Backgrounder: Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert.
Photo by Rebecca Bolte.

The salt-water pond that Elizabeth Kolbert fondly recalls skating on as a child in Larchmont, New York no longer freezes over. The ski resorts throughout Western Massachusetts, where the environmental reporter now lives, can’t produce artificial snow, let alone count on it falling naturally. In a March 2006 interview with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker used these examples to illustrate how drastically the world’s temperature has changed in the 45 years since her birth. She went on to discuss the dangers posed by the Earth’s increasing temperature and the difficulty of communicating the urgency of the problem to the public. “The real challenge,” Kolbert told the NRDC reporter, “is how to make global warming vivid to people, how to make it real.”

Kolbert took on this challenge in her March 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (Bloomsbury USA), a sobering examination of climate change that “lets facts rather than polemics tell the story,” according to a 2006 review by Publisher’s Weekly.

Born in 1961, Kolbert spent her early childhood in the Bronx. When she was in kindergarten, her family relocated to Larchmont, New York, where she remained until 1979. After graduating high school, Kolbert spent four years studying literature at Yale University. In 1983, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Universitat-Hamburg, in Germany. While living in Hamburg, Kolbert began working as a stringer for The New York Times, writing a handful of travel pieces and occasional articles about the threat of Germany deploying nuclear missiles.

When Kolbert returned to New York at the end of 1984, she joined the Times as a copygirl for the business section, a job she held until 1985, when moved to the metro desk. Three years later, Kolbert was promoted to the position of New York Times Albany Bureau Chief. In 1992, Kolbert left Albany and began covering the presidential election for the Times’ National Desk. She remained in that position until 1997, when she was hired to write the “Metro Matters” column. Two years later, she left the Times to join the staff of The New Yorker. Kolbert addressed the difficulty of transitioning between the two publications in a guest weblog for Powell’s Books. “I learned to write what everyone would recognize as a New York Times story,” Kolbert wrote in her February 28, 2006 entry. “It was a disconcerting experience, like mastering French only to find that you are being posted to China.” Joining The New Yorker forced her to “learn to write all over again.”

At The New Yorker, Kolbert has written articles about high-profile politicians such as Senator Hillary Clinton, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, all of which appear in her 2004 book, The Prophet of Love: And Other Tales of Power and Deceit (Bloomsbury USA), a compilation of pieces on powerful New York personalities.

In 2001, Kolbert spent a year on assignment in Greenland, researching ice coring — a process that allows climatologist’s to trace weather changes chronologically. The experience presented the perfect opportunity for her to tackle global warming, a topic that had interested her since 1989, when she read Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (Random House, 1989), largely recognized as the first book about climate change aimed at the general public. “I had come to The New Yorker and no one was really covering the environment,” Kolbert told this reporter. “When I was in Greenland, there was no doubt whatsoever that global warming was happening-the physics were impeccable and there was consensus but, the coverage hadn’t really reflected that.” Kolbert felt obligated to report on the issue. Her research resulted in “The Climate of Man,” a three-part series published in The New Yorker in April 2005, which won the American Association’s Award for the Advancement of Science. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Kolbert uses the series as a jumping off point to delve into the mammoth issue of global warming. Kolbert, the mother of three young boys, felt compelled to open adults’ eyes to the very real possibility that climate change could destroy the world for future generations. “It gives you a very sick feeling as a parent that we are so short sighted and blind,” Kolbert said in an October 2006 interview. “People are just not paying attention to what … with the exception of nuclear warfare, is the biggest threat to our existence.”

Jaimie Etkin is a senior at NYU, where she is earning her Bachelor’s degree in print journalism.


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