I began my relationship with professor Peter Kelemen with a missed appointment. I'd walked into Schermerhorn Hall 20 minutes before our scheduled interview, confident that no matter how lost I got trying to find the sixth floor annex, I would not be late. A friend had told me she once had gotten so lost trying to find the annex that she'd stumbled into the animal testing rooms instead, and I didn't want this happening to me.
As it turns out, I didn't have to worry—Kelemen was running late, he told me over email: stuck in a meeting. Trying to sympathize, I replied that it must have been boring. Actually, he replied, it was "depressing but enjoyable," concerning legal avenues in the U.S. toward meeting Paris climate targets. We rescheduled for the next day, and I decided to sit in on one of his classes first: Earth Resources and Sustainable Development.
The lecture hall, located in the Northwest Corner Building, is sleek, modern, comfortable, and of a much higher caliber than those I'd gotten used to in Hamilton Hall.
"These fold-out desks don't creak," I whisper to my friend, a science major.
"Why would they?" she whispers back.
As I slip into my seat, I hurriedly shove the book of sonnets I was reading for an English class into my backpack. I don't want these earth science majors to know I was an impostor among them.
Kelemen is standing in the front of the hall, fiddling with a projector. He wears a salmon button-down and well-fitted pants that straddled the border between black and gray. As he lectures, he intermittently sips from a bottle of San Pellegrino, drops trickling into his well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, jaunty blue and orange glasses sliding down his nose. He's 60, and chair of Columbia's geology department.
He has, he later tells me, climbed vertical rock faces in British Columbia, set off dynamite blasts in fjords in Greenland, fallen and broken his back, dropped 150 feet and only sprained an ankle, and pressed against a rock face in Peru where, in 1976, he recalls "hearing for the first time falling rocks going by at the velocity of a bullet."
When I ask him what that was like, he says, "You're realizing that you've kind of bought into the idea that one of those might hit you—but probably not." A Peruvian rock didn't kill him in 1976, so now he's lecturing.
Photo courtesy of Peter Keleman
The lecture is about greenhouse gases—and it includes the opinions of client scientists and environmentalists, of course, but also the point of view of the Texan who just wants energy, with the bumper sticker that reads, "Let the bastards freeze in the dark." Idealism, Keleman recognizes, won't keep the lights on; I doubt solar energy is powering the lecture hall I'm sitting in.
When the answers to his questions became sparse, Keleman looks up at the lecture hall full of students, smiling. "Let's do the back row, let's do the Facebook brigade," he says, and then stands there—arms crossed and grinning—until a girl mumbles a tentative answer.
We are discussing, in large, dry numbers, methane extraction and fracking and gas hydrates in the Arctic Ocean. But beneath his affable exterior and scientific language, Kelemen hums with a palpable intensity. He obviously cares; this is a man who sometimes commutes to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory via kayak. And somewhere beneath his talk of gas hydrates, I detect that we are discussing something gravely real, not just hypothetical—the possible destruction of the planet as we know it.
When he starts discussing current methane levels, the seriousness of the subject matter bubbles to the surface. "There's no way to know if this is the beginning of the end," he says, "or just business as usual."
In 2010, Kelemen wrote an article for the Huffington Post called "All Real Scientists are Climate Change Skeptics," decrying scientists who he believed were obscuring differing trends in climate change data because they thought the real complexity of the data might be too confusing for the general public. In my interview with him, later that day, I ask him how he feels about it now.
"Well, I don't think it's as important as I did then," he says. "It's hard at this point to view really serious climate change deniers as an outcome of a little bit of malfeasance by some climate scientists. It seems at this point to be a lot less sincere than that."
Kelemen's office is comfortable and dated—everything the lecture hall isn't. I feel more at ease here; the cozy archaism reminds me of Hamilton. He sits across from me at a long wooden table and smiles.
Kelemen has been working for years on a geology project that might work to slow, or even halt, climate change. Rocks naturally absorb greenhouse gases from the air, but his research involves accelerating that process, a thousandfold to a hundred-thousandfold.
"To be relevant, a process should take a billion tons a year," he tells me. "And we can imagine how we could get there."
I wonder aloud how any process involving rocks could occur so quickly. I had always thought of them as static, not changing in any perceptible way.
"We can go to Oman," Kelemen replies, "and you can see these pools of water actually forming calcium carbonate—calcite—on the surface like ice on a pond, and you throw a pebble in there, and you come back the next day, and there's a new skin. For a geologist, that's basically supersonic." Using that process, it's possible to accelerate the natural rate of carbon absorption by 1,000,000 times.
In this way, Kelemen is doing his part to save the planet, which you can see he cares about deeply. As we'd walked to our interview earlier, a harried, smiling man stopped to talk to Kelemen and ask if they might catch up on Tuesday. After he left, Kelemen turned to me and said they were trying to save the world together. That professor liked complex numerical analyses. "Anything he can sink his teeth into," he said.
In college, Kelemen planned to be an English major, like me, taking classes in "semantics and anthropology of religion." I ask him why he switched into studying earth science.
"I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer," he says. "And I didn't want to go to business school, and I wasn't really clear what I was going to do with my English degree or my philosophy degree from Dartmouth, and I'm not wealthy."
"So I switched into the earth science major thinking, OK, I'll do this seasonally in the summertime, and I'll think great thoughts and write books or something in the winter." He might have been influenced, he tells me, by his friends in the rock climbing club. Many were geology majors getting internships from the big mining corporations and making good money during their summers.
He soon jumped onboard. One of the mining companies, Noranda, recruited Kelemen and a couple friends to form a mineral exploration consultancy, because they didn't want to pay their own employees exorbitant amounts of money to risk their lives on the cliffs.
Photo courtesy of Peter Keleman
"We were only too happy to be the people who took those risks," Kelemen says.
This was when he scaled sheer rock faces in British Columbia, encountering competition from other climber geologists in Canada and moving the business to Alaska, and, later, Greenland. This was when he fell 150 feet and sprained his ankle.
But this isn't yet the part of his life when he stood in a small ship in a storm, the waves large enough to capsize the vessel and the water studded with hunks of solid ice the size of his head. He watched his friend stand in a tiny rubber boat in 2-degree-Celsius water, and push off a glacier with his bare hands. That moment comes later.
Thinking of his English major past, I ask him if he'd read any Jon Krakauer—another rock climber with a literary bent. Krakauer's nonfiction book Into Thin Air details the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest expedition he participated in, in which eight climbers died.
"I never bought or read it, because I sort of felt like Jon was ambulance chasing. He made a lot of money on that book, and some of my friends died in that episode," Kelemen says. I sit silently, abashed. He continues: "But I really like Into the Wild. I don't know how many people can relate to the protagonist, but certainly I would say most climbers can relate to the young man in the center of that book."
I also love Into the Wild. It's an interpretive account of the story of Chris McCandless, a man who was so enchanted with the idea of freedom and wilderness that he wandered into deep Alaska, eventually dying of starvation in an abandoned bus in the Denali interior. I ask Kelemen if he thought he was at all like McCandless—a fundamentally transient person. He thinks for a while.
"I remember telling someone that a house was just a big wooden tent," he says." But I've sort of settled down. [My wife and I] raised two kids."
He seems to have reconciled his old passion for exploration and danger with the resources of working at an Ivy League university in New York City. I've been mentally listing in my head throughout the interview all the ways that Columbia would be terrible for a geologist. Where are the rocks? Where's the nature? Morningside Park is a poor excuse for the wild.
Kelemen sees both positives and negatives to working at Columbia. He tells me that his previous institutional abodes—Dartmouth College, University of Washington, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—were very different from Columbia. "Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where we spend roughly three out of five days a week, is a little bit like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, so that's similar," he tells me. "But all the power and glory and status and ego battles that come with the Ivy League tenure system were not so much present in Woods Hole. And some of that's good—there's a lot of resources here, and it's relatively easy to attract really good people here, but some of that is a little bit unwelcome."
Even as a professor, Kelemen still has a great deal of time for research and fieldwork. "If I teach two full courses in one semester, then I have a whole semester free, regardless of my sabbaticals," he tells me. It is during this free time that Kelemen watched his friend push away an iceberg with his bare hands: They were on a boat in Greenland, on a National Science Foundation grant, that got trapped during a terrible storm.
"The captain," Kelemen tells me, "took the ship in behind a big iceberg the size of Schermerhorn Hall, and we anchored and tied up to the shore, and there were 80-knot winds, and little icebergs smashing on the boat, and we were pushing them off with boat hooks." He blinks. The water was 2 degrees Celsius, so if you sunk, you died.
He snaps his fingers and smiles at me. I feel as though the room was 2 degrees Celsius.
Kelemen has a mantra, a "mind control process" for these moments—moments of terror, of life and death, of the brink of catastrophe. He learned it climbing, and it still comes in handy when he is cross-country skiing, where an avalanche can threaten at any moment. The trick, he asserts, is in remaining confident. When you're climbing, he says, "You can go out—even without a rope—and stand in places where, if you were afraid, you'd lose your strength and fall and die, but because you're not afraid you can stay there."
I wonder what that would feel like. The thrill of standing, confident, on the ledge.
Sitting in Kelemen's office, after hearing his lecture and his stories, after talking about lower Manhattan being engulfed by a polluted, rising ocean, I wonder how anyone can be confident at all. How does one dare to try and halt the tide of global warming, put both hands on the iceberg, trust that the falling rocks won't strike? How does an English major confidently sit in a geology class, and how does anyone, professor or student, succeed at an Ivy League institution? And why is Schermerhorn so horribly difficult to navigate?
But Kelemen manages to hold his head high despite these obstacles. "If you're confident and you remain confident, then you're safe," he tells me, "and you're right to be confident. And if you are not confident, and you start to become fearful, then you have every right to be fearful."
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