'We as a species are killers': UConn talk explores humans' effect on planet

Modern humans, said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, have a fundamental characteristic in common with a Hawaiian crow named Kinohi and a kakapo named Sirocco.

Confusion.

These two birds, now living in captivity in Hawaii and New Zealand with the last of their nearly extinct species, serve as emblems of “this very strange world we’re creating” and “the great mess we have gotten ourselves in,” Kolbert said. Both live in “sexually confused” states, refusing to breed and bonded with and dependent for their survival on the same species — humans — that destroyed their habitats and now go to great lengths to keep the remaining few alive.

“We as a species are killers. We are driving more and more species to the brink of extinction, and more and more over the brink,” said Kolbert, speaking Thursday to an overflow audience at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and broadcast to the Avery Point campus in Groton. “Yet we are also curious, concerned and caring. We are a rather confused species.”

Author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” and “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change,” and a staff writer for The New Yorker, Kolbert delivered a sobering message about the impact humans are making on the planet, one she said is “not unlike the asteroid” believed to have spurred the rapid mass extinction of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. Three main forces unleashed by humans — sudden climate change, ocean acidification and movement of species around the world through travel and trade — are “running geological time backwards” to create conditions not seen for tens of millions of years, long before humans or any other primates appeared.

Though she has given her talk many times since the publication of “The Sixth Extinction” in 2014, its grim tone was intensified by brief references to Trump administration policies she characterized as hostile to taking positive action for the environment, and during a brief question-and-answer period. Any progress made in recent years toward reducing greenhouse gases, she said, is quickly being undone.

“I don’t have the solution to the problems, and they’ve only become more extreme in the last couple of weeks,” she said. “It’s over until we get a new government. We need to figure out how to get this crew out of there because we are very, very rapidly moving backwards.”

Statements made by some of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees that the science on climate change is not yet settled, are “BS,” she said, showing slides of the Keeling curve measuring marked rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 50 years, ice core data of carbon levels from 800,000 years ago, and equipment used by a British scientist 150 years ago that established that carbon dioxide traps heat.

“This has been settled science since the 19th century,” she said. “The proposition that CO2 traps heat is very basic science. We are taking carbon that was buried in the earth millions of years ago and adding it to the atmosphere, backing running geological history backwards to levels we have not seen for 800,000 years.”

The effects of climate change, she noted, are “uneven” across the planet, with the Arctic experiencing some of the most dramatic shifts.

“But the effects of climate change are likely to be even more devastating on the tropics,” she said, “because that is where many more species live.”

On the Great Barrier Reef, she learned about the coral communities that are not expected to survive this century, yet corals provide habitats for about one-quarter of all ocean organisms at some time in their lives. So much carbon from the burning of fossil fuels is being absorbed by the oceans that the chemistry of sea water is being altered such that corals and other creatures that build shells cannot survive.

Compounding the disruption, humans accidentally and deliberately are introducing species that have been separated from each other for millennia, creating “a new Pangea,” she said, a reference to the single land mass that existed some 270 million years ago before plate tectonics created separate continents. In one recent example, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats likely was carried by a traveler from Europe to New York a few years ago and has now devastated bat populations in 28 states and five Canadian provinces.

Research for her book that took her to Greenland, Australia and Peru, among other locations, both deepened her appreciation for the planet and left her deeply saddened by what’s happening to it.

“A lot of it was exhilarating and fantastic,” she said. “But the more you sense the miracle, the more you sense the tragedy. I saw some of the last great intact ecosystems in the world in the Amazon in Peru and the Great Barrier Reef. You realize how extraordinary this planet is, and you just want to weep.”

Kolbert’s talk was given as part of the Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series, which has brought leading authors, artists, scientists and journalists for public lectures about nature and the environment at UConn for the past 20 years.

j.benson@theday.com

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