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How innovation has been the twist in our climate change story

Human ingenuity has gotten us into a global environmental crisis. According to Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, it also has the potential to get us out.

“A book can change your life,” says Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction and longtime staff writer at the New Yorker. Kolbert isn’t being self-referential. In fact, she’s talking about someone else’s book: The Two-Mile Time Machine, by Pennsylvania State University glaciologist Richard B. Alley.

When Kolbert came across Alley’s book in 2001, she’d been contemplating a big project—something really important that would let her go deep and tell a story that needed to be told. She had been thinking that maybe she could settle the climate change debate once and for all. Alley’s book, which laid out his research on glacial ice cores, told a history of climate change spanning more than 100,000 years. It offered confirmation that global warming was the big story Kolbert had been looking for, and set her on a path that eventually turned her from a political reporter into a renowned climate observer and commentator.

Kolbert was born in the Bronx and grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., before earning a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale University. While studying at the University of Hamburg in Germany as a Fulbright scholar, she began stringing for the New York Times, where she ended up working as a reporter from 1985 to 1998. The New Yorker hired her as a staff writer in 1999, and shortly after reading Alley’s book, she was off to Greenland to explore a glacial ice coring operation. That trip was the first of many field studies that inspired a three-part award-winning series in the New Yorker called “The Climate of Man,” followed by her first climate-related book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, then The Sixth Extinction, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

In her most recent book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Kolbert takes readers on a trip around the world—from the Great Lakes of the United States to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia—examining the devastating effects of humankind’s ingenuity on the environment and the ways in which that same ingenuity is being applied to try to reverse the devastation. In an interview with strategy+business, Kolbert discussed what she’s learned about the climate crisis, how innovation is shaping the future of the natural world, and how business can tap into that innovation.

S+B: In your writing, you refer often to a new unofficial epoch in the earth’s geological history called the Anthropocene Epoch. Can you explain how this era is defined and how its concept is important to understanding current environmental challenges?
The Anthropocene is a term that was put into circulation by a Dutch chemist named Paul J. Crutzen, who shared a [1995] Nobel Prize for discovering ozone-depleting chemicals. He described this epoch as one in which human impacts on the planet basically vie with the great forces of nature that have always shaped our history. So, in the Anthropocene, human impacts are now on a geological scale. We have changed the climate already in a way that will be visible many millions of years from now in the record, in the rocks.

I once interviewed Crutzen for a piece on the Anthropocene, and he told me that he meant that term to be a warning to the world. Basically, you broke it, you own it. He didn’t say that, but that was his message—that humans are now not exactly in control but driving a lot of the major geological, biogeochemical cycles.

S+B: Your new book is all about, in your words, “people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.” You relate this to chemotherapy, in which sometimes the medicine is as bad as or worse than the disease itself, and you end up needing interventions to mitigate the effects of the medicine. Can you give us an environmental example?
The book begins with the story of the Chicago River, when, in the very early part of the 20th century, the flow of the river was reversed in order to prevent Chicago’s sewage from being dumped into its drinking water. In the process of reversing the flow, the Great Lakes hydrological basin and the Mississippi River Basin were connected in a way that they had not been before. They should not be connected. They have been separate, certainly since the end of the last ice age.

The reversal of the Chicago River was successful in diverting Chicago’s sewage. But then, toward the end of the century, a new problem started to emerge. People realized that now invasive species could move between the two basins. In particular, Asian carp were moving up the Mississippi toward Chicago. These fish are a big menace to a lot of other fish and therefore to ecosystems.

Separating these two basins again is just too hard because so much infrastructure has gone up around them. So people are trying to impose some new form of control, some new form of human engineering, to counteract the first. They’ve actually electrified a section now of the canal that was created when the river was reversed. As you go there, there are these huge signs warning you not to stick anything in the water because you’re going to get electrocuted. And I just read recently that plans are going forward for another barrier that’s supposed to keep these Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, and that’s a billion-dollar project.

Another example is the Mississippi River. We have prevented the Mississippi from flooding to prevent many [tragedies]. But we didn’t realize that river floods built the whole Mississippi Delta. If you don’t let it flood, you are no longer getting any land being built from the sediment that’s left behind after the flood. So, the whole Mississippi Delta is sinking, and it’s sinking pretty fast. That has tremendous repercussions for cities like New Orleans, which is one of the fastest-sinking places around.

The latest idea for how to fix this, which will cost billions of dollars, is to actually create fake flooding, or controlled floods. Water containing a lot of sediment would be pulsed out at certain times to try to build some land back to buffer places like New Orleans.

Whether either of these solutions is going to work is a very open question.

S+B: Business can be on both sides of environmental crises like these, contributing to the problem and trying to innovate a way out of it. Can you give us some examples of companies that are innovating creative environmental solutions?
One is a company called Climeworks, based in Zurich. They are one of many startups, but probably the furthest along, that are trying to master and bring down the cost of carbon dioxide removal. Climeworks has an innovative project in Iceland where it, in conjunction with the Icelandic government, is experimenting with injecting CO2 very deep underground in a certain kind of rock, where it reacts and forms calcium carbonate that can be permanently stored.

I think that is going to be a huge push in coming years, because there’s already too much CO2 in the air, and if you’re rigorous about net zero, it means that if there’s anything in your supply chain or your business cycle that’s putting out carbon, you have to take the same amount of carbon out of the air—not by an offset, but by taking it out of the air.

But it is not easy technologically to do it at scale. In fact, there’s a big prize sitting out there if someone can figure out how to take a billion tons of CO2 out of the air.

S+B: A lot of companies have ramped up their commitments to reducing their carbon emissions, and there’s a lot of talk about net-zero goals. Is what companies are doing right now enough? If not, what more is needed?
No one is doing enough. If we were doing enough, emissions would not be still going up, but they are. [Emissions rose by 6% in 2021.] So, we’re not doing enough, and that includes major corporations, minor corporations, and everyone.

I just read a report that looked at these corporate pledges and what progress is really being made, and it was pretty dispiriting. It’s very easy to make pledges. It’s very hard to fulfill them. And that is because carbon emissions are baked into every step of our manufacturing processes and every link in our supply chain.

I’m very worried that there’s just going to be a lot of hand-waving and greenwashing. Corporations are not people, but they are made up of people who are going to have to live on this planet and who have children who are going to have to live on this planet. And we are really talking about—and I’m not being overly dramatic, sadly—the future of our world. This is not a game.

S+B: You mentioned carbon offsets, through which companies and individuals can purchase or invest in efforts to remove or reduce emissions. But are these just a way for companies to dodge direct responsibility?
My view of carbon offsets—and I try to delineate pretty clearly what I know and what I only know because I read about it just like everybody else—is that offsets are like the Wild West. There’s no regulation and no accounting for them.

We are really talking about—and I’m not being overly dramatic, sadly—the future of our world. This is not a game.”

To be a legitimate offset, you get into almost metaphysical territory. I can only legitimately claim that forest preservation, let’s say, is an offset if it was going to be cut down. If it was just going to stay there, it’s not an offset. So there are a lot of games being played with offsets.

I think we need to completely move away from the offset mentality. Your emissions are your emissions. And this goes for companies and individuals. You have to take responsibility for reducing your own emissions, not saying you’re carbon neutral because you bought a lot of offsets. That’s just a sophisticated form of greenwashing.

One thing to look at is whether the cost of reducing your emissions by a ton is the same as the cost of buying an equal offset. Buying offsets is comparatively very cheap. If we were really going to get to net zero via offsets, or even toward net zero via offsets, they would be getting more and more expensive. But they’re not. So that, to me, is a sign that they’re not really on the level.

S+B: Do you think the pandemic has changed anything about the trajectory of climate change?
I don’t think it has. This idea of a reset, which may be happening in certain spheres, is not happening in terms of energy usage. There was a big drop at the beginning. Everyone was just sitting at home, so of course carbon dioxide emissions dropped. But I think as companies ramp up again and people go back to the office, we’re already seeing a pretty big surge right back to pre-pandemic levels of emissions. There might be a lot more virtual meetings, for instance, and that potentially could be a game changer in the world of business travel. But the flip side is that mass transit ridership is way down, which means more people are commuting by car now. And people have moved farther from their jobs, which makes for longer commutes.

We haven’t reset the whole energy economy—and how could we have in two years? And I think the other thing that’s very disturbing about COVID-19 and what it taught us—and I’m sure this message was not wasted on corporate America—was that people can be convinced of a lot of things that are not true. That’s extremely dangerous for all of us.

S+B: How can corporate America help to change the messaging about climate change?
I think we need our corporate leaders and our government leaders on the same page, saying it’s time for action—action that isn’t comfortable.

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I think it would be very helpful if corporate leaders would say that pretty much everything needs to be on the table right now. Because our world is fundamentally dysfunctional. That’s pretty bad for business. And we seem to be trying to just keep our blinders on for as long as possible.

Also, a lot of corporations have, on paper at least, fairly impressive and laudable climate goals, but then give money to candidates and politicians who are standing in the way of doing anything about climate. So, it’s a weird, schizophrenic situation. If corporate business leaders could say they’re no longer supporting candidates who are blocking action on climate change, things would change so fast your head would spin. And that would be such a positive move.

S+B: PwC recently conducted an analysis of climate technology investments and found that the vast majority of investments are made in technologies with a proven track record but lower emissions-reduction potential than newer, unproven technologies. What do you think should be done to encourage investment in emerging technologies with greater potential to swiftly and significantly improve the climate picture?
I try not to speak outside of my area of expertise, but I would say that one thing that is crucial here is that investors have to have a clear sense there will be a financial cost to letting emissions go at their current rate, and therefore a payback in investing in the best technologies. If investors thought, for instance, that there was going to be a carbon tax, that might change a lot of things.

S+B: There’s a poignant moment in Under a White Sky, when your late friend Ruth Gates, who was working on developing “super corals” that could withstand the effects of global warming, talks about how a lot of people want to “go back to something.” She acknowledges that there is no going back, and she accepts a future “where nature is no longer fully natural.” To me, this reflection struck a pandemic chord. We’ve all become conditioned to the idea of a “new normal.” But in our pandemic story, although the new normal is born out of loss, we also make important gains in stepping forward differently. Assuming interventions can succeed in saving the planet, do you feel this way about an environmental “new normal”?
Well, that’s a big assumption. But I’m very ambivalent. I definitely consider myself to be a good, old-fashioned environmentalist who says, “The less you tinker, the better.” But even in the course of reporting Under a White Sky, I had to acknowledge that that possibility in many ways is gone. Even what we call wilderness areas in the US are heavily managed. We live in a managed world, and we have to.

I do think that we, unfortunately, have crossed a line, probably without realizing it, or many different lines. In the case of coral, for instance, it’s very stark. You’re not getting those reefs back by just doing nothing and praying. And you’re not even getting them back by dramatically reducing carbon emissions, although that might save those that remain. So the case for some kind of intervention becomes more and more compelling.

Whether there’s a grand intervention that will save us is the big question at the heart of Under a White Sky, and it’s the question that I don’t think at this point we can answer. But I think we have to hope that intervention is the answer, because the alternatives are pretty bleak.

Author Profile:

  • Amy Emmert is a senior editor at strategy+business.
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