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'H Is for Hope' explores history of climate change and why there's hope for the future


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: This week, the Biden administration finalized new rules ordering power companies to slash greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning plants. Data shows that global levels of the three main heat trapping greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, all reached record highs in 2023 for the second year in a row. And experts say there's no end in sight. But a new book says there is reason for hope. William Brangham spoke with its author.

William Brangham: Climate. Change from A to Z. That is the premise of a new collection of 26 essays, one for each letter of the Alphabet, like c for capitalism or K for kilowatt, Q for quagmire.

Journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert wrote the words. Artist Wesley Alsbrook did the illustrations, and together they delve into everything from the history of climate change to the deep uncertainty about its future, from sobering facts about our warming planet that may seem overwhelming to innovations to fuel our optimism. The book is called H is for hope. And Elizabeth Kolbert joins us now.

Elizabeth, welcome back to the program. You are one of the journalists who has helped me and so many of us understand the climate crisis and the ecological crisis that we are living through right now. When I saw a book by you that was trumpeting hope, I was really struck by that. I mean, given everything, you know and everything that you document in this book, how did you land on hope?

Elizabeth Kolbert, Author, "H Is for Hope": I mean, you used the word overwhelming, and I think the climate crisis can seem overwhelming to people. It's a science story, it's a technology story, it's a political story, it's a geopolitical story. And so the goal of the book, which is really following the style of a children's book, but is not a children's book, breaking things down by Alphabet, was to break the story down into pieces and put it back together again.

William Brangham: It is shorter than most of your works, and it is constructed in this way with some chapters being quite brief and yet illustrated beautifully by Wesley Alsbrook. It isn't a children's book, as you say, but I'm curious as to why you chose this format.

Elizabeth Kolbert: There's a lot of, I hope, resonance is there. I sort of was wanting to play with a lot of different ideas. So I hope there's a certain amount of playfulness in the book. And one of them was playing with this antiquated form of an ABC book to deal with a question that is very much a present day question and also very much a question of our future. So bringing those sort of different styles together.

William Brangham: You talk a lot about the narratives and the stories that we tell about climate change. One of the many that really leaps out in this book is the chasm between the rich and the poor, both in our emissions and the impacts of those emissions, the millions of people who are now refugees because of climate change. Why do you think that narrative has not moved people?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, that's a really good question. And especially since the issue of immigration is so much a hot button issue in our own politics, we should be having a much more sober and thoughtful conversation about all of these issues and how climate change, how continuing to burn fossil fuels is going to drive a refugee crisis the likes of which the world has possibly never seen before, is something that all of our politicians should be discussing once again, not in a way, not in the sort of way that unfortunately, they're discussing immigration today, but in a much more considered, thoughtful way.

Because we are looking at a future in which many, many millions of people are likely to be on the move, because the places that they have lived for many centuries are going to become very difficult to live in.

William Brangham: I want to ask you a little more about Wesley Alsbrook's artwork, because it is such a striking parallel to your words. One of the drawings is an image of our earth, the great globe, inside of a snow globe. And it's part of the chapter V for Vast, where you talk about the irony here that our taming of nature, quote, unquote, with oil and gas and electricity and heating and transportation, has now come back to haunt us in the sense that it has, as you say, put nature firmly back in charge.

Can you tell us about that illustration and that message that's coming through there?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, that chapter is a reference to this very famous quote from the 1950s from one of the first people, Roger Revell, to raise the alarm about climate change. And he called what we were doing a vast experiment. And that vast experiment, that vast unsupervised experiment continues.

And so I think what Wesley was driving out with that wonderful illustration of the globe inside a snow globe was, we are shaking this thing, and that thing is, unfortunately, the whole planet.

William Brangham: Your shortest chapter D for Despair. I'm going to read it in full. Despair is unproductive. It's also a sin. That could easily have been the title of your book, but you obviously chose the opposite. What cumulative effect do you want people to take away from this work?

Elizabeth Kolbert: Well, I think the cumulative effect that I want people to take away is we are dealing with this problem one way or the other. It's coming at us, and we can choose to deal with it as constructively and wisely and as intelligently as possible. Or we can throw up our hands, or alternatively, put our heads in the sand, and it will still come at us.

So those are the choices that we face. They're not necessarily the choices that we would have chosen, but those are the choices we face. And that is why I think despairing about it is not productive. We really need to focus on what we can do and get it done.

William Brangham: The title of the book is "H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z." Elizabeth Kolbert, great to talk to you again. Thank you so much.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Oh, thanks for having me.

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