Land Matters Podcast: Elizabeth Kolbert Explains How a Toad Might Guide a Better Climate Future
As the telltale signs of climate change keep piling up, and severe weather becomes almost a weekly occurrence, major nations are currently unable to work together to bring down emissions and make a collective transition to renewable energy. And that, says climate chronicler Elizabeth Kolbert, is a precarious time for the planet— because some might be tempted to look for questionable alternative solutions.
“We’ve gotten ourselves in a pretty big jam, and to most of these issues, there are no easy answers, there are only a lot of trade-offs,” Kolbert said in an interview for Land Matters, the podcast of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “We are incapable, for all sorts of reasons, of following the social control measures that might rein in a disaster, and then we reach for the techno-fix.”
Noting that “our record in thinking through the consequences is not great,” Kolbert—a staff writer at the New Yorker and author most recently of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future—cites one of many examples from her research: the introduction of toads from Central America to control pests in Australia’s sugarcane cropland in the 1930s.
“The toads were not helpful in that way at all, but they were prolific breeders and continue even to this day . . . they’re still continuing to spread around Australia, and they’ve really wreaked ecological havoc. They’re very toxic. The native wildlife in Australia chomps on them and dies,” she said.
“That has led to a new round of thoughts about what they should do to try to control this thing that was brought in as an agent of biocontrol. That’s one pretty classic story of humans doing something, in this case, moving a species around the world with benign intent, but disastrous consequences.”
Despite rhetorical commitments, the planet still does not have an agreed-upon political framework to control the problem of climate change. That opens the door to Hail-Mary geo-engineering solutions such as blasting reflective particles into the atmosphere to dim the sun (the “white sky” of the book’s title). All kinds of collateral damage could occur, Kolbert writes, and failure could unleash blasts of heat, similar to opening an oven door, making conditions worse.
There are some systems that are effective at soaking up carbon, and land is one of them, Kolbert said—although complications and limitations are threaded through even nature-based climate solutions.
“The first step is stop making the hole deeper, to stop deforestation . . . that seems an absolute no-brainer,” she said. “But that being said, it’s extremely difficult. You have a growing global population, a growing global demand. A country like Brazil, a country like Indonesia, their basic way of thinking [is to say], ‘You deforested all of Europe, and deforested all of America, why shouldn’t we?’ That is hard to argue with to a certain extent.”
In addition, letting forests grow to act as carbon sinks is “a slow process. It doesn’t really get us to where we need to go in terms of carbon removal,” she said. Scientists also need to worry about embodied carbon being released back out into the atmosphere, as part of the natural life cycle of trees that die, rot and burn—leading to proposals to bury them in trenches or at the bottom of the ocean.
Kolbert, also author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and The Sixth Extinction, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, acknowledges the staggering complexity of addressing the climate crisis and that doing nothing is not an option.
But, she adds, “at this point we really seem to lack the tools to make these decisions in the best possible way . . . this partly has to do with international boundaries and very different competing agendas. We don’t have what social science would call the governance tools for a lot of these technologies.”
In the interview, Kolbert also reflects on the challenging business of communicating about climate change, and the prospect of climate fatigue, which causes people to tune out as the stories get more alarming.
Climate change and land’s role in both reducing emissions and adapting to new realities is a big focus for the Lincoln Institute, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Climate has been a frequent topic on the Land Matters podcast over the course of the last year, including interviews with Bruce Babbitt, Jim Levitt, and Bill McKibben.
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, host of the Land Matters podcast, and a contributing editor of Land Lines.