By Nathan Kober
April 27, 2016
The powerful effect of climate change was the major topic of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert’s lecture for the Contemporary Issues Lecture Series at UW-Whitewater’s Young Auditorium.
Her appearance was part of the annual lecture series sponsored by the UW-W College of Letters and Sciences. The college hosts two lectures each semester for students and faculty.
Kolbert’s book “The Sixth Extinction” is a scientific study about mass extinction events throughout history, as well as the mass extinction some scientists believe is currently underway.
Her lecture compared environmental damage caused by human activity to the five other major extinction events in the past 500 million years. The most recent, scientists believe, was caused by an asteroid.
Outside of those events, Kolbert said the usual rate of extinction is about one species every 700 years. In the natural cycle it would be incredibly rare for a human to witness a mammal go extinct in their lifetime.
However, since the Industrial Revolution, hundreds of species are known to have gone extinct. A 2014 survey by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London estimates half of the planet’s wildlife has died off since 1970, putting tens of thousands of species at risk of extinction.
“This time we’re the asteroid”
Most of this change is due to inadvertent effects of developing civilization, Her previous book, Kolbert said, “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” focused solely on climate change, but she said meeting with scientists for research on extinction changed her perspective.
“What became clear to me when I talked to scientists, was that atmospheric climate change is just one of the many ways in which we are altering the face of our world,” she said.
Kolbert cited other scientists in her speech, saying the largest cause of wildlife loss and species extinction is habitat loss. This is caused by many things, with the largest factor historically being agricultural development.
“Whenever we build a new farm or strip mall, that disrupts the local habitat,” she said.
While human activity has unforeseeable consequences, Kolbert said there are things about the environment that can be known in advance, referencing the looming threat of humanity’s changes to the global atmosphere as an engine for mass extinction.
“We’re reversing a process that took hundreds of millions of years, and we’re doing it very rapidly,” she said.
As with the rate of extinction, Kolbert said the rate of temperature change in recent years has increased rapidly. According to NASA, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. Not only was 2015 the hottest year on record, but the rise in temperature between 2014 was also the largest on record.
Kolbert said this climate change is already harming delicate ecosystems. Damage to coral reef ecosystems in 2015 was the worst on record, with more than 80 percent of the Great Barrier Reef severely bleached. Scientists cited by Kolbert predict that absent a direct turnaround in human activity, large coral reefs will not exist in a matter of decades.
“Coral reefs will likely be the first victim” Kolbert said, “but they will not be the last.”
Kolbert said one of the major threats to ocean life caused by climate change is water acidification. As more CO2 goes into the atmosphere, much of it is absorbed by the ocean creating acid, and as the oceans get warmer they can absorb even more.
Kolbert said that since the industrial revolution began, ocean acidity has increased by 30 percent. The Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory estimates that if human activity continues as usual ocean acidity will increase by 150 percent by the end of this century.
Scientists warn that small changes on the pH scale can have drastic changes to wildlife. Associate Professor Peter Mesner, who studies cellular biology at UW-W, compares acid in the ocean to the acid levels in a human body.
“The human body has a pH level between 7.35 and 7.45,” he said. “At .1 below that your liver and kidneys would be failing.”
Scientists say the same principal holds true on land, where small temperature changes can drastically alter the world’s ecosystems. Associate Professor John D. Frye who studies meteorology at UW-W said. It is difficult to say what specific events may be caused by climate change, but there are certain patterns that will emerge.
“Everything is shifting,” Frye said “so you’re going to see more droughts, more flooding.”
The process of a naturally shifting climate produces both floods and droughts in different places. Kolbert said the effect of humanity’s activity will rapidly accelerate this process, and possibly go farther than the natural cycle.
This point was driven home by every example in Kolbert’s lecture. Natural climate change gives species time to migrate and adapt. Ours does not.
“It’s pretty common to hear scientists say this time, you know, we’re the asteroid,” Kolbert said.
The human cost
While Kolbert predicts that thousands of species may soon go extinct, she does not think humans will be one of them.
“I’m not predicting a human extinction,” she said.
That does not mean she thinks humans will be left unscathed.
“I think there will probably be massive human suffering,” Kolbert said.
Climate scientists say this is almost guaranteed. Thousands of studies reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict sea level rises above major cities and island nations may soon be inevitable.
In 2014, more people were displaced by natural disasters than by war. Last August, Secretary of State John Kerry said that migrations from regions like North Africa and the Middle East will increase as those areas get warmer.
Climate scientists and economists say the economic cost of climate change is substantial as well. Hundreds of studies reviewed by the IPCC estimate the average cost of carbon emissions at $12 for every one ton of CO2, and in 2014 more than 35 billion tons of CO2 were released from fossil fuels.
Kolbert said that dealing with climate change will only cost more the longer it takes.
“Ultimately we have to deal with it, it’s just a matter of how quickly we get there,” she said.
Yet carbon emissions have not stopped increasing. In 1992 world leaders formed an agreement to begin carbon reductions. Since then the IPCC says emissions have increased by 60 percent.
When asked why there is so much resistance to dealing with climate change, Kolbert pointed out what she called “an interesting coincidence.”
“There does seem to be some connection, between people who deny it and money coming from groups that are causing it,” she said.
Kolbert closed her lecture by stressing the need for humility in the face of nature. Humans are fundamentally altering a system that has been in place for hundreds of millions of years, in ways that we may not be able to reverse.
“We’re a species with caveman brains and God-like powers, and we still have very much to learn,” she said.