Elizabeth Kolbert on Coming to Grips with a Warming Planet

June 12, 2017

We want to believe that climate change can be stopped, that humanity can summon the political will to take decisive and meaningful action to avert disaster and save civilization. But the difficult reality is that even if we make our very best efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is coming. The real question now is how bad are we going to allow it to get?

There is perhaps no one better suited to discuss humanity’s unwitting impact on the planet than this episode’s guest, Elizabeth Kolbert. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and as a staff writer at The New Yorker she has chronicled the agonizing but undeniable realities of the ecological damage wrought by humans and the complicated politics of confronting — or ignoring — that damage.

Kolbert talks to Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo about how we as a society and as individuals think and talk about climate change and the inevitable environmental and political disruptions to come.

BONUS FEATURE: Point of Inquiry bids a fond farewell to Nora Hurley, the show’s producer since 2014, with a kind of “exit interview.” Nora and Paul discuss what’s next for her, as well as what working on (and listening to) Point of Inquiry has meant to them both.



Links Mentioned in this Episode


This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 12th, 2017. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. We have a couple of topics to discuss today on the show. Each of existential significance, climate change and this very podcast. And our last episode, I spoke with leading environmental activist Carl Pope, where he made the case that our window for stopping climate change has not yet closed. That’s an encouraging message, especially after President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. But it is not a universal view. For another perspective, I spoke to one of the leading journalists covering climate and the environment. Elizabeth Kolbert. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker. The people’s surprise winning author of The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History and someone whose reporting and commentary has been, for me, absolutely vital. Now, stick around after my conversation with Elizabeth Kolbert at the end of this episode. I’ll have a special conversation with outgoing point of inquiry producer Nora Hurley. Nora has been producing the show for over two years and she’s now moving on to new adventures. But not before she and I have a little exit interview and chat about this show, its history and what’s next for her. 

But first, let’s find out what’s in store for human civilization. Here’s Elizabeth Kolbert. Elizabeth Kolbert, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you so much for being on during what is now a very turbulent time in climate change news. Thanks for having me. 

I’m really glad to have you on the show today for myriad reasons. At The New Yorker in your books, I know you cover climate change, environmental policy, politics. And it seems to me that the theme surrounding all of this is less to do about climate change in particular and more about the impact of humans as a species on the planet. Would that be a fair way to put that? Yeah, actually. What drew you to this particular focus then? Because as opposed to say, like, you know, covering domestic horse race politics or being a theater critic or something like that, what what draws you to this particular topic? 

I forced her to write about climate change. Wow. It’s it’s about. 

16 or 17 years ago already. When I was pretty new at The New Yorker at the time and George Bush had just been elected and he you know, this this is going back and dating myself, but he is one of the first things he did as as president, not unlike certain other presidents we have is he announced the U.S. was not going to be a party to the Kyoto Protocol. 

It was this it was this somewhat different situation because the Kyoto Protocol actually did need congressional Senate approval and it was pretty clear it wasn’t going to get it. So that withdrawal was on some level just stating the obvious. But it was also a slap in the face. It’s like we’re not we’re not going to abide by its terms. We’re not only, you know, he could have tried to get the US to abide by the terms of Kyoto, which were quite, quite trivial for the US, really. 

Were they tougher than the Paris ones or. 

No, they were absolutely not tougher than Paris. They were. I think it was, I guess, seven percent cut in CO2 emissions offer. But now it was off of a much earlier baseline. So it’s up like it was a 1990 baseline when emissions were significantly lower. So then throughout the Bush years, actually emissions rose to a high basically around 2005. And since then, they’ve actually been very slowly falling. That move of George W. has got me really thinking about climate change, which which was an area that I was not subject to that was not terribly knowledgeable about. And at the time that, you know, the conversation was in a quote unquote conversation, I was in a very different place. And you still read a lot of he said, you know, he said sort of stories about your casting, raising questions about how serious this was all along. So I sort of thought, well, I should go out and answer that question because The New Yorker gives you a lot of space and a lot of time. And it know it almost seems like an obligation, you know, to to try to try to answer that question once and for all. And I naively, naively thought, you know. And so I set out and once again make a very long story short with a three part series in The New Yorker that appeared in 2005. And I hoped, you know, laid out the the facts and the implications of what we were doing. And that set me on this path that really I became very immersed in what was going on. I became convinced by the scientists that I interviewed dozens of scientists that this was really, really a big deal, way bigger deal than people even realize. Even people who were concerned. 

And so that has defined really my journalism reporting since then. So that’s how on this on this tag. That’s a long answer. 

No, that’s fine, because it sounds like it sounds like a bridge immediately to the sixth extinction, the way you described it as we kind of discovering the impact we’re having and people don’t realize that it’s even worse than than what we think it is. 

And these things are just happening within our knowledge that seems to lead right into the theme of the sixth extinction. Yes. 

And the sixth extinction really arose from a couple of stories and thoughts and ideas. But mainly the overarching one being as serious as climate change is and world altering really on a on a on a very dramatic geological scale. 

There are actually other impacts that we’re having on the planet that are just as great, if not greater. 

And so climate change is a huge story, a global story, you know, a world historical story, but only on a smaller story than this larger story, which is the story of how people are changing the planet for all intents and purposes, permanently. 

And the impact that that is having on millions and millions of other species is that impact is the climate change impact from from your perspective, the the big one, like the one where we’re having one major impact in one fell swoop as opposed to maybe smaller pockets of problems that we caused? 

Well, unfortunately, it’s unfortunately, it’s probably not even the worst one. I think that there’s a case to be made that and this is this is sort of the flip side of climate change, sometimes called climate change. 

You know, climate change is equally evil twin, which is ocean scientific. Creation. I think there’s no good reason. Once again, unfortunate. We’re running this experiment without knowing exactly the answer to that. But there’s good reason to believe that what we’re doing to the chemistry of the oceans and the oceans are absorbing a lot of the CO2 we put into the air gets dissolved very, very quickly and the surface waters of the oceans. And that is changing ocean chemistry, because when CO2 dissolves in water, it forms an acid. And I think that well, there have been, you know, very dramatic climate shifts over time. It’s very, very, very unusual to change the chemistry of the oceans. It’s very difficult to do. And we are doing it at at I think many scientists would say an unprecedented. And that is potentially even more dangerous than climate change. Which is very, very dangerous. 

To which we may need a second podcast’s for that one. Yeah. So we’ll get into that one next time. In your book, you mention. 

This line sticks with me. It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself. But that is what we are now in the process of doing. 

That speaks to me because I freely confess I have this bias toward despair, right? I am definitely a worst case scenario. 

Yeah, same as you or me is dead. Yeah. 

So as I mentioned to you before, in my previous episodes, spoke to Carl Pope, formerly the Sierra Club, and he has this very glass half full book that he wrote. We got Mike Bloomberg. It’s very definitive in the case it makes right. And they say very explicitly, we can stop climate change and we’ll talk about Paris. But regardless, regardless of what happens with with the Paris accord, do you think there is an answer to to that? 

Is there an answer to whether we can meaningfully rein in climate change, at least at a catastrophic level? Is that even something we can answer? Well, I mean, that that’s a very good question. 

And there’s you know, I will unpack it briefly. I mean, first of all, the idea that we can stop climate change that that I can tell you definitively is not true. There’s a time delay in the system. There’s a big time delay. So, you know, there’s a lot of warming. Climate scientists say there’s warming in the pipeline. So no matter what we did, if we stopped emitting CO2 today, the world, you know, which certainly is a far cry from what we’re doing, the world would continue to warm up for it for for quite a while because of this delay. OK. Now, can we minimize climate change? Well, what we’ve already built into, you know, a significant amount of climate change, but we have still yet to go. You know, the if if we really, really, really, really seriously got our act together and I mean really seriously, then I think it is reason. It is. It is possible. I’m not saying it’s plausible that it’s been small that we could hold warming to underneath the limit. That is the aspirational limit in Paris, which is to two degrees Celsius. So we would hold an eventual warming to under two degrees Celsius. 

That that, I think is possibly physically possible. Now, two, to unpack that still further. What that depends on all of these things depend on understanding what’s called climate sensitivity. So that is how much warming to get out per incremental change in the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. And that is something that is there’s there’s uncertainty, as you know, and both sides of that. 

So if if climate sensitivity turns out to be on the high end, then, you know, there’s already probably no way to hold warming to under two degrees Celsius if it’s on the low end and then there is a way soon. 

So there are political realities and there are geophysical realities here which, you know, have to line up properly for us to hold warming to under two degrees Celsius. Now, I think that once again, just to be perfectly honest here, I think most climate scientists and most policymakers at this point would say two degrees. It is not a realistic goal. We’re not making that because we continually are pushing kicking the can down the road. And that’s certainly why people were so, so upset. Yeah. And Donald Trump withdrew from power. Restore the US from Paris. 

Is it wise to be talking about it in terms of we can stop this? You know, Al Gore uses the same kind of language that this is something, you know, will take these great opportunities, will make money off the investments in green energy and all that stuff. And I’m all for that. But still, the language is we will stop it. We will we will defeat this. Is that how do you feel about that? 

I think it’s very, very complicated because obviously, you know. Motivating action and getting, you know, people who are not really deeply, deeply immersed in climate science and climate policy to pay attention. You know, it’s it’s really a bummer and very unlikely that you’re going to get by. And if you say, well, you know, we really need to go all in on this. But it’s really not going to make a difference. You know, in your lifetime. And that’s what you often, you know, when you often hear from the other side, you know, this wasn’t going to really make any difference. I mean, make you know, you’re going to radically change the trajectory of warming, you know, for the foreseeable future. 

Unfortunately, they’re often right. Unfortunate. That’s often true, you know, because to change the trajectory of warmer warming, you know, over the next 20 years is extremely difficult because, as I said, it’s already sort of baked in. 

And so the experts understand this, even the policy experts understand this, that we’re in for something, we’re in for some kind of convulsion that’s going to upend things to some degree one way or the other. Right. So what we’re really trying to avert that is something much worse. So what is that much worse look like if it’s the four degrees that we hear is like out of strophic level? What is the world look like? 

A lot of these insects play out over different timelines. So that’s another problem that we have to talking about this. You know, honestly. 

So, you know, four degrees warmer is there is a radically different world. It’s a world that has not existed for, you know, millions and millions of years, long before our species evolved. 

It is a world, you know, quite possibly with no ice left. So, you know, radically, radically higher sea levels. Now, how long it takes to melt Antarctica once again? No one knows exactly. It could be, you know, centuries, millennia. But it also could play out in a significant way in decades. 

So that’s a big, big unknown. 

I think it’s a world where around the equator, you know, in dry areas, you know, terrible drought where there are droughts, quite possibly, you know, ferocious storms of a kind that we are just completely unfamiliar with. 

There’s a lot more energy in the system. The world is is there’s a lot more evaporation. There’s a lot more rain overall. But where it falls and when it falls might be radically different. So it’s just you’re very, very radically changed world where, you know, you know, sort of water world like scenario the way it gets painted sometimes. 

Have you heard of the group that called themselves Dark Mountain, the Dark Mountain Project? There’s these folks who are concentrated on the idea of what do we do once, once all these things do start falling apart once there’s catastrophic climate change. Yes. Yes. What are we going to do locally? Yeah. Yeah. So how do we live our lives when these things stop working? 

Yeah. And and that’s that’s something that’s been, you know, in the back of my mind for a long time. And I wondered and I guess part of what they’re trying to say, which I which I feel sympathy with, is we need to start having these conversations about what we’re really going to be in for in the next 20 years. So instead of saying let’s all get electric cars and our lives will go on as they have. Yeah. What’s it going to be like when the oil runs out and the electric grid doesn’t work the way it did? 

Yeah. Like that. Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, once again we’re getting into into Futurama. Gee here. I mean, the problem there is a couple of problems. One. 

One problem is that, you know, we’re not running out of oil. That’s actually a problem. You know, it’s not a happy thing. We we we. 

Turns out we there’s just actually a tremendous amount of fossil fuels out there if we want to keep burning them. Now, the other you know, the other question is, you know, in a foreseeable future kind of timeframe. Well, I can guarantee you that it will continue to warm. I cannot tell you, you know, by exactly how much and what the impacts of that are going to be. 

That kind of sort of near range forecasting is actually extremely difficult. So, you know, it’s possible that the world will look, you know, more or less, you know, warmer than it does today and more, you know, more uncomfortable probably. There probably will be just disruptions in the next 20 years if I were a betting person. 

But I don’t know how any of them will be traceable directly to climate change and how many will be traced to, you know, the chaos in the world. So I don’t know if I would write. I person would not recommend spending the next 20 years, you know, thinking about, you know, what we’re going to do when we run out of oil. Because because certainly in the next 20 years, we’re not going to run out of oil. 

So you don’t also foresee, though, like something. Something. Kin to the structures of civilization starting to maybe not collapse, would wobble, as it were, as a result of some of these things. 

It’s sort of possible. I mean, I certainly think know, if we’re talking in a medium to long range bases, I would be extremely concerned now that the next few decades, you know, there’s so many, you know, we could have, you know, cyber warfare. There’s so many ways the world could be disrupted. 

And if you say, well, I think we shouldn’t be living, you know, a lot closer, a lot lower to the ground, you know, with a lot less reliance on the networks that we rely on now. 

And, you know, we should be able to feed ourselves locally and and all that. 

That’s a very interesting conversation to have. But I think very, very quickly, I mean, that also involves radical radical change. So I think personally, I think it would be better to use our time trying to avert some of the worst effects of climate change through, you know, through political action, through transforming our systems, rather than sort of hunkering down and preparing for the worst. Well, you know, putting canned goods in the basement or to discourage anyone from doing. 

Sure. Sure. Be prepared for everything. Sure. I want to talk about Paris quickly, but I think I could probably guess the gist of how how you feel about the deal itself. You wrote in the magazine, many of the commentators have suggested that the U.S. and withdrawing from Paris is ceding its leadership role in the world. But the sad fact is that the U.S. has never been a leader in addressing climate change, and that’s part of why it was so weak. I think there’s an assumption that if there’s anything going on that’s of a global scope. The U.S. is at least in some position of calling the shots. But you say not so here. Have we always been absent on this, even before Trump, even during the Obama administration where we kind of a while there? 

Well, we were, you know, once again, to go backwards a little bit. We were we were totally a well and a very destructive force, actually, during two terms of George W. Bush. 

Then Obama came in and he tried to be more constructive. I think that everyone would agree and maybe even he would be that he was a little bit wasn’t really focused on in his first term and let a lot of time go by that probably shouldn’t have gone by. 

Yeah, it was. In fact, that piece by Ryan Lizza in your magazine about how the legislation that John Kerry was working with the Giese direction. Right. And Lindsey Graham and how that kind of dropped the ball on that. Do you see it the same way? 

Yeah. I mean, very clearly they put all of their energy into health care, which, you know, is now falling apart, too. But that was a decision that they could only do. One really knows your thing at a time. 

And so and so, yes, they dropped the ball on that in his second term. I think he did focus more on climate changing. And I can’t tell you why that is. And the administration, you know, in preparation for Paris and TripIt, was trying to get a lot of ducks in a row, which was not easy. 

I really want to say it is not easy because they needed to come to the negotiations about Paris with something to offer short. They couldn’t get anything through Congress. So they they came up with these two major sets of regulations, one on cars and one on power plants and which are now being unraveled. 

But I think that that America was the U.S. was very president in a sense that Obama sat down with the Chinese premier and and and cut a deal. And that was crucial and that enabled Paris to move forward. So he deserves a lot of credit for that. 

Now, speaking of what’s being offered now, we have this coalition of states and universities and businesses and mayors that Bloomberg is now kind of coordinating, I guess, that are that claim. They want to try to meet the Paris commitments all over the heads of the Trump administration. Yeah. Is that meaningful? Does that does that have a shot of making an impact? 

No, I think that’s a really good question. And I I think it’s very, very hard. 

You know, it’s going to be very hard to meet the US’s Paris commitments with the regulations that we’re talking about, which are fuel efficiency standards and powerplant standards. So half the states. And then once again. And and it’s going to be a fight, a battle. And we’re going to see how this battle goes, because, for example, California, which is really the leader in all this, has its own set of fuel efficiency standards. And the Trump administration, I fear, will try to undermine those. And if that’s the case, if you don’t have auto efficiency standards in place, if you don’t have regulations for power plants, you’re certainly not meaning it. 

You’re certainly not meaning it by, you know, happy talk. So. Whether these cities and states really can. 

You know, achieve major change while the U.S. government, while the federal government is undermining them. I think that is a question that very, very much remains open. We’ve been if they put their best effort into it, which once again, I’m not entirely convinced are going to do again about how we talk about this topic. 

My two children are seven and four. And I know when I’ve had to explain what climate change is to at least to the seven year old boy, the reaction was that he got very angry. He was kind of upset with. Humanity as a species for having let things happen this way. And, you know, it kind of made him feel, you know, feel like I don’t know if I want to belong to this particular species. I’m a little pissed off at us. You know, he didn’t put it that way. You understand what I’m saying? 

And so have you had to talk about this topic to two kids or teenagers and kind of explain what it is that our the lives that we lead now have have done to the planet? 

Have you found a way to do that? 

You know, that’s a that’s a good question. I would I would not say I have I have a way to do that. But it’s late again, you know, a topic of frequent conversation in my house. And actually, I for whatever it’s worth, my oldest son is going off to graduate school and atmospheric science. I guess it hits impact. I could see that. You know, whether that. 

Right. Whether whether what that means, I don’t know. We’ll say, well, we’ll see it as it goes on. 

As I mentioned, my default feeling about all this is used to be anxiety. And now it’s kind of moved on to a kind of grief, you know, but yeah, this kind of mourning about what it is, I know that we’re going to lose. And I and I assume that I’m not alone in that. And there’s even like whole support networks that I’ve seen now online about people grieving over climate change and other big issues. 

Do you the people that you talk to, the experts, the policymakers, the scientists. Is that a thread that you’re beginning to see sort of mourning? Or is it still more about let’s let’s confront this problem? 

You know, I think I think people who live with this every day and work in the field are simultaneously. Oh, yeah. 

Hold all those thoughts in their mind all the time simultaneously. There’s a lot of. 

Anger and there’s a lot of sadness and there’s a lot of determination and all of those are, I think, very reasonable reactions, I don’t. 

I mean, if you just fall into despair, obviously, then, you know, you you just hide under the bed. And I think most people feel for fairly obvious reasons that that’s not very constructive, as appealing as it is. 

But, you know, I don’t think that. 

I don’t think that there are a lot of scientists out there who are feeling, oh, you know, things are things are looking too good right now. I think that there are reasons for politicians and policymakers to talk a good game. 

And I don’t I don’t I don’t begrudge them that. 

But I think it has, you know, might have a certain utility. I hope it has a certain utility. But no, just looking at the facts as they were, you know, there are some hopeful things going on. You know, there are big advances being made in solar power and wind power. But if you look at our overall, you know, energy consumption, it’s still very, very heavily reliant on fossil fuels. And if you look at our gas emissions, they’re very, very high. 

OK. So warming is locked in. Political system in the US is more or less. 

I want to let you I do want to say warmings. I get a certain amount. OK. But there there’s always choices to be made between, you know. 

You know, bad and very bad, very bad and catastrophic, catastrophic and unlivable. There is never gonna be a moment when we don’t control, you know, I mean, we don’t control it because we we don’t know what’s going to happen. 

But when we don’t still have the opportunity, you know, to mitigate the damage, to try to ameliorate situation. 

Well, good. I’m glad you said that. So for for regular folks, for people who weren’t experts or scientists or policymakers, what should we be focusing on if we would like to make things better, if we want to help mitigate what the the warming if we want to move things forward? What are things that regular folks can do apart from, you know, voting, not voting for people who will up and everything. 

But I don’t think it’s just not voting at this point. I mean, I think it is showing up. It is turning this into a voting issue. I mean, there is a piece in the Times. 

I think it was the other day which pointed out that the majority of Americans do think climate change is a problem and do want action, but it’s low down on their list of priorities. 

And four percent said it was. Yeah, exactly. 

A voting issue. And people need to to elevate it to a voting issue. And it it turns out in politics. I know I covered politics for a long time. And whenever you talk to politicians, they’ll tell you the same thing. You know, a hundred people and we’re seeing this at these town hall meetings now. A hundred people turning up and being angry about something is a big deal to your local congressman. So, you know, you alone maybe can’t do it, but you and, you know, you know, 50 of your neighbors can’t can have an impact. And then and then each one of your neighbors brings, you know, someone you have one hundred people and that’s that’s big. That’s big in a congressional district. So that’s what we really need. 

That’s good to know. You know, so we’ve gone from the things that humans don’t know we’re doing to the things that we know we can do. So I think that wraps it up very nice so that this is great. Elizabeth Kolbert, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. 

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Back to the show. 

Okay, ready? What now? Ready for this? Ready for this? Yes, I’m ready. 

Nora Hurley, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you for having me, Paul. 

Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure. Now, seems a little strange to be welcoming you to point of inquiry, obviously, because you have been its producer for the past two years. So this is really your home as much as it is my home to welcome you into. 

My it’s home sweet home. 

Home sweet home. So what I want to do is talk a little bit about what you’re gonna be up to and your feelings about having done the show and what’s next for you. But first, I would like to take a step back, look at point of inquiry as a show before we talk about what you’re gonna be up to. So the show’s been around since 2005. Now, what have you been aware of it for that long? Like when did you first kind of realize that there was this show called Point of Inquiry? 

Honestly, I didn’t know about a pit bull, like apparently a lot of my peers did know about it. 

Like I found out once I got the job that people that I knew already knew about it and were listening to it. And I didn’t know they were listening to the X, I didn’t know it existed, but I didn’t find out about the podcast until Ron Lindsay reached out to me and asked me if I would apply for the job. 

Oh, interesting. Interesting. And it seemed to have like a little bit of a would you call it a cult following? 

Yeah, I guess so. It’s it’s weird. 

I should ask some of the people I know who already listen to it, how they found out about it, because a lot of the people I know who listened to it were not even necessarily associated with CFI, but did know about the podcast. So I don’t know if these are right or who were, because 2005 was part of the big podcasts boom, like that was right before everything became really huge. So I wonder if we were just on the market at the right time when people who wanted to listen to podcasts were looking for podcasts to listen to? 

I think so, because I remember back then I probably picked up on it around 2007 or so was probably about the time I realized it existed. And it was more or less what you’re talking about, though. It was that I was looking for podcasts based on a certain subject because I was interested in the subject matter of secularism and all that. I wasn’t even working in it yet. And and this was one of the few options. And it was clearly like a really well done option is really, you know, when I tried podcasts by some of the other groups and I was less impressed and this one was like this consistently smart and and well thought out show with these these mines that I had never encountered before. Wow, that’s awesome. Yeah, I’m thinking like a Jennifer Michael Hecht and I even like Tom Flynn. 

I remember I my first man who Tom Flynn was on. Yes. 

But you and I had like Neil deGrasse Tyson and all those other folks you’d expect. But but it was the first time I ever encountered a space where you could have these kind of long, thoughtful, not not sound body conversations about the subject said that I was interested in. 

Now everyone’s having conversations, CNN. Everybody’s got to buy. Yeah. 

Yeah. But still, I would say it’s. That’s true. They still have their pocket and yeah, everybody’s got that now, which makes it a little harder to stand out. But it’s it’s nice that we were there. Right. Really early on. I mean. Yeah. And five that’s really early on. Absolutely. I’m looking at the list of the previous hosts here. So we got DJ Grothe. He obviously was the first one. He was there for a long time. Then they rotated through Chris Mooney, Robert Price and Karen Stollznow. Chris Mooney is obviously now at The Washington Post. Robert Price was doing another podcast for CFI for a while, the human Bible, which was actually quite entertaining. And I’m not sure what Karen Stollznow is up to at this moment, but she’s a science writer who’s very good. And then they switched to Chris Mooney in and Indre Viskontas. And Andray is both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, and she’s doing very well for herself, I assume. Wow. And then after that generation ended, then we got the one that you and I are more familiar with, Lindsay Beyerstein and Josh Zepps. You came on about a year into that version in 2014. Yes. 2014 or so. Yep. 2014. Yeah. So you did the job, right? So you did the job for about two years and change. I think. Right. Yeah. And then. Then. Now as of the last episode. The previous episode. Then you had me. And so that makes me the one, two, three, four, five, six. The eighth host, if you don’t count guest host, because we’ve had a couple of those here and there. But I’ve got to it makes me host number eight. Well, that’s that you have guest host and you’ve done an excellent job. So we should say the original plan listeners was that we were going to share hosting duties in this next generation of point of inquiry. If you listen to our promo from a few weeks back, we were laughing at ourselves quite a lot. Was the idea. But but now it is no longer the plan. It is just me going solo. And one of the main reasons we want to talk to Nora now is because this is sort of her her exit interview in a way. And so, Nora, what what are you going to be doing? What are you going to be up to since you’re not going to be joining me on point of inquiry? 

Packing my bags and I’m moving to the big city. Do you have, like, a little bag strapped to a stick? Yep. And a Judy Garland hat. And it’s it’s already happening. You’re going to jump on the back of a train. 

Yeah. Like, I’m gonna dress like from the 1920s and it’ll be fun. 

But you head for them. Yeah. I’m going to New York and I’ve actually I was living in New York when Ron contacted me or I was about I was living in New York. 

I moved back home briefly and I was looking at apartments to move back to New York. So I did an internship at Comedy Central. So I was living there for a year. And then I was planning to move there because I had some other opportunities in New York. They weren’t Nessus. They were like other internships, though they weren’t necessarily a promise of payment. And Ron asked me to apply for this job. And I received they gave it to me and I felt like a job was better than an internship. So I indeed took this position with the idea that both of the hosts of the show lived in New York. So I would probably be able to eventually make a pitch for living in New York while doing the show. And it just never really quite panned out to work well that way. And then my responsibilities changed to be a bit more video heavy than they were podcast heavy. So it didn’t really make sense for me to be in New York, but I still really want to live in New York. That was kind of always my my plan and my goal. It’s kind of an aimless goal. It doesn’t really make sense, but that’s how I feel. So I got to do that. 

Absolutely makes sense to me. And well, now, actually, before I for a say anything. So what is it you’re gonna be trying to do while you’re there? 

Well, I’m also a standup comedian, so that’s what I do that in Buffalo. And I’m just going to do it in a city that’s harder to do it in. 

That’s the guy who can make it there, etc. And you can make it other places. But I have plans to produce other podcasts while I’m there, have some freelance work lined up with Rewire News. I’m producing a show called The Breach. It’s a close, deep look at government corruption and it’s kind of a investigative look at the Trump administration. But all things government and then I might produce some other. They asked me about producing other podcasts for them, too, but I don’t know what those would be at this point. And then I’m also working on We the People Lie, which is a political comedy podcast. And that is both of these I’m both these projects are actually with Lindsey and Josh because after they left point of inquiry, they sort of asked me if I still wanted to work with them. And so I guess I kind of am going to the city to work with the hosts after all. It’s just on. Yes, you are. That worked out, didn’t it? Yeah. It’s unfortunate that it CFI might not be in the picture to the same degree, but I love everyone at CFI and hopefully will continue to help them with any freelance work that they might need. 

So it’s a it’s gonna be a good adventure. 

So I would not I would not characterize your move as aimless. However, I think most people can relate to the idea that, you know, you’re at a certain age and you have a particular you know, you have a general goal in mind of what you would like to pursue with your life. 

And at some point, you decide to kind of cut off a lot of things and make a make a determination that you just gonna jump into something. 

You’re going to just kind of go full bore on achieving a particular goal while you are, you know, in the right place at the right time, at the right age and take your best shot at it. And that makes perfect sense to me that that doesn’t sound like an aimless school. That sounds like a courageous one. 

Well, it makes sense to me, too, because I’m doing it. 

And at some point that did we know this is my last year, my parents health insurance. 

So that was kind of the contending decider. 

Yes. Yeah, that makes sense. That makes sense. So you’ve been producing point of inquiry for a couple of years now. Can you characterize that experience generally? Has that been an enlightening one? Has it been a complete drudgery? 

No, I loved it. It’s the favorite it’s my favorite part of my job. I love producing the show. I love listening to the show. I love editing the show. I love meeting cool guests. They get to be on the show. Everything. 

I think people don’t necessarily know. Is that as as producer, you’re not just, you know, editing. The show and stuff, but you’re also coordinating everything behind the scenes. You are getting folks you are looking for guests to invite on. You are coordinating any indication between the hosts and the guest? That’s a lot of stuff. 

Yeah. And when the hosts do or say something that sounds weird or cringing, I let them know that’s my job. 

So that’s true, actually, because I think I think another thing that people might not realize is that even though you’ve got folks like Josh Zepps, Lindsay Beyerstein, who are experienced journalists and even Josh Zepps as an experienced broadcaster, your role is still to serve as sort of not their boss, per say. In that sense, but sort of their creative director and to kind of nudge them in certain directions. Would you? Was that a correct way to put that? 

Oh, yeah, definitely. But I think we you know, you get into a groove of things. We all have an understanding of the standards and practices of the show after working together. And I think it becomes less me telling them what to do and more them asking how I think it should be done. And we sort of come to a conclusion together about what we think would be best for the show. Sort of a it’s more of a we thing than a you do this right now type of thing. Right. 

And it shows I mean, for example, we’ve talked about this, you know, behind the scenes quite a bit. But I think it’s clear if you’ve been following point of inquiry for a couple of years, for example, with Lindsay Beyerstein, she’s come so far just in her skills as a broadcaster. Oh, yeah. As being being able to interview. You know, I think she was tentative at first and has come a long way. Josh has been doing this, you know, probably since birth. 

Yeah. But but he knows he has in his sleep. Yes. To the annoyance of everyone around him. Yeah. But but. 

But Lindsay had some lessons to learn. And I think it was really great that you were there to be the person to kind of guide her along some of those things. And I think I think that the progress that Lindsay made so that she is able to now take the lead on new projects outside of CFI as well. It’s a testament to not just her own work, but to the guidance that you gave her. 

Yeah. Lindsay is great. 

I loved working with her because I got to watch firsthand, like, anything that I put forth or explained to her suggested she would take head on. And it was always like it just constant improvement on everything. 

And she always wanted to do whatever we needed to do to make the show the best show possible. She really cares about her work. And yeah, I think she’s really talented. And sometimes that’s I mean, that’s what a producer is supposed to do. Sometimes you don’t know how it comes out. So that’s why you have someone on the other side who’s explaining how to make sure things come out at the end to sound. 

Yeah, I want to have that benefit, unfortunately. Now, for from here on out, I’m going to see you edited the last show, which is great. So you did the one for Carl Pope. Thank you so much for that. But from here on out, it’s just going to be just me. So I’ll have to rely on my own very, I would say, fuzzy and static view of the world in order to make sure that everything sounds all right. 

But but. Well, don’t e-mail me if you if you need. I will. You know what? I’m sure you’re not going to hold back on some suggestion that you will let me know what you think. 

Do you have a favorite episode that you worked on? Her point of inquiry. It’s OK if you can’t figure one that I know put you on the spot there. 

I feel like I have probably a couple of favorite episodes, at least content wise. It’s hard to say favorite that I worked on vs.. Favorite. I love the show Man Hari episode about the drug war. Oh yeah. I read. Listen to that one. Just because I think it’s such a great reference of everything you need to know. And I also really like the Katha Pollitt episode where she talks about her book about a project called Pro. 

Yeah. Yeah. Being unapologetic about abortion. 

Yeah. So, yeah, I will I will endorse those couple. But you have another one you want to mention. 

Other ones that I don’t mean to interrupt you there. No, no, no. You’re fine. 

I mean there’s a lot but I can’t think of them right now. I sure didn’t come prepared for this, evidently. 

And of course, me, I can’t think of them right now either. But I know, like, if he’s on Twitter, I’ll always be like if it’s something that really moves me, I’ll be like, I’ll get right on Twitter and let let folks know. Like, that was an amazing one. Everybody’s got a check if you want to know what moves. Paul, read his tweets. 

Yeah. You don’t. Please don’t. 

You know, I will say that as much as I’ve enjoyed the previous generations of point of inquiry, I think I’ve definitely enjoyed the latest generation the most. I think I’ve now I’m heavily biased because I actually worked on those. So it’s a little different than coming at it from someone who was just a listener before. But I think I’ve definitely gotten the most out of out of this particular generation for some reason. And maybe it’s not just a host, but also the kind of the mix of guests that you three. I’ve been able to corral together, I thought it was a lot more variety in the latest generation, so it wasn’t just people who are doing science and philosophy and religion, but we had folks from media and journalism and activism and all sorts of different areas of of pursuit. And I thought that really helped the show a lot. 

I agree, although I’m also biased because I didn’t even really listen to it before. 

You should check it out. 

You know, I will say now I listen to other DJ Grothe period. I didn’t. There was that period when it was the three hosts moving in between Money and Price and Stoll’s now. I lost track around there. So I got to say, I’m not very familiar. Maybe that was the best. I don’t know. But right now I’m saying that the bar scene Zepps era was the best era. OK. So we can we can wrap this up now. But I will say, Nora, just as someone who has worked with you for the past couple of years, it has been an absolute pleasure to have you as a coworker, as a producer. And and you’ve also been a really great friend. So just thank you for everything you’ve done for positive inquiry and for the Center for Inquiry. 

Now, I feel like I should be thanking you like this experience has been so rewarding. It was one of the best first real jobs I could have ever asked for, so. 

Well, you handled it wonderfully, and we are better for having had you. So. Hey, Nora Hurley, thank you for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks for having me. 

That’s it for today, folks. Look for the next episode of Point of Inquiry in July. My thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert and Nora Hurley for joining me. And thanks to Casper for supporting the show. You’d like to support the show to go to a point of inquiry dot org slash support. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Ratings on Apple podcast, Google Play and wherever else you listen and subscribe. 

This episode of Point of Inquiry was produced by me with help from Nora. It’s a production of the Center for Inquiry, which you can learn more about at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. And thanks for listening. 


Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo is editor of Free Inquiry and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. For ten years he served as communications director of the Center for Inquiry. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and his writing has appeared in outlets such as Religion News Service, CNN, USA Today, Dark Mountain, and Android Police. Fidalgo is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center.