Is Climate Change Setting the Stage for Earth's Next Great Extinction?

  • Storm clouds overtake the sky in Tokyo, Japan, March 25, 2012. Scientists are predicting bigger storms and more extreme weather as global temperatures rise. Photo: James Justin via Flickr

November 6, 2015

In a few weeks, world leaders will head to Paris for the United Nations climate conference, where they'll be looking to set targets for reducing greenhouse gases. Before the talks get going, we're checking in with people to shed some light on the key issues and what's at stake internationally—and closer to home. Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, has about as wide a perspective as anybody. Over the last decade, she has traveled from Alaska to Panama reporting on the issue. And recently, we got a chance to chat with her about some of her experiences and her sometimes sobering perspective on climate change. Here are some highlights from the interview.

On the most striking examples of climate change

“I think the most extraordinary place that I went was the Great Barrier Reef, which is off the eastern coast of Australia. When you’re on a reef, there’s this extraordinary richness. It’s almost indescribable. You cannot simply see that many species gliding by you on land—turtles and rays and sharks, all passing by you. It seems to a land creature sort of unreal, almost like a dream landscape. And the scientists I went to the Great Barrier Reef with all are predicting the end of the Great Barrier Reef—and really, to be honest, all reefs in the world—by the end of this century. And that’s a very sobering thought. To imagine that these things could cease to exist is pretty horrifying. It certainly had a big impact me.”

On how dramatic our impact really is

“The unifying theme of the book, and of the science on this subject, is that humans are taking the place of the great forces of nature—the great geological forces of the past. We are now basically in control of the planet. We may not be controlling it consciously. But unconsciously, we are changing the composition of the atmosphere; we are changing the chemistry of the ocean. And we’re moving species around in ways that they cannot move on their own. So we’re effectively bringing the continents into contact again.”

“White nose syndrome [in bats] is a very vivid example of this. It’s a fungus that’s been traced through very sophisticated genetics to Europe. And it has now spread to at least 22 states and five Canadian provinces in this classic way in which an epidemic spreads—killing millions and millions of bats.”

On how quickly humans are changing the planet

“There have been vast stretches of time before humans arose as a species, and presumably, there will be vast stretches of time afterwards on this planet. Life will continue on. But one of the amazing things is that, in this relatively short time that modern industrialized society has existed, massive changes have occurred on planet Earth—changes on a geologic scale. So we are changing the planet very rapidly by any standard. Even if you look across all of the history of the planet, the rate of change right now is way, way up there.”

“It’s sometimes compared to the last major upheaval in the history of life, which was the extinction of the dinosaurs, which seems to have been caused by an asteroid impact. So you will often hear very sober-thinking scientists compare human impacts to an asteroid. And one day when an asteroid strikes the Earth or 200 years when humans are burning through the Earth’s store of fossil fuels—they’re going to look very much the same in the geological record when many millions of years have past.”

On the potential impacts of the upcoming Paris climate talks

We’re really choosing between different versions of the future. But we don’t have the luxury of a choice at this point where the world does not change quite significantly. What we’re trying to avert is really catastrophic change that human society just can’t cope with. And whether Paris will get us there—I don’t think anyone thinks that one moment in time or one global treaty or one meeting of world leaders is enough to do that. I think the question is, do we reach some kind of inflection point, where the world basically gets behind the idea that we need to start bringing our carbon emissions down? And I think that we don’t know what’s going to happen in Paris. People were very optimistic a couple months ago, and I think they’re slightly less optimistic now.


Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction.