Elizabeth Kolbert wants us to rethink the stories we tell about climate change

Why does it feel like the world has made so much progress on addressing global warming, but also none at all? 

In H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z, Elizabeth Kolbert, a longtime environmental journalist, considers hard questions like this one. Using simple language, she explains that governments are passing climate-friendly laws, clean energy is expanding, companies are creating green technologies, and yet fossil fuel emissions are still, after all these years, rising.

Kolbert’s latest book, a primer brightened by Wesley Allsbrook’s colorful illustrations, is a quick, entertaining read. A is for Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who wanted to figure out what caused ice ages, landed on the idea of carbon dioxide, and built the world’s first climate model in 1894. Arrhenius imagined that a warmer world would be a happier one for humanity. B is for “blah, blah, blah,” the climate activist Greta Thunberg’s mocking summary of what three decades of global climate conferences have accomplished. C is for capitalism, one convincing explanation for why those conferences didn’t accomplish much.

Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written several books, most notably The Sixth Extinction, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of Homo sapiens’ asteroid-level power to wipe out other species. In H Is for Hope, she grounds the abstract problem of climate change in concrete experiences. Kolbert ends up riding an exercise bike in a humid, 106-degree-Fahrenheit vault, monitored for an experiment. (“What is the future we’re creating actually going to feel like?”) She stares up at the blades of a 600-foot wind turbine off the coast of Rhode Island, and, after visiting a “green concrete” company in Montreal, takes a cinder block of the substance home as a souvenir.

In an interview with Grist, Kolbert explained why she thinks climate change resists traditional narratives around hope and progress and how she attempted to tell a more complex, down-to-earth story in her new book. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. I want to start by talking about hope, which is usually how people end interviews. I’ve heard climate scientists and activists say they’re tired of being asked what gives them hope, I think because it can feel naive. How can we talk about hope in a way that’s more realistic and useful?

A. Well, many people, as you say, have pointed out that that’s not really the opposition that we should be focusing on, hope versus not hope. I think we should be focusing on action versus non-action. How we feel about it — it really doesn’t make much difference to the climate. What we do is what makes a difference. Now, that being said, having written this book called H Is for Hope, I am very interested in how we think about hope, and that’s one of the motivating ideas behind the book.

Q. How did you end up choosing that title? I think there’s something kind of delightful about a title that emphasizes optimism but also plays off Sue Grafton detective novels — you know, her book was H Is for Homicide.

A. Right. There’s also a really wonderful book by Helen Macdonald called H Is for Hawk. So I knew I wanted to name the book after one of the letters; that’s the whole point, it’s an abecedarian. And that one just popped out as the obvious candidate.

Q. I thought that approach was interesting. What inspired you to write an alphabetic primer on climate change?

A. I was trying to sort of re-animate this story, which can be very overwhelming and has so many different aspects. It’s really everything, everywhere, all at once, and on one level, I was trying to break it down for people so that it was understandable and comprehensible in all its complexity. On the other hand, I was also trying to suggest that any simple narrative probably was not complete.

Q. You started off the book by saying that climate change resists narrative. What did you mean by that?

A. It’s not personified. It doesn’t have a fate. You know, we’re all participating in causing it. We’re all participating in suffering from it. Obviously, some are participating in causing it much more than others, and some are suffering from it much more than others. It’s this creeping, perpetual problem that will be with us forever now. And when it’s acute, when there’s a crisis, a wildfire or a hurricane that was made worse by climate change, it still wasn’t exactly caused by climate change. You have that agency problem, and stories demand agency.

Q. One of the themes in the book is the difficulty of reckoning with climate change on a deeper level, the sense that we’re watching things fall apart, but we don’t really internalize that, or that we’re waiting for someone or some miracle technology to rescue us. Why do you think people have that response?

A. On the one hand, it’s a global problem. It’s been described as the ultimate “tragedy of the commons” problem. It has to be addressed on a global scale. So it is very easy to feel overwhelmed. “What does it matter what I do?” On the other hand, I do think that what we are seeing, in the U.S. in particular — you know, I include myself in this — is that we’re very stuck in our ways, and they’re very carbon-intensive ways. So I think we would like every solution that keeps being proposed to be something that allows us to continue to do exactly what we’re doing, just differently. And that’s what we want to hear.

Q. That’s true. It’s really hard to picture how we would live different lives, or what exactly those lives would look like. And I feel like that is part of the problem.

A. Yes, and our whole economy is based on doing things a certain way. You know, there’s a big argument in climate circles, which is one of the points in the book: Can you have what’s called “green growth?” Can you just keep growing, but do that in a, quote unquote, “green” way, or can you not? That is an unanswered question.

Q. How do you think we need to change the narratives that get told about climate change?

A. Well, this book is my attempt to do that. I can’t give you the poster child for climate change that’s going to change everyone’s perceptions of it, or the story that’s going to finally cut through all the BS. Many approaches have been taken, some are more successful than others, but we still seem stuck. And I was really trying in this book to get around that problem, or fool around with that problem, that the traditional narratives don’t seem to work.

Q. Was there anything else that you wanted to say about the book?

A. I think what’s important about climate change coverage is that it has some element of pleasure, which seems odd to say for such a grim subject. But I think that what we — and I include the artist, Wesley Allsbrook, whose amazing illustrations are a big part of the book — tried to do was make it both a pleasurable reading experience and a super visual experience. I do think the unrelenting grimness does get to people, and this book, while it definitely has a very serious message, is trying to offer something up in a way that is kind of fun, I hope.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Elizabeth Kolbert wants us to rethink the stories we tell about climate change on Mar 28, 2024.