Fall 2020

The Coral Is Not All Dead Yet

Carolyn Kormann

Reportage and essays are the first and most immediate way that citizens learn about climate change science, its causes and consequences, and the impacts that industry and consumerism have on ecosystems. For fifteen years, I have been reporting and writing stories on these topics. Growing up, I was drawn to the environment because I was fascinated by the diversity, the endless variety, of life on Earth. But early in my career, in my first reporting job for a newspaper in the Caribbean, I also saw the disastrous toll that contemporary civilization was taking on the natural world–specifically on coral reefs. And yet, the climate crisis was not widely reported as such in those days. That experience, and the dearth of mainstream climate reporting at the time, led me to seek out some of the leading thinkers on the subject, and made climate one of the central subjects of my work. Most often, in the field of journalism, the phrase “bearing witness” refers to war journalism, while my work, for years, had often felt like science translation, connection, and storytelling. But more recently, as the ecological and societal impacts of a changing climate have grown more extreme, widespread, and apparent, while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, climate journalism has, too, become a form of bearing witness.

Carolyn Kormann is a Staff Writer at The New Yorker, covering science, the environment, and climate change. Her writing has also appeared in Harper’s, Porter, NPR Music, Yale Environment 360, and VQR. She is writing a book about the lives and meaning of bats, which tells the story of these strange flying mammals’ surprising impact on people and history.

When I was in the third grade, in 1991, I read about Biosphere 2 in a children’s magazine. The idea of a monumental, glass, sun-drenched structure, in a faraway desert landscape, containing miniature versions of seven biomes–rain forest, ocean with a coral reef, desert, savannah, mangroves, intensive agriculture, and human habitat–was thrilling. The experiment, in which eight adults were to live in the biosphere for two years, surviving alone on what they produced inside, seemed like my kind of paradise. It was a fantastical bubble, a child-sized planet, where you could go from desert to rainforest just by walking, where you could live safely in the paradox of contained wilderness, where you could study plants and animals, interact with the wild in controlled experiments, where you created your own world. Not that I could articulate those inclinations at the time.

The investor behind the experiment was interested in the technology of artificial, materially closed ecological systems, or vivariums, in order to find a way for people to live and thrive on other planets. There was a strong element of whimsy, even fantasy, among the adults involved, several of whom were not academic scientists, but came from a theater background. Many outside scientists were skeptical of the project, with good reason. I don’t recall when I learned that things went wrong. But they did. There was infighting among the eight biospherians, they nearly ran out of oxygen, a few smuggled in food. Steve Bannon made an eleventh-­hour appearance, to muck things up even further. I recently looked up what became of the place and found out that from the mid-1990s until 2003, Columbia University leased it. The University of Arizona took over the lease in 2007, finally buying the property in 2011. I was slightly amused to learn that both institutions have used the structure for scientific experiments: specifically, to study what happens to various ecosystems when carbon dioxide levels were raised inside the structure. In retrospect, my obsession with Biosphere 2 was the childish precursor to a future writing about climate change.

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