LEWISTON — In exploring everything from the demise of Central American frogs to dying coral reefs across the globe, Elizabeth Kolbert has shouldered the role of trying to warn everyone else about something scientists already know: that human activity is wiping out an astonishing array of species.

Speaking at Bates College on Monday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer called it “a strange, sad world that we are creating.”

After spending many years interviewing scientists on the front lines, Kolbert said people are playing “a dangerous game” by pumping carbon into the atmosphere at a pace not seen in tens of millions of years — a move that is heating up the planet and devastating the natural world.

“We are killers,” she said. “We are driving more and more species to the brink of extinction” and beyond.

Jane Costlow, an environmental studies professor at Bates, said that Kolbert’s prize-winning work focused on these “strange and difficult times” is “helping us change the way we see the world.”

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Sixth Extinction,” Kolbert called attention to the way human alterations of the world’s environment are already creating a die-off that nearly rivals the end of the age of dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

The impact is especially serious in tropical areas where there’s far more diversity of species — 50 acres may have 1,000 different species of trees in Peru while Maine has less than 50.

The oceans are also taking it on the chin as carbon in the air interacts with water to make the sea more acidic, a development that is likely to wipe out coral reefs worldwide and may make it tough for any creature that makes its own shell to survive, including clams and sea urchins.

Kolbert said the shuffling of species across the globe in our increasingly transient society is also clobbering some native plants and animals.

For example, she said, she entered a cave in Vermont that used to house 300,000 hibernating bats each winter. When she got there, after a white fungus attacked the slumbering mammals, she wound up standing “on a carpet of dead bats” cut down by a disease that originated in Europe.

Behind the catastrophe is climate change, especially the atmospheric warming that worsens by the year. NASA data released last week confirmed 2016 is the hottest on record, a distinction that has become almost an annual update.

She said that when she started writing about climate change 15 years ago, there wasn’t much to illustrate the growing impact.

Now, though, as she pointed out in a New Yorker piece last week, the evidence is everywhere: “in the flooded streets of Florida and South Carolina, in the beetle-infested forests of Colorado and Montana, in the too-warm waters of the Mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, in the mounds of dead mussels that washed up this summer on the coast of Long Island and the piles of dead fish that coated the banks of the Yellowstone River.”

It isn’t likely to improve, either.

“Everything’s changing very rapidly,” Kolbert said, far faster than the capacity of the natural world to evolve in compensation.

Kolbert pointed out that glaciers are melting, raising sea levels and transforming the natural world at a pace unrivaled since an asteroid ushered out all of the non-avian dinosaurs.

“We inherited a world of maximum diversity that we’re doing our best to undo,” she said.

Asked what it might mean for humanity itself, Kolbert said times of mass extinction are “not a time when you’d want to be around. All bets are off.”

She pointed out that when Tyrannosaurus rex meat-eating dinosaurs roamed the land, they would never have dreamed they would suddenly cease to exist. But it happened.

Kolbert delivered the Otis Lecture at the Olin Arts Center, sponsored by the Philip J. Otis Endowment at Bates, which supports programs focusing on the environment and its spiritual and moral dimensions. The 20-year-old program honors a Bates graduate who died in 1995 trying to rescue people on Washington’s Mount Ranier, Costlow said.

A former reporter for The New York Times, Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999, where her pieces on climate change and other subjects have won a variety of awards.

To read an excerpt from her most recent book or listen to interviews with Kolbert, check out her website at elizabethkolbert.com.


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