By Ezra Klein
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Stewart Brand famously wrote in “The Whole Earth Catalogue.” Human beings act upon nature at fantastic scale, altering whole ecosystems, terraforming the world to our purposes, breeding new species into existence and driving countless more into extinction. The power we wield is awesome. But Brand was overly optimistic. We did not get good at it. We are terrible at it, and the consequences surround us.
That’s the central theme of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future.” And yet, there is no going back. We will not return to a prelapsarian period where humans let nature alone. Indeed, as Kolbert shows, there is no natural nature left — we live in the world (and in particular, a climate) we altered, and are altering. The awful knowledge that our interventions have gone awry again and again must be paired with the awful reality that we have no choice save to try to manage the mess we have made.
Examples abound in Kolbert’s book, but in my conversation with her on my podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show,” I wanted to focus on one that obsesses me: solar geoengineering. To even contemplate it feels like the height of hubris. Are we really going to dim the sun? And yet, any reasonable analysis of the mismatch between our glacial politics and our rapidly warming planet demands that we deny ourselves the luxury of only contemplating the solutions we would prefer. With every subsequent day that our politics fails, the choices that we will need to make in the future become worse.
(The following excerpt has been edited and condensed for clarity).
This is a conversation about some of the difficult trade-offs and suboptimal options that we are left with in what Kolbert describes as a “no-analog moment.” We discuss the prospect of intentionally sending sulfurous particles into the atmosphere to dim the sun, whether “carbon capture” technology could scale up to the levels needed to make a dent in emissions levels, the ethics of using yine editing technologies to make endangered species more resistant to climate change, the governance mechanisms needed to prevent these technologies from getting out of hand, what a healthier narrative about humanity’s relationship with nature would sound like, how the pandemic altered carbon emissions, and more.
At the end, we discuss another fascinating question that Kolbert wrote about recently in The New Yorker: Why is a Harvard astrophysicist arguing Earth has already been visited by aliens, and should we believe him?
(A full transcript of the episode will be available at midday.)
Should We Dim the Sun? Will We Even Have a Choice?
Elizabeth Kolbert and Ezra Klein discuss what options remain if our political system can’t handle the climate crisis.
Credit…Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Barry Goldstein, via Pulitzer Board
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.