Kolbert & Climate Change: Circle Talk Preview

Zenande Mdludlu ’21

“Really waking up, and not just dreaming to ourselves that things will be O.K., has become urgent — beyond urgent, in fact… The world is in danger, and we need to act immediately to survive,” wrote Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert in a piece for The New Yorker. On February 4, Ms. Kolbert will address the Circle about the climate crisis and the importance of climate reporting. 

A former writer for The New York Times, Ms. Kolbert is now a commentator who focuses on environmentalism for The New Yorker as well as a visiting fellow at Williams College. Her most famous book, The Sixth Extinction, has pioneered the journalistic quest for climate transparency. It stresses the urgency of immediate action to counteract the climate crisis. 

Usually, Circle Talk speakers are chosen exclusively through the Speakers’ Committee. However, Ms. Kolbert’s selection was unusual, according to committee member and Assistant Head of School Andy Anderson, because the Speakers’ Committee worked in conjunction with Director of Diversity and Inclusion Sravani Sen-Das and Director of Global Education Nishad Das, both of whom had already shown interest in bringing Ms. Kolbert to the Circle after hearing about The Sixth Extinction.

Mr. Anderson gave a glowing review of the book, explaining that Kolbert’s work not only reminds us of our rapidly deteriorating planet but also shows how “climate change is inextricably tied to diversity and inclusion because [climate change] will disproportionately hit impoverished communities.”

Sustainability Committee member Addison Hyde ’21 added, “I am currently in the midst of reading The Sixth Extinction. It is a very distressing read, especially when she discusses how rapidly all of this is happening considering the speed of geological time… I think it is important to educate myself regarding things that are so pertinent to literally everyone and I am excited to hear her speak and elaborate further upon what many of us have read.”

History teacher and head of the Speakers’ Committee Tommy Lamont said Ms. Kolbert’s expertise in climate reporting, as evidenced by The Sixth Extinction and a plethora of insightful commentary, also appealed to the Speakers’ Committee. 

“Detailed environmental reports by institutions and academics are hard for the general public to understand. Journalists make complex ideas more accessible, and this is what Kolbert can bring to the Circle,” she said. 

While Ms. Kolbert’s focus during the talk will be climate change, her Twitter account includes tweets critical of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, and some students are concerned that politics will overshadow Ms. Kolbert’s messages.

“Although climate change is an important issue for everyone, whether conservative or liberal, I suspect Kolbert will not break with the trend of speakers politicizing their talks; based on her Twitter account, I can see her adamantly criticizing the Trump administration,” said John Rogers ’22.

Addressing such concerns, Ms. Lamont explained that Ms. Kolbert “is still at her core a journalist. She writes based on interviews with reputable scientists. The Speakers’ Committee generally refrains from hosting political talks, and in this case, Kolbert’s message transcends party politics.” 

She added, “It doesn’t bother me to deal with controversy. If people are offended by her message, they should voice their opinions during the Q&A session or at the Headmaster’s reception following the talk.”

Others are eager to listen to Ms. Kolbert and believe her research and advocacy will be the highlight of her talk: “I’m very excited. I think that the most pressing issue of this time is the climate crisis… I hope she talks about what can actually be done and her views on what is best for the environment in an uplifting way,” said Sustainability Committee member Zoe Park ’21. “Yes, the situation is less than ideal, but there is still hope.”