Pulitzer Prize winner speaks about environmental issues

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and "The New Yorker" staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert presents a seminar on her book "The Sixth Extinction" at the Dodd Center on Thursday, February 2, as part of the Teale Lecture Series. Students and other members of the UConn community showed up in droves to attend the talk, completely packing the room. (Akshara Thejaswi/The Daily Campus)

The Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut was packed Thursday night for award-winning journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert’s presentation on climate change, species extinction and the effects of carbon in the atmosphere.

Kolbert, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her nonfiction book “The Sixth Extinction,” is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has published several other books on environmentalism, nature and climate change. Her lecture was a part of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series, which was sponsored by several departments within UConn.

Kolbert mainly focused on the factors that contribute to mass extinction within the environment.

Carbon in the atmosphere and oceans, along with the introduction of invasive species, are all leading to what Kolbert called sixth extinction of multiple species on Earth. There have been five other major extinctions known to have occurred on Earth, Kolbert said, with the last one killing off the dinosaurs.

Humans have caused all the factors leading to the impending sixth extinction, Kolbert said.

“We, as a species, are killers,” Kolbert said. “We are driving more and more species to the brink.”

One of the examples Kolbert used was that of New Zealand, which was once home to multiple species of flightless birds such as the Stephen’s Island Wren. Human introduction of predatory mammals such as the Pacific rat and the common stoat rendered several bird species extinct by the end of the 20th century, she said.

As well, global trade and travel has caused the inadvertent import of diseases that wipe out local species, as infections jump countries with tourists, Kolbert said.

White-Nose Syndrome, which is a fungal infection in Little Brown Bats that originated from Europe, has spread to 38 states in the US, Kolbert said. Some bat colonies have suffered declines of up to 90 percent due to the disease. Kolbert described the time she visited a cave that was struck.

“We were basically standing on a carpet of dead bats,” she said.

Other ecosystems and species are faring no better, Kolbert said. Using ice samples obtained from the Arctic, scientists have determined that carbon levels in the atmosphere has risen exponentially since the Industrial Revolution, Kolbert added, and will continue to rise based on current trends.

The carbon, which is a result of emissions from cars, factories and other fossil fuel burners, contribute to the acidification of the oceans, Kolbert said. As the carbon reacts with the water to form carbonic acid – the same acid in carbonated beverages – marine calcifiers such as shellfish, sea urchins and coral reefs lose their calcium structures and begin to die, Kolbert said.

“If we keep pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, by 2100... the world’s oceans will have a pH of 7.8,” she said.

The atmospheric carbon also contributes to global warming, which can greatly affect ecosystems throughout the world, especially those in the rainforests, some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet.

Audience members attending the lecture found this news disheartening, though informative.

“She did a lot of long hard work to get the word out,” said Amanda Bunce, a graduate student researching forestry. “The story of New Zealand and the flightless birds was very heartstring pulling. [It’s sad] to realize the damage we can do.”

Kolbert said that while she was highlighting the issues of mass extinction, she could offer no real solutions as to how to prevent it, despite its human origin.

“It is not because humans are vicious or indifferent, though we certainly have those capacities,” she said. “We are a rather confused species.”

Some audience members, however, said that they would keep hoping for an answer.

“I’m appalled and delighted that she’s available to present her position,” said UConn English professor emeritus Compton Rees. “The changes we’re going through are so rapid. We lose hope. On the other hand, that’s all we have. We have to keep going.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.