until you had gotten rid of a whole population — or potentially a whole species. And that opens up vistas of human intervention that are, once again, either heartening (if you want to get rid of malaria-carrying mosquitoes) or terrifying.

Do you have ideas about what you want policymakers to do? Who is making all these decisions about when to hit the button to let out the gene-modified mosquitoes? And who should be making those decisions?

Well, I’ll be frank and say I don’t really take that up in the book. But one message in the book is that we don’t really have the institutions to make these decisions. We tend to go at things kind of willy-nilly. And when you think about it, who could make those decisions when the mosquitoes aren’t going to necessarily stay within the borders of one country, right?

So you need transnational decision-making. We’re really not very good at that. So some of these technologies may get stopped in their tracks because we simply can’t agree. Or one country might decide to go ahead, in which case your mosquitoes might also be eliminated because someone in another country decided to do this.

This raises, I think, the most profound questions about our ability — as an incredibly clever species — to manage our own inventions. There is definitely a Dr. Frankenstein quality here.

What about the degrowth movement? They’re very skeptical of economic growth, and I imagine they’ll also be skeptical of many of these interventions. But it seems to be a movement that’s gaining some momentum. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Well, I think if you do the math on our impacts on the world, it’s very hard. We’ve been in love with growth for a long time, and economic growth has come with great benefits to humanity and at great cost to other species. And I think we have to be frank about that. And so it’s a question of whether we can continue this in perpetuity when we live on a finite planet.

There’s a very famous saying — a quote from an economist named Kenneth Boulding from the 70s: “The only people who think you can have infinite growth on a finite planet are madmen and economists.” And I think that in the course of this century, we’re going to kind of decide the question: Is this possible or not?

We still do depend on these planetary systems. As clever and as technologically advanced as we are, all of our food is still basically coming from biological systems. So can we continue infinite growth on a finite planet? I personally think that’s unlikely. I don’t think you can have infinite growth on a finite planet. It’s just mathematically not possible.

If we look back a hundred years from now and see that we’ve stabilized the climate in a satisfactory way, how do you think we ended up doing it?

I think we ended up doing it by inventing technology that allowed us to produce energy without producing carbon. And I do believe we’re capable of doing that. Some of this already exists. The magic of a solar panel is pretty extraordinary and has gotten very, very inexpensive. So I do think that technology will play an important role in that.

My guest today has been Elizabeth Kolbert, Elizabeth, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Thanks for having me.

James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker.

The post How technology enables conservationists to take action: My long-read Q&A with Elizabeth Kolbert appeared first on American Enterprise Institute - AEI.

Read more https://www.aei.org/economics/how-technology-enables-conservationists-to-take-action-my-long-read-qa-with-elizabeth-kolbert/

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