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An Interview with Elizabeth Kolbert

After working as a political writer for many years at "The New York Times", Elizabeth Kolbert took a job in 1999 as a writer for "The New Yorker". "It was a practical move for me," she said recently from her home in Williamstown, Massachusetts. "I was offered this job by an editor I respect. It also provided me a bit more freedom to pursue some different topics to write about."

When she arrived at "The New Yorker" no one was regularly writing about the environment. "Since this was one of my personal interests I began covering environmental stories," she said.

She also had read Bill McKibbon's 1987 bestselling book "The End of Nature," and was intrigued by the subject of global warming. "When I started writing about global warming," she said, "I wasn't quite an agnostic, but I wasn't quite sure where I stood on the topic."

What she discovered when she traveled to places like Greenland, Iceland and Alaska where she interviewed scientists working in this area was that global warming was not a theory. "It was no debate," said Kolbert. "The scientists all agreed that global warming was indeed happening and at an alarming rate."

Before coming to "The New Yorker" Kolbert had written primarily about politics and presidential elections. "For fifteen years I had written for newspapers," said Kolbert, who served as "The New York Times" Albany Bureau Chief from 1988 through 1991. "Newspaper journalists pack all their relevant information into the beginning of the article, but now at "The New Yorker" I had to learn how to keep people reading to the end. Magazine writing is very upside-down from newspaper writing."

Her work at "The New York Times" gave her the material to publish her first book "The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit" (2004), a collection of profiles of New York political figures from Boss Tweed to Hillary Clinton, but now at "The New Yorker" she had decided to write some hard core science articles.

"It was a bit intimidating at first," she said, "but a topic like global warming is not a very complicated issue. It's not astrophysics. For more than one hundred years we've understood that these gases our factories, cars and machines emit are making our environment warmer. Any high school student taking Earth Science can understand what it is, but what was intimidating was getting the message out the right way so people would read it."

Kolbert is the first to admit that reading about global warming does not encourage a lot of people to rush out and buy the magazine. "Most people would rather avoid the topic," she said. "That's how politicians in our country have dealt with it. Many of us would prefer just about anything else to talk about, but all other issues are trivial if we can't solve global warming."

Her numerous articles on climate change have provided the basis for her book "Field Notes from a Catastrophe," Bloomsbury, $13.95, 225 pages. This book was selected by the University at Albany's Reading Project, a program to engage the entire university's community in reading and reflecting on a common text.

"I was very happy the book was selected," said Kolbert. "My main goal in writing this book is to get people more aware about this issue."

Her book, which is now in paperback, came out over a year ago in hard cover only a few months before Al Gore's documentary film "An Inconvenient Truth," began playing to a national audience. Gore's film recently won an Academy Award as Best Documentary.

"That film really helped put the topic of global warming on the national stage," said Kolbert. "That film scared a lot of people into thinking that we really have to do something, and do it now."

She is encouraged that the media is finally providing excellent coverage about climate change. "And with the last election it seems obvious that the public wants our politicians to do things differently also."

It could be very easy for Kolbert to become an advocate about global warming, but she admits her true role is that of a journalist. "I report on what I see," she said. "I give facts, and when there's a problem I try to give solutions. The experts I've interviewed don't all agree on how to solve this problem."

Kolbert admits that is one of the scariest things about global warming. "Because there's not one solution, we have to try everything," she said, "and this brings out the feeling that there's nothing we can do."

In her book she tries to focus on things ordinary people can do. "I don't see politicians making these tough choices," said Kolbert. "It's probably going to come from us, and if we mobilized our nation we could make a tremendous amount of progress."

What scares her most is that all the experts agree that we will eventually reach a critical mass when we will not be able to prevent global warming. "And that may happen in our lifetime," she said. "I have three boys and I don't want global warming to change their way of life."

When I interviewed Elizabeth Kolbert we had recently had a major snow storm and a string of very cold temperatures. "It's been nice to have a winter again," she said, "but we can't forget how warm our January was."

She is also concerned that people may think back on our cold, snowy February and think of global warming as just a myth. "A few cold days doesn't mean the problem hasn't gone away," said Kolbert. "If we don't address this issue we'll have more hurricanes like Katrina and more drought, flooding, hunger and starvation. I'd hate to think a technologically advanced society like ours could choose to destroy itself, but if we don't act that's exactly what we'll do."

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