World leaders from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris during the first two weeks of December for the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference. Will the governments of the world finally pass a binding global treaty aimed at reducing the most dangerous impacts of global warming . . . or will they fail in this task?
Letters to the Future, a national project involving more than 40 alternative weeklies across the United States, set out to find authors, artists, scientists, and others willing to get creative and draft letters to future generations of their own families, predicting the success or failure of the Paris talks—and what came after.
Some participants were optimistic about what is to come; others, not so much. We hereby present some of their visions of the future.
Now president of the Bullitt Foundation, Hayes has served as national coordinator of the first Earth Day, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and professor of engineering at Stanford.
Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that, to his regret, the much-anticipated Paris Climate Conference of 2015 would not produce a treaty. Or, for that matter, anything else “enforceable.” The U.S. Senate will not ratify anything that might actually work. Kerry at least appreciated the irony of making this announcement at a military installation that is doomed to be submerged by rising seas.
None of the Republican candidates for President—a pool large enough to field a football team—exhibit similar irony. They all sincerely believe that human beings cannot change the climate.
Democrats talk a much better line. But the executive actions on climate taken during the most recent Democratic presidencies have not perceptibly moved the needle.
I have a theory for why my generation has behaved so unforgivably toward your generation on this issue.
Of course, well-financed opposition by hugely powerful, ruthless, profit-hungry fossil-fuel behemoths (and the politicians and “think tanks” they own) played the central role. But there also was a deeper psychological phenomenon at work.
I grew up in an era shaped by the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The most important defense strategy of my youth was Mutually Assured Destruction. A devastating nuclear conflagration could occur in a moment. But until the moment the rockets were actually launched, it remained possible to take action to avoid oblivion.
Climate change, as your generation understands, is entirely different. Gases that we spew into the atmosphere remain there for geological periods of time. They accumulate to create geophysical conditions that inexorably lead to future consequences. Tragedy is “baked into” the atmosphere decades, and even centuries, before it actually occurs. Humans did not evolve to deal well with this sort of slow-moving issue.
For at least the past 40 years, people have been giving speeches saying we have only 10 more years to act on climate. And they have always been right! Each time we had 10 more years to avoid one more distant consequence. By one point, we had accumulated enough CO2 to ensure an ice-free North Pole. At another point, the desiccation of the American Southwest and massive forest fires were assured. At yet another, more violent storms became unavoidable.
Today, the best science says that we have doomed the West Antarctic ice field—the resulting sea levels inundating dozens of major cities around the world from Mumbai and Bangkok to New Orleans and Venice, not to mention most of Bangladesh. You are only 6 years old as I write this, and already we have condemned you to some unavoidable tragedies.
At low cost and with minimal pain, my generation could have avoided all this. Long before I wrote this letter, we had created every essential ingredient of a sustainable future. But we—and by we I mean the whole human race—failed to take them to scale. We knew how to create ultra-efficient, net-energy-positive Bullitt Centers and Tesla automobiles; resilient agriculture and high-speed electrified rail; green chemistry and FSC forests. We could have covered the entire built environment with solar films, much as nature harvests and stores energy on every green surface.
So that diverse, healthy, resilient future is not the future you have inherited.
However, if you live in Seattle, as your grandfather currently does, you have some huge advantages. Our city has suffered less from climate change than any other major American city. Of course, in doing so it has become very attractive to climate refugees. The world will have one billion displaced persons in your lifetime. Where will they go? Has Seattle been wise enough to learn from the current refugee crisis in Europe and prepare for its own future influx?
The Paris Climate Conference next month will not produce a binding treaty, but it will elicit meaningful outcomes. It may embolden a global movement. It will, at least, demonstrate that the real leadership is coming from cities, not nation states. Perhaps the next major conference will produce a United Cities organization that might succeed where the United Nations failed.
If I have one hope, it is that digital and real-world activities in the streets outside the formal deliberations of the conference will function as a massive global exclamation point! Hopefully, finally, this will be the moment when people across our planet recognize climate change for what it is: the fight of our lives, and yours.
A founder of the climate-justice collective Rising Tide Seattle and sHell No! Action Council, Gaya has spent the past decade organizing for climate justice in the U.S., Europe, and Canada.
To my Grandchildren,
Your world is so much harder because of what we did not do. It took us too long to realize there was a problem. It took longer still to realize the scope.
Once we understood, we squandered much of the time we had left.
We spent nearly two decades putting our hopes in politicians and leaders, believing there would be an easy solution. After those hopes were dashed at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 we spent more than half the following decade confused, depressed, and stumbling.
There is so much you will not see or experience because of what we did not do. You won’t know the stability and comfort that I do today.
I hope you can look upon the middle of the second decade of this millennium as the point when things began to change. Not because of what our leaders did in Paris in 2015. They will continue to fail us as predictably as always. I hope you remember this time, because it was when people stopped looking to politicians to save us and started saving ourselves.
When you study this decade, I hope you learn not about yet another failed summit, but about the massive people’s movements that followed it. I hope you learn about the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who stopped cooperating with an economic and political system designed to destroy their future. In my imagination, your heroes will be the people who faced the truncheon in the global north and the gun in the south closing mines, plants, and offices with the collective power of their bodies. As I write this, we are only starting to realize that these small sacrifices are nothing compared to losing you.
If your planet is harsher and harder than mine, I hope that your society is more just and kind.
Are you confused by the petty differences that divided us in this decade? I don’t know how to explain why we misspent our energy focusing only on the carbon in the air, when the root of the problem was the injustice on the ground. It must be obvious to you now that the same logic that colonized the land and starved the many for the profit of the few nearly destroyed our home.
I dream that your parents will tell you stories of how they forced the mines to close and the borders to open. That they’ll tell you how the great migrations were hard and painful, but not the dystopia we imagined in our fiction. How as the weather became more violent, the only way to survive was for people to become kinder to one another. That though some chose to stand alone on their porches, cooperation was the key to survival—though it was far from easy. I do not imagine that you live in a society free from the mark of oppression by race or gender or background; but rather that you have been taught from a young age that in the world you live in, understanding and overcoming this is a key to continued survival and some kind of prosperity.
I’m sorry that we did not do what we could. That so much was lost forever. But I hope that as our window began to close, we did enough. At least we did enough that you can read this and smile.
Kim Stanley Robinson
A writer of speculative science fiction and winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards, Robinson has published 19 novels, including the award-winning Mars trilogy.
I’ve been worried about you for a long time. For years it’s seemed like all I could say to you was, “Sorry, we torched the planet and now you have to live like saints.” Not a happy message. But recently I’ve seen signs that we might give you a better result. At this moment the issue is still in doubt. But a good path leading from me to you can be discerned.
It was crucial that we recognized the problem, because otherwise we wouldn’t have acted as we did. A stupendous effort by the global scientific community alerted us to the fact that our civilization, by dumping carbon into the air and disrupting biosphere processes in many other ways, was creating a toxic combination that was going to wreak havoc on all Earth’s living creatures, including us. When we learned that, we tried to change.
Our damaging impact was caused by a combination of the sheer number of people, the types of technologies we used, and how much we consumed. We had to change in each area, and we did. We invented cleaner technologies to replace dirtier ones; this turned out to be the easiest part. When it came to population growth, we saw that wherever women had full education and strong legal rights, population growth stopped and the number of humans stabilized; thus justice was both good in itself and good for the planet.
The third aspect of the problem, our consumption levels, depended on our values, which are always encoded in our economic system. Capitalism was wrecking the biosphere and people’s lives to the perceived benefit of very few, so we changed it. We charged ourselves the proper price for burning carbon; we enacted a progressive tax on all capital assets as well as incomes. With that money newly released to positive work, we paid ourselves a living wage to do ecological restoration, to feed ourselves, and to maintain the biosphere we knew you were going to need.
Those changes taken all together mean you live in a post-capitalist world: Congratulations. I’m sure you are happier for it. Creating that new economic system was how we managed to dodge disaster and give you a healthy Earth. It was our best achievement, and because of it, we can look you in the eye and say, “Enjoy it, care for it, pass it on.”
A teacher, author, and speaker on the environment, agriculture, the food industry, society, and nutrition, Pollan’s letter is adapted from an interview in Vice magazine.
Dear Future Family,
I know you will not read this note until the turn of the century, but I want to explain what things were like back in 2015, before we figured out how to roll back climate change. As a civilization we were still locked into a zero-sum idea of our relationship with the natural world, in which we assumed that for us to get whatever we needed, whether it was food or energy or entertainment, nature had to be diminished. But that was never necessarily the case.
In our time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still handed out subsidies to farmers for every bushel of corn or wheat or rice they could grow. This promoted a form of agriculture that was extremely productive and extremely destructive—of the climate, among other things.
Approximately one-third of the carbon then in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we’d been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere. At that time, the food system as a whole—that includes agriculture, food processing, and food transportation—contributed somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization—more than any other sector except energy. Fertilizer was always one of the biggest culprits for two reasons: it’s made from fossil fuels, and when you spread it on fields and it gets wet, it turns into nitrous oxide, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Slowly, we convinced the policy makers to instead give subsidies to farmers for every increment of carbon they sequestered in the soil.
Over time, we began to organize our agriculture so that it could heal the planet, feed us, and tackle climate change. This began with shifting our food system from its reliance on oil, which is the central fact of industrial agriculture (not just machinery, but pesticides and fertilizers too are oil-based technologies), back to a reliance on solar energy: photosynthesis.
Carbon farming was one of the most hopeful things going on at that time in climate-change research. We discovered that plants secrete sugars into the soil to feed the microbes they depend on, in the process putting carbon into the soil. This process of sequestering carbon at the same time improved the fertility and water-holding capacity of the soil. We began relying on the sun—on photosynthesis—rather than on fossil fuels to feed ourselves. We learned that there are non-zero-sum ways we could feed ourselves and heal the earth. That was just one of the big changes we made toward the sustainable food system you are lucky enough to take for granted.
Currently the executive director of Greenpeace USA, Leonard made the 2007 film, The Story of Stuff, which chronicles the life of material goods, and which has been viewed more than 40 million times. She also wrote the 2010 New York Times bestseller of that name.
It’s hard to imagine writing to the granddaughter of my own daughter, but if you’re anything like her—strong, smart, occasionally a little stubborn—then I have no doubt the world is in good hands.
By now your school should have taught you about climate change, and how humans helped to bring it about with our big cars, big homes, big appetites, and an endless desire for more stuff. But what the teachers and textbooks may not have passed on are the stories of incredible people who helped make sure the planet remained beautiful and livable for you.
These are stories of everyday people doing courageous things, because they couldn’t stand by and watch communities poisoned by pollution, the Arctic melt, or California die of fire and drought. They couldn’t bear to think of New Orleans under water again, or New York lost to a superstorm. Right now, as politicians weigh options and opinion polls, people are organizing and uprising. It’s amazing to see and be a part of.
In the year that led up to the 2015 meeting of global leaders on climate change in Paris, kayakers took to the water to stop oil rigs. Nurses, musicians, grannies, preachers, and even beekeepers, took to the streets. The message was loud and clear: “We want clean, safe, renewable energy now!”
Were it not for this glorious rainbow of people power, I don’t know whether President Obama would have stepped up and canceled oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic, or the sale of 10 billion tons of American coal that were set to tip the planet toward climate chaos. But he did. This paved the way for an era of unprecedented innovation, as entrepreneurs and academics fine-tuned the best ways to harness the unlimited power of our wind, waves, and sun and make it available to everyone. We’ve just seen the first-ever oceanic crossing by a solar plane, and I can only imagine what incredible inventions have grown in your time from the seeds planted in this energy revolution we’re experiencing right now.
I want to tell you about this because there was a time we didn’t think any of it was possible. And there may be times when you face similar challenges. Generations before you have taken acts of great courage to make sure you too have all the joys and gifts of the natural world—hiking in forests, swimming in clean water, breathing fresh air. If you need to be a little stubborn to make sure things stay that way, so be it.
An author, educator and environmentalist, McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, a planet-wide grassroots climate change movement. He has written more than a dozen books.
The first thing to say is, sorry. We were the last generation to know the world before full-on climate change made it a treacherous place. That we didn’t get sooner to work to slow it down is our great shame, and you live with the unavoidable consequences.
That said, I hope that we made at least some difference. There were many milestones in the fight—Rio, Kyoto, the debacle at Copenhagen. By the time the great Paris climate conference of 2015 rolled around, many of us were inclined to cynicism.
And our cynicism was well-taken. The delegates to that convention, representing governments that were still unwilling to take more than baby steps, didn’t really grasp the nettle. They looked for easy, around-the-edges fixes, ones that wouldn’t unduly alarm their patrons in the fossil-fuel industry.
But so many others seized the moment that Paris offered to do the truly important thing: Organize. There were meetings and marches, disruptions and disobedience. And we came out of it more committed than ever to taking on the real powers that be.
The real changes flowed in the months and years past Paris, when people made sure that their institutions pulled money from oil and coal stocks, and when they literally sat down in the way of the coal trains and the oil pipelines. People did the work governments wouldn’t—and as they weakened the fossil fuel industry, political leaders grew ever so slowly bolder.
We learned a lot that year about where power lay: less in the words of weak treaties than in the zeitgeist we could create with our passion, our spirit, and our creativity. Would that we had done it sooner!
Rhea Suh is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental-advocacy organization.
I can only imagine the wonderful world you are growing up in. I think of that world—your future—almost every day. I think about how to make sure it is a place where all your hopes and dreams can come true.
A long time ago, my parents traveled across the world from Korea to the United States in search of a brighter future for me and my sisters. Today I am writing you from Paris, a city that I have traveled across the world to get to, in order to make sure the world does the same for you. I’m fighting for you, for everyone in your generation across the world, to ensure that you have more than a fighting chance at that bright future. A world without the dangers of global climate change is the world that you will inherit.
What is climate change? Never heard of it? I’m so very glad if you haven’t. Let me try to explain. I warn you, this can be kind of scary.
When we first started building up our cities, roads, and towns in what was called the Industrial Revolution, we burned all sorts of fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. While these things helped us heat our homes, drive our cars, and expand our cities, we didn’t realize that they also clouded our air, dirtied our water, and made us sick. More than that, the burning of all those fuels made our planet sick. All the other animals and plants that we share this world with were getting sick too. The planet became warmer, which created a mixed-up chaos of terrible hurricanes, tornadoes, raging wildfires, drought and increased hunger, growing rates of asthma and lung disease, and the extinction of animals at an unprecedented rate.
So my dear grandchildren, we faced a choice. We could keep doing what we had been doing, or we could make the choice to take a stand for our future—your future and the planet’s future—by creating the framework to begin to move away from this scary legacy.
The wind turbines and solar panels that power your world, electric cars, high-speed trains, and solar airplanes weren’t so commonplace in my time. They required a revolution in how we think about energy, about our relationship to the world, about our faith in our own capacity to innovate and change.
What took us so long? Sigh. It’s a long story, but like many of the children’s books you grew up with, it was a story of greed, short-sightedness, and wizards with too much gold. But against these challenges, sometimes with great bravery, people—young and old from every nation—stood up and demanded that we take the steps to curb this terrible scourge.
I hope you will know this to be true. I hope you will remember that many years ago, your grandma and many others across the world stood up and demanded that we make the world a better place. I hope you know that it was a difficult path, just like my parents’ path so many years ago. And I hope you know we did it thinking of you and the future you now inherit.
Gifford Pinchot III
The founder of the first school of sustainable business, an author, a blacksmith, and a former Internet security software CEO, Pinchot is the author of three books, including Intrapreneuring.
I love you and want you to have a happy life. When you are 73, as I am today, and have a granddaughter of your own, you will care about her. I know that you would be quite unhappy in the late 2080s if her future in the 22nd century looks bleak. So, because I want you to be happy, I care deeply about the 22nd century that awaits your granddaughter. For me, 2150 is still personal.
Others of my time talk about the effects of climate change that will manifest by 2030 or 2050, but mostly seem indifferent to the much greater effects on your grandchildren. To me that is either a failure of imagination or just a lack of care for people they love. Those imaginative and caring enough to take the long view realize that we must act now.
It’s not too late for us in 2015 to make the lives of both you and your grandchildren’s generation far better. Many of us have been working hard to do so. Sometimes it has been frustrating, but now there are strong signs that humanity is turning back from the abyss.
Consider the fact that, according to the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), every major publicly traded oil company now bases their planning on an internal carbon price. What does that mean? Well, if an employee at Exxon proposes a new project that will emit more carbon in the future, a cost of $60 per ton will be added to the project before calculating its return. If the project will reduce carbon emissions, it will receive a credit of $60 per ton. Exxon, and all the major oil companies, and many others including Google, Microsoft, Dupont, ConAgra, GE, Walmart, and Disney are all acting as if there were already a government-imposed carbon tax. Why?
It’s not because they hold “the good of society” as a higher priority than profits. It is more likely that they possess insider information that indicates a government-imposed price on carbon emissions is on its way. By preparing for those carbon costs now, they assure bigger profits in the future. Granddaughter, it appears that all our efforts to save your granddaughters are starting to bear heavy fruit.
Many former climate deniers now give a cleverly disguised “no comment” when asked about climate change, or they say “I’m not a climate scientist” while ducking the question. They too know which way the winds are blowing.
The other sign that change is coming arrived with an encyclical written by Pope Francis, urging his followers to take climate change seriously. He told his 1.2 billion followers that it is their moral duty to work to stop climate change and eliminate poverty. Until recently, many of these people believed it was their religious duty to oppose those who believed in climate change. As I write this, those people’s minds are changing.
Finally, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is becoming much easier. Already in many parts of the world, the cheapest source of energy is wind. Solar is not far behind. Biomass, geothermal, and hydro could supply much of the base load to meet our minimum demands on energy. Smart grids can fit instantaneous consumption to supply. And storage is coming.
Civilization has begun a major pivot, Granddaughter. There is a good chance that by the time you grow up, society will be well on the way to re-creating itself into a form that will ensure a good life for you and your grandchildren.
A novelist and short story writer, T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
Dear Rats of the Future,
Congratulations on your bipedalism: It’s always nice to be able to stand tall when you need it, no? And great on losing that tail too (just as we lost ours). No need for that awkward (and let’s face it, ugly) kind of balancing tool when you walk upright—plus it makes fitting into your blue jeans a whole lot easier. Do you wear blue jeans—or their equivalent? No need, really, I suppose, since you’ve no doubt retained your body hair. Well, good for you.
Sorry about the plastics. And the radiation. And the pesticides. I really regret that you won’t be hearing any birdsong anytime soon, either, but at least you’ve got that wonderful musical cawing of the crows to keep your mornings bright. And of course I do expect that as you’ve grown in stature and brainpower you’ve learned to deal with the feral cats, your onetime nemesis. As for the big cats—the really scary ones, tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar—they must be as remote to you as the mammoths were to us. It goes without saying that with the extinction of the bears and any other large carnivores, there’s nothing much left to threaten you as you feed and breed and find your place as the dominant mammals on earth.
Apologies too about the oceans—and I know this must have been particularly hard on you since you’ve always been a seafaring race, but since you’re primarily vegetarian, I don’t imagine that the extinction of fish would have much affected you. And if, out of some nostalgia for the sea that can’t be fully satisfied by whatever hardtack may have survived us, try jellyfish. They’ll be about the only thing out there now, but I’m told they can be quite palatable, if not exactly mouthwatering, when prepared with sage and onions. Do you have sage and onions? But forgive me: Of course you do. You’re an agrarian tribe at heart, though in our day we certainly did introduce you to city life, didn’t we? Bright lights, big city, right? At least you don’t have to worry about abattoirs, piggeries, feed lots, bovine intestinal gases, and the like—or for that matter the ozone layer, which would have been long gone by the time you started walking on two legs. Does that bother you? The UV rays, I mean? But no, you’re a nocturnal tribe anyway, right?
Anyway, I just want to wish you all the best in your endeavors on this big blind rock hurtling through space. My advice? Stay out of the laboratory. Live simply. And, whatever you do, please—I beg you—don’t start up a stock exchange.
P.S. In writing you this missive, I am, I suppose, being guardedly optimistic that you will have figured out how to decode this ape language I’m employing here—especially given the vast libraries we left you when the last of us breathed his last.
Contribute your own letter at letterstothefuture.org.