Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky finds both violence and beauty in our responses to climate change. But the moral dilemmas will only grow.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book Under a White Sky is not a book of climate change solutions, although there were times when I dearly wished it was. “Solutions” would suggest it’s possible to go back to a previous state of stability, and Kolbert makes it terrifyingly clear there is no going back, only forward into a world in which giant carp and toxic frogs proliferate, coral reefs need genetic engineering to survive, and, it’s entirely possible, someone will try whitening the sky to shield us from increasingly deadly heat.
Kolbert is one of our finest climate change reporters, providing riveting firsthand tours of worldwide impacts in Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) and of global species die-offs in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction (2014). Her new book turns away from first-order effects of climate change and toward geoengineering—a term for any large-scale attempt to manage the climate problems we have already caused.
She brings that concept down to earth through reporting forays that are as fascinating as they are alarming. The book begins on the Sanitary and Ship Canal southwest of Chicago, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is desperately trying to prevent invasive carp from swarming the Great Lakes. The carp were introduced to North America to control aquatic weeds in Arkansas; they quickly escaped their original pond and spread throughout the Mississippi River basin. Now, because humans have artificially linked the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, they threaten to overwhelm another massive aquatic system and destroy native fisheries.
I grew up near the canal and vaguely knew about the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900. This was described blandly as “progress” or more pointedly as flushing the city’s sewage away downstate, keeping it from washing up on the city’s beaches. It was taught as “local” history, but Kolbert shows how it upended the hydrology of roughly two-thirds of the lower United States. The carp’s northward journey, and the Corps’ attempts to stop them with a lethal electric barrier spanning the canal, are the latest in a cascade of unforeseen impacts.
Where earlier generations spoke unironically of “the control of nature,” Kolbert notes that many of our current dilemmas require dealing with “the control of the control of nature”—the problems caused by our earlier interventions. In Chicago, every engineer she interviewed said it would be best to undo the century-old river reversal. They also said it would never happen: too much wealth at stake, too much short-term cost to solve a long-term problem.
From Illinois she moves to southern Louisiana, where the Corps is dealing with the fallout from another of its earlier projects, the shackling of the Mississippi River to prevent flooding in New Orleans. By constraining the river’s natural movement across a broad swath of the state, engineers also deprived the land of the sediment that replenishes low-lying terrain. As a consequence, much of the southern part of the state is washing away into the sea.
Kolbert describes elaborate and ingenious attempts to either pump water out of or pump soil into the sinking marshland. Inevitably, such interventions run into questions of scale, cost, and power. Who pays? Who decides the method? Whose land gets restored first? On Biloxi and Choctaw tribal lands in the Delta, residents are realistic about the lobbying power they would need to advocate for land restoration.
One of the bleakest dimensions of climate change is the way it will worsen existing inequities, falling hardest on the global poor. Disruptions to agriculture may lead to climate refugees, mass migrations, and the reactionary politics that inevitably follow. Writer Amitav Ghosh fears we are headed for “the politics of the armed lifeboat,” in which the rich protect themselves through militarized borders, aggressive anti-immigrant policing, and a further erosion of our notion of a shared wellbeing.
Kolbert raises another jarring possibility when she describes the most dramatic of geoengineering possibilities: filling the sky with reflective particles to block solar rays. Potential side effects (no one knows for sure) include disrupted rain patterns, drought in Africa and Asia, less solar electricity generation, and whiter skies. Our closest historical precedent is the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which released enough sulfur dioxide (the same material being considered now) into the stratosphere to dim the skies over Europe. It also produced frosts in August that destroyed the cucumber and corn crops in New England, where 1816 was known as “the year without a summer.”
Deliberately recreating such conditions would be “dangerous beyond belief,” as one researcher put it, and “a broad highway to hell,” as another said. Once we begin relying on stratospheric particles to shield us from the sun, there would be no safe way to stop. Kolbert likens solar geoengineering to chemotherapy: no one would choose it if they had any better options. However, it would also be cheaper and faster than any other conceivable climate fix. Reaching international consensus on how to do such a thing equitably is hard to imagine. It’s also possible some nation, perhaps a low-lying coastal state, will decide to take action itself, and we’ll all be left waiting to see what happens next.
Good times, right?
Kolbert is a brilliant stylist with a wry, ironic touch that lightens even the grimmest situations. Surveying the Illinois carp barrier with a boatload of observers, she highlights a fundamental modern act that we do in response to pretty much anything:
“Everyone pulls out a cell phone or a camera. We photograph the water, the warning signs, and each other. There’s joking on board that one of us should dive into the river electric, or at least stick a hand in to see what happens. Six great blue herons, hoping for an easy dinner, have gathered, wing to wing, on the bank, like students waiting in line in a cafeteria. We photograph them, too.”
She has a way of capturing a scene in a few deft words that reveal its absurdity: “First you reverse a river. Then you electrify it.” And while she doesn’t overwhelm readers with facts, the ones she chooses do a lot of work. She notes that in terms of biomass, humans outweigh wild mammals eight to one. Add in the weight of our cows, pigs, and other domesticated animals, and the ratio climbs to twenty-two to one. We simply take up a lot more space on the planet than we used to.
In Iceland, Kolbert visits entrepreneurs attempting to capture liquified carbon dioxide and bury it underground. But the process itself is carbon-intensive, requiring even more capture and storage. By the logic of geoengineering, if control of nature is the problem, then even more control must be the solution. Kolbert quotes a maxim attributed to Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
And yet some of our attempts to correct our damage are quite beautiful. Kolbert visits a remote cavernous pool in Nevada that is the only known home to the tiny Devils Hole pupfish, believed to have the smallest native range of any vertebrate. Nearby, as a safeguard, scientists have built a pool to recreate the extremely precise conditions the pupfish require, including the exact amount of daylight reaching the subterranean surface.
In Australia, geneticists are using advances in CRISPR gene-editing technology to effectively neuter a toxic invasive cane toad—first introduced to protect sugarcane crops—that is currently overrunning the country’s outback. Off the Great Barrier Reef, scientists are seeking to use “assisted evolution” to develop coral that can withstand increasingly acidic water, and thereby avoid losing a life-sustaining reef the size of Italy.
I’m reminded of a stunning passage from The Sixth Extinction in which Kolbert describes how our ancestors killed off our most closely related species, the Neanderthals, whose genetic sequence has recently been reassembled by scientists. We are, Kolbert says, “the sort of creature that could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and assemble its genome.”
Both the violence and the beauty of our species are on display in Under a White Sky. It’s not exactly a satisfying read, but that’s not the point. Kolbert quotes Dan Schrag, a Harvard geoengineering researcher, about the people who ask him for hope:
“I see a lot of pressure from my colleagues to have a happy ending. People want hope. And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m a scientist. My job is not to tell people the good news. My job is to describe the world as accurately as possible.’”
Fair enough for him. But what about the rest of us?
If hope is more than idle wishing for things to turn out well, if hope is a practice of mind and heart that can help us live more assuredly, more courageously, and more generously, regardless of circumstances, then I’d suggest that some of us do have a duty to provide hope. Teachers, pastors, and, most of all, parents and family members might find in themselves a responsibility to provide hope to others. For that hope to have credibility, it needs to look not away from but directly through the most frightening projections in Under a White Sky.
Climate feedback loops are indeed terrifying. As polar ice melts, it turns from white to blue, absorbing more heat, radiating more warmth back into the atmosphere, causing yet more melting. But there is no final tipping point. There will always be degrees of damage, and degrees of mitigation and restoration and decency amid them.
Over the past fifteen months of COVID-19, I tried to notice whenever someone spoke of “things going back to normal” after the pandemic. I’m sure I used similar language myself. The phrasing reveals how deeply we desire stability and a return to the familiar.
But there is no going back. Only forward. Guides like Kolbert can help us anticipate what’s to come.