By Ezra Klein
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Stewart Brand famously wrote in “The Whole Earth Catalogue.” Human beings act upon nature at fantastic scale, altering whole ecosystems, terraforming the world to our purposes, breeding new species into existence and driving countless more into extinction. The power we wield is awesome. But Brand was overly optimistic. We did not get good at it. We are terrible at it, and the consequences surround us.
That’s the central theme of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.” And yet, there is no going back. We will not return to a prelapsarian period where humans let nature alone. Indeed, as Kolbert shows, there is no natural nature left — we live in the world (and in particular, a climate) we altered, and are altering. The awful knowledge that our interventions have gone awry again and again must be paired with the awful reality that we have no choice save to try to manage the mess we have made.
Examples abound in Kolbert’s book, but in my conversation with her on my podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show,” I wanted to focus on one that obsesses me: solar geoengineering. To even contemplate it feels like the height of hubris. Are we really going to dim the sun? And yet, any reasonable analysis of the mismatch between our glacial politics and our rapidly warming planet demands that we deny ourselves the luxury of only contemplating the solutions we would prefer. With every subsequent day that our politics fails, the choices that we will need to make in the future become worse.
(The following excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity).
Ezra Klein: Your book reads as an argument that we are past the point when we have the luxury of saying that things like geoengineering are off limits because we shouldn’t change the world that much. We’ve already changed it so much that the unthinkable now has to be thought.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that’s a reasonable interpretation. I think you could read it as, we are past the point of having that luxury. You could also read it as a species that has managed to muck up the atmosphere one way thinking about mucking up the atmosphere another way — what could possibly go wrong? I think those are both very valid readings.
Ezra Klein: You have a wonderful quote in the geoengineering chapter of your book from Andy Parker, who is a project director for the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative. He says, “We live in a world where deliberately dimming the [expletive] sun might be less risky than not doing it.” That feels like quite an indictment of the human race and where we’ve gotten ourselves to with all our knowledge and all our power.
Elizabeth Kolbert: I think that does sort of sum things up. We are in this very deep — there are only wrong answers, only hard choices at this point. Nothing easy from here on in.
Ezra Klein: What do you think of geoengineering?
Elizabeth Kolbert: I very consciously avoided coming down very clearly on that. But some very, very smart people are thinking about it and are very worried that it may be our best option at a certain point. And I think they may, unfortunately, be right — but wow, it’s dimming the [expletive] sun, you know?
Ezra Klein: I think how people feel about geoengineering depends on how they feel about the traditional political pathway. Do you think there is a significant chance that traditional politics are going to do enough to keep us under 2 degrees of warming?
Elizabeth Kolbert: Many, many scientists and many nations — especially the low-lying island nations that could disappear between here and 2 degrees — would say that’s really too high. So there’s a stretch goal, if you want, in the Paris accord of 1.5 degrees.
If you’re going to be honest about it, I think you have to say we’re basically at 1.5 degrees now. So that is not just a hard goal to reach; it’s getting to be almost geophysically impossible. Now, 2 degrees — presumably, it is still physically possible to do it.
Then that gets to the point you’re making: Is the world set up to do this? And the problem is not just that in the U.S. we are legislatively gridlocked — that, so far at least, we have been really incapable of taking significant action. And I do want to add, the U.S. is still the biggest single source of greenhouse gases that are up there in the atmosphere right now.
But then you have to look all around the world at all of the major players in this drama — China, which is now the single biggest emitter on an annual basis; the E.U., which is a very big emitter; India, which is increasingly a large emitter. So you have to ask, are we all going to get our act together?
Ezra Klein: One of the questions that I struggle with most in my own work right now is, what do you do if you believe that it is no longer politically plausible that normal politics will get to a reasonable outcome here? Sometimes I think about technological solutions — huge amounts of money being spent on not just renewables, but potentially studying things like geoengineering. Sometimes I wonder about things that are somewhere between political activism and extra-political. Where are you on this?
Elizabeth Kolbert: When we get into the “what could happen now owing to our failures,” that’s certainly where geoengineering comes in. A lot of very smart people are saying, look at the political system. It’s just not capable of moving fast enough. And the last 30 years are a pretty depressing proof of that.
And, as you say, you’re led either to a technofix or you’re led to a carbon dictatorship. I don’t know what you’re led to if you say, we just are incapable of moving fast enough under politics as they are. And the point, I think, that’s really important is on some level, it’s unknowable. How people will react all around the world, this is going to affect everyone. It’s going to affect some people much more brutally than others.
Obviously, people living at the margins of society already just eking by presumably already are getting hit the hardest by climate change. And that will continue. But really all of us everywhere — New York City, San Francisco, Mumbai — every major coastal city in the world is going to be grappling with this. And every farmer in the world is going to be grappling with this. And how people will respond and whether they will respond the same way all around the world, it’s impossible to know.
This is a conversation about some of the difficult trade-offs and suboptimal options that we are left with in what Kolbert describes as a “no-analog moment.” We discuss the prospect of intentionally sending sulfurous particles into the atmosphere to dim the sun, whether “carbon capture” technology could scale up to the levels needed to make a dent in emissions levels, the ethics of using gene editing technologies to make endangered species more resistant to climate change, the governance mechanisms needed to prevent these technologies from getting out of hand, what a healthier narrative about humanity’s relationship with nature would sound like, how the pandemic altered carbon emissions, and more.
At the end, we discuss another fascinating question that Kolbert wrote about recently in The New Yorker: Why is a Harvard astrophysicist arguing Earth has already been visited by aliens, and should we believe him?
(A full transcript of the episode will be available at midday.)
Should We Dim the Sun? Will We Even Have a Choice?
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.
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