Elizabeth Kolbert, a Pulitzer winner for ‘The Sixth Extinction’, publishes a new book “on how we try to solve problems that others created by trying to solve problems.”

Aerial view of Agincourt Reef, one of the segments of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.AP

Updated Wednesday, June 16, 2021 –

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“We live in a world where darkening the fucking sun might be less of a risk than not.” The phrase corresponds to Andy Parker, director of the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative Project, which aims to place geoengineering at the center of the debate on how to combat global warming. And what is geoengineering? In projecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere (be it diamond dust, sulfur dioxide, or calcium carbonate), filtering the sun’s energy to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes. It sounds crazy and it can be counterproductive, but it may be one of the few options left for us to combat climate change on a global scale.

Elizabeth Kolbert, journalist and author of The sixth extinction, an essay on human contribution to the loss of biodiversity which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, addresses in Under a white sky (Ed. Criticism) this and other technologies that seek to modify and control nature to keep warming at bay, not always with positive consequences. “It’s important not to use the word ‘solution,'” he warns by videoconference from his home in western Massachusetts, with a chorus of birds as the morning soundtrack.

“Climate change is not reversible, even if we carry out really dramatic actions. To minimize it as much as possible, there is a broad scientific consensus on the need to reduce CO2 emissions. But the question also arises: will that be enough? Right now the most common answer among the leading experts in the field is that it is probably not enough, because we have already passed the threshold that condemns us to very drastic changes in all ecosystems. It is a somewhat daunting prospect, “he explains slowly, specifying and qualifying each of his statements, with the care of a seasoned researcher.

On Under a white skyA title that refers to one of the unwanted effects that geoengineering could have, Kolbert offers a dazzling amalgam of history, theories and scientific practices and pure journalistic observation, which at times illuminates and at times horrifies. Yes to write The sixth extinction Kolbert traveled to Costa Rica to document the disappearance of the golden frog or to Peru to see firsthand how tropical forests were adapting to such accelerated losses of biodiversity, here his travels have taken him to places as disparate and remote as canals and rivers. swamps of New Orleans, the Devil’s Hole pool in the Mojave desert, a pioneering initiative in Iceland that turns CO2 into stone or the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

‘Assisted evolution’

In this last place, Kolbert points out, the book began to take shape: “I went there in 2016 and that is where it all began, researching what is known as the supercoral project. If we want coral reefs to survive, since they are fundamental for the balance of marine ecosystems, we have to use genetic engineering with the corals themselves, crossing them to obtain varieties that are more resistant to heating. It seemed like a very interesting idea and I began to see a certain pattern, a way of thinking that could be applied to different areas “. In Australia, the geneticist and microbiologist Madeleine Van Oppen is working on what she has called assisted evolution, experiments and crosses with corals to enhance the reproduction of the Great Barrier Reef, exposed to the bleaching produced by the heat waves that are killing it. her at a devastating rate.

Elizabeth Kolbert,
Elizabeth Kolbert,ED. DASH

But efforts to control and dominate nature, even with the goal of preserving it, do not always have a happy ending. This is the case of the Chinese carp that the US Fish and Wildlife Service imported in 1963 to keep the aquatic plants that threatened the Mississippi’s biodiversity at bay. They had been carried away by the allegations of Silent spring, the influential work of Rachel Carson, one of the pioneering scientists of environmental awareness.

Now, to contain the unstoppable expansion of an invasive species like carp, the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed electrical barriers in the river itself and is considering spending billions of dollars annually to develop methods to contain, divert or eliminate “the four famous domestic fish” from China. “I’m a big Carson fan,” Kolbert acknowledges, “but it’s true that Silent spring it ended with a very obvious exhortation about what the world should do and that had some unwanted effects. Still, I still think she was a heroine. Her work had a huge impact, in most cases in a very positive way, but in others, which she could not foresee, it also caused some problems. ”

Techno optimism versus techno fatalism

In front of techno optimism of Silicon Valley, Kolbert offers a sort of techno fatalism, although he maintains a studied ambivalence about the convenience of each of the techniques, initiatives and projects that he analyzes in each of the chapters of the book. Precisely, to avoid repeating Carson’s mistakes, Kolbert argues that “I am deliberately very ambiguous about which of these techniques should succeed. I am basically skeptical and do not want to say anything that I may regret later.”

What is clear is that our current attitude “It’s as if we are sleepwalking into unprecedented disasters. People do not realize the scale or speed of climate change and by that I mean not only global warming, but profound transformations that are happening all over the planet and that have no analogies throughout our history. To find similar effects we would have to go to the Cretaceous period, when the asteroid impacted and ended, among other things, with the dinosaurs. “Now we are the meteorite and we do not know for sure how to stop the impact.

Faced with such a black panorama, is there any room for hope? Kolbert takes a deep sigh and puts on his glasses holding his hair before answering. Jim Hanson, who is often called the father of global warming as the NASA scientist who raised the alarm in the first place about rising temperatures and has proven himself right time and time again, often says: ‘I hope you’re listening.’ And I think that’s the best possible answer. The question is not whether people are hopeful or not, but whether they are taking the necessary steps to remedy all this. ” Meanwhile, western Massachusetts birds continue to chirp, oblivious to geoengineering, super corals, negative emissions technologies and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. For how long? Who knows …

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