Over the past thirty years, Kolbert, it says, has become “one of the most distinguished and influential environmental journalists of her generation” thanks to the “exceptional quality” of her articles, appearing primarily in The New Yorker, and her “popular science books” dealing with the global environmental crisis, “which have had a broad international impact.”
The committee made particular reference to The Sixth Extinction, published in 2014, which “documents the dramatic loss of species the planet is suffering” and has become “an internationally renowned work” translated into more than 20 languages.
“The robust scientific solvency and literary excellence of her work,” it concludes, “exemplify how specialized journalism can contribute in a fundamental manner both to disseminate the best scientific knowledge about the world’s great environmental challenges, and to sensitize and make society aware about the need to act in order to confront them.”
The Biophilia Award, with annual prize money of 100,000 euros, was launched by the BBVA Foundation in 2019 to recognize the work of professionals and organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues.
Field notes from the climate change “catastrophe”
In the first stage of her professional career at The New York Times (1984-1999), Elizabeth Kolbert (New York, 1961) covered mainly politics. It was in 2001, when she joined the staff at The New Yorker magazine, that she began to take an interest in climate change. “President George W. Bush had decided to withdraw the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, and I got the idea, pretty crazy at the time, that I was going to solve once and for all this question of whether we should really be worried about climate change,” she said in an interview shortly after hearing she had received the Biophilia Award.
Not long after, she went on a field trip to Greenland that would change the course of her professional life, and convince her to pour her energy into environmental reporting. She was there accompanying a group of Danish scientists who were studying the ice melt triggered by global warming, a man-made problem regarding which, they explained, “the physics are impeccable; there’s no arguing with it.” This expedition to a region just starting to feel the impact of climate change got her thinking “if that was the case, and it was being confirmed by credible scientific sources, then everybody ought to know.”
Kolbert recalls how back at the start of the 21st century even reputed media like The New York Times would habitually grant space to experts who questioned the importance of global warming: “Climate change was being covered as if it was up for debate among the scientific community, with some researchers for and others against.” In the face of such climate-skeptical voices, Kolbert went about solidly documenting her journalistic output, calling on the opinions of the most solvent scientific experts to convey the message that “climate change is real and is going to affect us all.”
This first series of articles on climate change – for which she visited other spots, like Iceland and Alaska, where the warming process was taking hold – would eventually be written up in her first book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006), which ended with the following reflection: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself.”
The sixth extinction: “This time we are the meteorite”
Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of species. The best known happened around 65 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, when the impact of a meteorite wiped out the dinosaurs and 80% of all terrestrial species. Yet in her second, Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction (2014), Kolbert warned that we are currently heading for a similar disaster, only “this time we are the meteorite.”
She recalls how the idea for the book came to her when she was preparing a story for The New Yorker about the world’s disappearing amphibians, “a big deal that I thought wasn’t getting enough attention,” and came across a paper that posed that question: “Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction?” This was the first time she had heard the term, and after studying the scientific literature, she decided there was a book there that had to be written: “I realized that what was happening was comparable to the ‘big five’ extinction events of the past, and I again thought to myself, if this is happening people ought to know about it.”
To gather her material, Kolbert interviewed some of the world’s top experts chronicling biodiversity losses worldwide, frequently accompanying them into the field: botanists studying deforestation and habitat fragmentation in Amazonia, marine biologists documenting the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef, and ecologists observing all kinds of species teetering on the brink, from the Panamian golden frog to the Sumatran rhino.
“One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of reptiles and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” relates Kolbert in this chilling account of biodiversity devastation. “And the losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountain tops and in valleys.”
Under a white sky: “savior” technologies with unpredictable side effects
In her latest book, Under a White Sky, published last year and translated (or in the course of being so) into over a dozen languages, Kolbert takes an in-depth look at some of the most advanced (and at times outlandish) technological fixes being mooted to confront the unfolding environmental crisis and undo humanity’s destructive impact on nature.
The book’s title refers to how the sky will change color if we put into effect one of the “solar geoengineering” solutions being proposed: the launch of diamond particles into the stratosphere to reflect back the sun’s light and cool down Earth’s climate. Once again, Kolbert traveled half the world to converse on the ground with the researchers developing some of these ambitious projects, from the injection of CO2 from the air into volcanic rocks to convert it into stone to the application of genetic engineering to revive extinct species.
But rather than embracing “techno-optimism” as a kind of magic wand that can stave off environmental collapse, Kolbert’s book – as always drawing on her consultations with scientific sources – warns against the unintended consequences of this type of intervention. “A central theme in the book”, she explains “is that we have repeatedly intervened in nature, sometimes purposefully sometimes unwittingly, and this has had many unexpected side effects. So we must take careful stock before deciding to implement these kinds of technologies, especially on a large scale, where there is an increased chance of things going wrong.”
In any case, Kolbert does not rule out the possibility that technology may end up solving today’s environmental challenges, and confines herself to “setting out the data so the reader can form a judgment and decide for themselves.” Her own view she defines as “agnostic” in the awareness that “we humans are remarkable creatures that have invented our way out of past crises, and maybe we’ll do so again. But it is a big gamble to endanger the whole planet.” What she doesn’t doubt is that, one way or another, we have to “hasten the transition to a carbon-free energy system.”
Storytelling informed by the best knowledge: the power of journalism
For the committee deciding the 4th Biophilia Award, Elizabeth Kolbert’s work exemplifies how specialized journalism can contribute decisively to tackling the big environmental challenges by telling compelling stories, based on sound scientific knowledge, that manage to draw in a global readership.
“Right now environmental journalism has an absolutely crucial role,” she insists. “Knowledge is not exactly power, but it is at least an essential pre-condition for action. We have to understand what the problems are, we have to understand the scale of the issues. And a well-informed electorate is our best bet.”
Kolbert admits the task is a daunting one, because it’s getting harder to retain people’s interest in climate change matters in a society with so many calls on our attention and a full and ever changing news agenda. “That’s why I’ve always tried to find stories that I hope interest people enough to keep reading, even when they don’t feel like it, because environmental stories are rarely happy ones and can seem a bit of an uphill struggle.”
In today’s complex news landscape, the winner of the 4th Biophilia Award champions the kind of on-the-ground reporting that allows journalists to delve deep into their subjects, and the importance of media editors allotting the resources needed to address the big environmental issues: “There are stories that define our times, and our impact on Planet Earth is the story we need to tell right now,” she insists. “Fortunately, climate change is getting more and more coverage, because we’re feeling its effects, like with this summer’s terrible heatwaves. It’s not tomorrow’s problem, but today’s.”