“D Is for Despair” Didn’t Sound So Good: A Conversation Between Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert

By Bill McKibbenApril 22, 2024

“D Is for Despair” Didn’t Sound So Good: A Conversation Between Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert

H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z by Elizabeth Kolbert

ELIZABETH KOLBERT HAS written three crucial books about climate change and the global environment: Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006), the Pulitzer-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) and Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021). Her carefully reported New Yorker pieces—all the more powerful for her restrained prose style—now regularly limn the latest developments in the climate crisis, and her new book, H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z, was adapted from essays in the magazine. It takes the form of an abecedary, with drawings by Wesley Allsbrook; I talked with her about the book in mid-April before we introduced it to a packed house at Vermont’s venerable Northshire Bookstore.


BILL MCKIBBEN: So, love the book—obviously—but by this point, it’s sort of weird, because everybody knows about climate change. It’s one of the facts of our life now, like gravity, and we don’t really write books about gravity anymore—we know how it works. But since this is such a live, potent political issue and we have to win, we need to keep writing about it.

You’re experimenting with form here. I mean, between us, we’ve tried essays, detailed reporting, everything short of lyric poetry. How are you thinking about form and getting environmental notions across these days?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: That was totally the thinking behind this experiment. Everything has been done, everything has run its course, but climate change hasn’t even started to run its course. So, on the one hand, I was feeling both—let’s call it an obligation and an opportunity to try to mix things up and put these stories out there. I don’t want to say the story, because part of the whole abecedary idea was that this is so many stories. This is everything, everywhere, all at once. Maybe we can break it down and put it back together again.

The technical word is abecedary?


It pays homage to children’s literature in a way. But you’re obviously writing for adults. Is there a sense that we need to go back to first principles here? Or that there’s something missing from people’s once youthful understanding of the world, something that’s changed?

Honestly, I was trying to be playful. I know that sounds weird with a book on climate change. But I was trying to play with this antiquated form, and the illustrations, which are a huge part of the book—

And beautiful.

Well, I can’t—I shouldn’t say thank you. Wesley: thank you. She did a great job. They were meant to hearken back to something kind of Victorian or even pre-Victorian about this very present yet futuristic-seeming and technologically bound up subject. I tried to get something going by playing off those two things.

There’s a sense that an understanding of climate change should be one of the fundamental building blocks of our perception of the world, in the same way that a sense of geography is. But we tend to think of it as a kind of strange, late, aberrant addition to our understanding of the world. An add-on instead of one of the fundamental facts about planet earth.

I covered politics for a long time. The people who had covered the previous political campaign would be like, “We did that already,” or they’d covered it during the primary season, and everyone would be like, “We did that already.” Yet there were always voices that said, “Yeah, you did it—but no one paid attention.” And you—all the way back in 1989—and I—in 2006, or whenever it was—laid out all of this. You can read these reports from 1960. But nothing has changed. Everything has played out completely according to the laws of physics.

As for that sense of do you have to go back? I don’t in this book, although I thought about it—back to the absolute basic, fundamental physics of climate change, which, sadly, even a lot of people who are very concerned about climate change don’t quite appreciate. Who lays out black-body radiation? It just doesn’t happen very often in the pages of newspapers (for obvious reasons).

There’s a strange thing about climate stuff, which is that the people who do care about it, or are conversant with it or whatever, have been talking about it for so long now that it seems almost like, yeah, let’s move on to some other things.

Yeah, yeah.

Meanwhile, inexorably, we’re reaching that point where warnings are coming true in front of our eyes, which is—even for me, and certainly for you—a very strange thing. To see the thing you’ve been talking about now happening month after month: the record temperature, the enormous fire …

It’s surreal. It’s surreal. It’s truly surreal. Absolutely. You’d think—what a moment in time, in geological history. We’re watching it play out. And yet, what are the biggest stories? What does everyone care about? It’s not climate change, which freaks me out.

Four years ago, at this point in the primary season, climate was the number one issue in the election for Democratic voters. Probably because Greta Thunberg had gone to the streets and raised the salience of the crisis again. And then Varshini Prakash and Sunrise Movement figured out this Green New Deal thing, and Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act. Does that feel like it has taken the pressure off the political system for a while? That it’s not a particularly salient issue this time around?

I’m even more worried that Biden is going to downplay stuff he has done. Because, you know, there’s the fracking vote in Pennsylvania. There are certain swing constituencies where he doesn’t want to remind people what he’s done. I was doing some nosing around in West Virginia where a lot of manufacturing jobs are coming for clean energy–related stuff. And it was interesting and depressing to talk to people because they were like, “Well, yeah, we’ll take the jobs.”

I think that’ll eventually turn around. Texas believes in oil—they’ve been pumping it for a long time. Eventually they’ll come to believe in wind. But that (long) transition? We’re certainly not there yet.

Let’s talk about education around climate. We spent so long thinking that the problem was just to get people to believe that something called “climate change” existed—which is a battle we’ve more or less won, to the degree that you can win in this increasingly crazy country.


The part that haunts me at this point is the lack of understanding about the time-limited nature of this problem. Because we don’t have other problems that are quite analogous in that way. And that seems so hard to get across.

I completely agree. It’s like with a lot of other environmental problems. People think, “Okay, as soon as we bend that curve or reach net zero.” (Lord knows when that’ll be.) But even just talking about it, people think, “Well, someone’s taking care of it, someone’s doing something about it, and this is going to change.” What people don’t realize is, it never goes back. It only goes in one direction.

It’s different from other political questions because it really takes a civilization-scale response to do the things we have to do in the time that we have. And there’s not a bargain involved the way that there usually is in politics—you know, “We’ll meet you halfway.” Physics isn’t playing that particular game.

I do know how these guys think. And that kind of political thought process isn’t up to the challenge. It’s just not up to the challenge. There are people in the Senate who are extremely knowledgeable and know what they’re doing. But even a lot of politicians who I think are well-meaning, and you can include Joe Biden in this … as you say, it’s like, “We’ll compromise; we’ll do this for this group and this for that group.” But that’s just not the way this one works.

And yet you’ve made—I think—a completely defensible decision to make Hope the book’s title. You could have chosen any of the letters.

Well, they didn’t sound as good! But I toyed with a lot of them, yeah.

What were the other candidates?

This one really popped out pretty soon. First of all, it’s sort of a play on Helen MacDonald’s wonderful book, H Is for Hawk (2014). And people have also told me—reminded me, I guess, because I read all those books as a kid—that it plays on Sue Grafton’s “H” Is for Homicide (1991).


So, there are a lot of a lot of layers there. I wanted a nice, one-syllable word, and D Is for Despair didn’t sound so good.

There was a period, I think, not many years ago, when we probably would have been more likely to be writing F Is for Fear. But I think there has been this feeling that there’s perhaps an antidote to some of that. Rebecca Solnit has been writing remarkable essays on the possibilities of hope, on hope as a verb, really—as a set of actions instead of a sense that everything’s going to be okay.

Greta Thunberg has a wonderful quote, something like, “Hope is something you have to earn.”

The book is also exploring the many different emotions, many different reactions, and many different stories we tell ourselves. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I don’t know which of these narratives inspires action. I think fear—which is not what “F” is, but it could have been, or “P” could’ve been for panic … I think fear is very motivating, can be very motivating. It hasn’t been, in part because this isn’t something you can fix as an individual. Buying a gun or barricading your doors, that’s not really going to do it. It’s collective action. Climate change has been called the greatest collective action problem in the history of the planet.

What is it that brings people together? That motivates people to take action, motivates this cooperative spirit that is (unfortunately) necessary globally? These are questions that, sadly, I believe remain unanswered. But what I was trying to do, or hoping to do, was examine different possibilities there.

One thing that has changed over the course of the years you’ve been writing is that renewable energy went from being a hoped-for alternative—something maybe we’d be able to someday scale—to being the cheapest way to produce power on planet earth. That has clearly changed at least the set of possibilities. When I think about what we can do in time to make some difference, I can’t actually think of anything bigger than building a lot of solar panels and wind turbines.

I think that’s the great turning point of our time, the hopeful thing you can point to. When people really put their minds to it—that solar in particular came down in price was not a coincidence or a random thing. That’s the good news. And you could run an advanced economy on wind and solar, if you really, really, really put your mind to that.

Now, people also use that sort of logic to say, “We’re going to scale up carbon removal, we’re going to do all these things …” And I’m not convinced by that, I’ll be frank, because the laws of physics are what they are.

The sun delivers exponentially more energy than we could ever use in a day. This is almost a children’s book insight, but the idea that we’re at this moment in time when, if we wanted to, we could start running the planet on this fire that happens to be hanging 93 million miles up in the sky—there is a kind of children’s book simplicity to it that’s quite beautiful.


I’m stunned, to some degree, by the endless political adaptability of the fossil fuel industry. Every punch that science and movements and, really, common sense throw at them, they manage to figure out how to roll with it. We just learned about LNG exports—that if they continued at their current pace, soon American LNG would be producing more greenhouse gas emissions than everything happening in Europe. That’s the last thing we need: another continent’s worth of greenhouse gases all of a sudden.

What’s really frightening—well, I don’t want to say “what’s really frightening.” But to add to the list of things that are frightening, there are a lot of countries that have a lot of oil, it turns out. They have historically been low emitters (some of them, several of them), and they rightly ask, “Who are you to tell us what to do?” And you have to say, “You’re absolutely right.” But that’s also the last thing we need.

That Lula’s Brazil now plans to become the third biggest national oil company on earth, after only Saudi Arabia and Iran, is a sobering piece of news.

We take one step forward, one step back, always. It’s the US too. It’s everyone talking out of both sides of their mouths.

Well, the US above all. We’re now the biggest producer of hydrocarbons on earth, even though this is the place where we first figured out about climate change and what’s going to happen.

That’s the ultimate question, really: what is it going to take to break that hold? And to—I don’t know who came up with the phrase, Bill, did you?—keep it in the ground. How are we going to get there?

One of the privileges of publishing a book is that you get to go around and meet a few people who are reading it and thinking about it. It lets you take the temperature of the public—in a slightly less scientific way than, say, NOAA is taking the temperature of the atmosphere, but still. What’s your sense, when you talk to people? Where are you finding them right now?

Maybe I’m an anxiety magnet or something, but the people who come up to me are really worried. They read the sea surface temperature charts for the last year, and they’re very worried. I’m sure you have the same experience: people will say, “You know, you introduced me to this, and it’s 20 years later—and where are we?”

There’s that Yale project that divides people into the Six Americas, and maybe it’s only that one-sixth that’s really, really alarmed that I hear from. You also hear the inevitable BS from the others, the one-sixth that’s on the other side. The people who are in the two-thirds in the middle? I don’t have a great sense of where their heads are at, and I would really, really like to know. Because it’s so crucial.

Some percentage of people clearly skipped directly to “This is over and we’re doomed and there’s nothing we can do, so I’ll think about something else.”

Look, there are so many of what they like to call “existential risks.” There are so many of them right now that I actually am sympathetic to, you know … existential risk fatigue.

Me too. And there’s a perfectly good argument to be made, as you know as well as anyone on earth, that we may have passed tipping points from which there’s certainly no easy return—if there’s any return at all.

It really feels like the next five or six years are the last serious chance that we have. My visceral sense of how the planet works is that we’re really starting to reach the tipping points that we feared, the things from which retreat is … For me, when I think about it, until the end of this decade the job may be to install as much good, clean energy as we possibly can. And then at the end of the decade, we take stock and see where the hell we are. Because, you know, we may be at the point where those break-the-glass solutions and interventions become more—I mean, Canada can’t catch on fire every year, year after year, without something breaking at some point.

No, absolutely. None of these things are going away. That’s the issue: most stories have their lifetime. They live out. Even Donald Trump—he may leave a hideously lasting impact, but eventually that story will be over. The story of climate change will never be over. Which gets back to what we were talking about at the beginning. It’s a narrative. It’s a set of facts, but it’s also a narrative. And those may have not have that much to do with each other, interestingly enough.

Talk about that a little.

Well, something is going on. But even climate scientists don’t know. You alluded to tipping points; we don’t know exactly where many of them are. We’re flying blind, to a certain extent. Something is happening, but there’s a reality out there that we can’t perceive yet. We may not know until we cross them, these boundaries, until years after we’ve already crossed them, because there’s so much inertia in the system.

So out there is a reality, which you and I can agree on, even if we can’t access it. Meanwhile, there’s a story. And the thing about stories … There’s an old line that, “in politics, the story will change because the story has to change.” We get bored of the same story. Now with climate change, unfortunately, I can guarantee you these stories don’t change.

That’s such a smart point. In politics, the governing metaphor is a pendulum—it swings one way and then it swings the other and tends towards the middle. But—though a pendulum is, in fact, the greatest demonstration of physics we have on the planet—that’s not actually how this story works. It just keeps heading in the same direction until we figure out how to stop it.

To be honest, it’s worse than that. Because as it heads in that direction, certain processes—melting the ice, for example … even if you stop global warming, those processes keep going.

It’s that momentum which terrifies me above all else.

I want to ask you a question. You don’t have to answer or put it in because you may not want to mention this, but recently having had a grandchild, what is that like?

It’s funny. I found out that I was going to be a grandfather the same week that all the scientists were calling me to say, “This is the hottest week in the last 125,000 years.” Talk about a mixed set. I mean, I’m—nothing has ever delighted me more. But it is very sobering to know someone who, God willing, is going to be alive in the 22nd century. We’ve tended to think about 2100 as if it was some cliff, because that was the furthest out our projections could go … but someone’s going to actually have to live with this world we’re making.


Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006); The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), for which she won a Pulitzer Prize; and Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (2021). For her work at The New Yorker, where she’s a staff writer, she has received two National Magazine Awards, a National Academies Communication Award, and the Blake-Dodd Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

LARB Contributor

Bill McKibben’s 1989 book The End of Nature is often regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change. He has written 20 more books since, and founded 350.org, the first global grassroots climate change campaign, and Third Act, which organizes Americans over 60 for action on climate and democracy.


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