Letters to the Future
Writers and activists imagine the world after climate change as world leaders gather in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference
Could this be the tipping point?
The planet’s average global temperature last year was the highest since record-keeping began 145 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s a record we’re on track to break in 2015.
Scientists first testified before Congress in 1988 that climate change was an imminent threat to life on Earth. In December 1997, world governments gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate a global warming treaty that the U.S. never ratified. Climate change legislation stalled in Congress in 2006, but that same year California led the national battle against climate change with the watershed Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring global warming gas reductions back to 1990 levels by 2020. But it was bad news for the planet again in 2009, when international climate talks in Copenhagen fizzled.
What happens in 2016 and beyond may be determined this month as the world’s leaders meet in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Whether we get something like the game-changing Global Warming Solutions Act or another disappointment like we did in Copenhagen could very well determine whether the future will be filled with blue skies and gentle breezes or with drought, flood and famine.
The Paris Climate Project asked writers, scientists and activists to imagine life on Earth generations after the current summit in Paris. Will world leaders dither and leave the table emptyhanded, sowing the seeds of ecological disaster, as writers Jane Smiley and T.C. Boyle imagine? Or will they strike a Global Green New Deal, as longtime Westside activist Tom Hayden suggests?
Stay tuned. The future depends on it.
Visit letterstothefuture.org to read more letters or write your own to share with the world.
Green Global New Deal
Dear Future Generations,
At the time I write this, the greatest fissure in global politics is between the affluent white Global North and the suffering and devastated victims of floods, fires, blazing temperatures, deforestation and war from the Global South. Writ large, the global crisis between rich and poor is the background to environmental and economic injustice.
At the December United Nations climate summit in Paris, the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, who will bear the greatest burdens of the crisis, will be demanding a Global Green Fund to pay for environmental mitigation and economic development. The price tag is a paltry few billion dollars at this point, compared to the $90 billion cost estimates for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan plus the budgets of our surveillance agencies.
What is needed to begin saving the Earth is a Green Global New Deal funded from public and private sources.
The mass movement will gain momentum, unfortunately, from repetitive climate disasters that require billions for infrastructure alone. Si, se puede, it can be done because there is no alternative. That’s why producing affordable zero-emission cars is important in Hunters Point (the African-American center of San Francisco) and Boyle Heights (the heart of Los Angeles’ Mexican-American community) and the barefoot Third World bloc representing a majority of the world’s nation states.
California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, a leader in the cause of environmental justice, has legislated a remarkable shift in environmental and budgetary priorities in the state where I reside. Call it the California Model. Current law now requires that environmental funding go both to reduction of carbon emissions and co-equal benefits for disadvantaged communities. During the four years beginning in 2014 the state will invest $120 billion on such a climate justice program from sources including the much-debated cap-and-trade program, which brings in at least two or three billion annually, along with revenue from tax reforms funded by Tom Steyer, the billionaire San Francisco investor who has made climate justice his passion.
This model is being carried by California Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration by a series of state-and-regional pacts with the goal of achieving a more stable climate. Almost alone, the governor is pursuing energy diplomacy through formal agreements with 11 U.S. states and a growing list of major countries such as China, Brazil and Germany. Call it the emerging Green Bloc. By Brown’s conservative numbers, the Green Bloc represents 100 million people and
a GDP of $4.5 trillion. But these numbers are low: By my estimate we are talking about 166 million people living in states pursuing low-to no-carbon
policies — states with 262 Electoral College votes! Tea Party, beware.
We are entering the pre-post Brown era in California along with the pre-post Obama era in the nation, intensifying the urgency of electing a governor, president and officials with the best ability to navigate the critical transitions ahead.
Lifelong political activist Tom Hayden is Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City and formerly represented Westside communities in the California Legislature
Sorry About That
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 one-time nemesis, but at best occupying a kind of ratty niche in your era of ascendancy. 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 (polar bears: they were a pretty silly development anyway, and of no use to anybody beyond maybe trophy hunters) 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. (I do expect that the hyenas would have been something of a nasty holdout, but as you developed weapons, I’m sure you would have dispatched them eventually).
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 mouth-watering, 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.
University of Southern California writer in residence T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
I’m Fighting For You
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, though, 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 move away from this scary legacy.
The wind turbines and solar panels that power your world, the electric cars, the high-speed trains and the 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’ so many years ago. And I hope you know we did it thinking of you and the future you now inherit.
Rhea Suh is the president of the Santa Monica-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
This Abundant Life
Dear People of the Future,
I just flushed my toilet with drinking water. I know, you don’t believe me: “Nobody could ever have been that stupid, that wasteful.” But we are. We use air conditioners all the time, even in mild climates where they aren’t a bit necessary. We cool our homes so we need to wear sweaters indoors in summer, and heat them so we have to wear T-shirts in mid-winter. We let one person drive around all alone in a huge thing called an SUV. We make perfectly good things — plates, cups, knives — then we use them just once and throw them away. They’re still there, in your time. Dig them up. They’ll still be useable.
Maybe you have dug them up. Maybe you’re making use of them now. Maybe you’re frugal and ingenious in ways we in the wealthy world have not yet chosen to be. There’s an old teaching from a rabbi called Nachman who lived in a town called Bratslav centuries ago: “If you believe it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair.” Some of us believe that. We’re trying to spread the message.
Friends are working on genetic editing that will bring back the heath hen, a bird that went extinct almost 80 years ago. The last member of the species died in the woods just a few miles from my home. Did we succeed? Do you have heath hens, booming their mating calls across the sand plains that sustain them? If you do, it means that this idea of repair caught on in time, and that their habitat was restored instead of being sold for yet more beachside mansions. It means that enough great minds turned away from the easy temptations of a career moving money from one rich person’s account to another’s, and instead became engineers and scientists dedicated to repairing and preserving this small blue marble, spinning in the velvet void.
We send out probes, looking for signs of life on other worlds. A possible spec of mold is exciting—press conference! News flash! Imagine if they found, say, a sparrow. President addresses the nation! And yet we fail to take note of the beauty of sparrows, their subtle hues and swift grace. We’re profligate and reckless with all this abundant life, teeming and vivid, that sustains and inspires us.
We destroyed. You believed it was possible to repair.
Geraldine Brooks is a journalist and author. Her 2005 novel, “March,” won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Hope For The Future
Dear Future Generations,
As you look around at the world you inherited, please remember that many of your ancestors did the best we could, guided by the best science available to us. We surely made mistakes along the way, but we were trying to figure it out. Remember, there was a time when our best minds recommended bleeding patients to prevent or cure illness. But unlike the blood-letters of yore, we do have the science to cure what’s ailing us all — global warming. We just need to find the political will.
In your more enlightened age, you can be forgiven for laughing at the primitive practices that got us in trouble in the first place — tearing up the Earth to extract and burn coal for our fuel, using individual combustion engine-driven cars to get from point A to point B, inefficiently getting our protein from the raising and slaughtering of livestock in massive meat factories.
You might be dumbstruck by the dumb things we didn’t do in the face of indisputable evidence that the Earth was warming dangerously, such as stopping subsidies for the fossil fuel industry or banning the clear-cutting of our remaining rainforests.
There was a time when our best minds thought that convening politically fraught summits in places like Kyoto and Copenhagen could halt global warming. But a top-down approach from the U.N., exemptions big enough to fly a Boeing 787 Dreamliner through, and political infighting doomed those summits. What we got were watered-down proposals that went nowhere — reminding us that when all is said and done, more is said than done.
I believe in the adage that the value of a meeting is inversely proportional to the number of people attending. But this upcoming summit in Paris just might be different, with the growing political realization that industrialized nations simply must change their energy practices — but in a way that makes practical and economic sense first. Otherwise, it’s a non-starter. And we must financially incentivize developing nations to transition to renewables. After all, what’s good for the environment is good for the economy. Hopefully, Paris marks the start of a new beginning.
I spent a portion of my professional career working for a group called Heal the Bay, which successfully turned a polluted dead zone into a thriving ocean once again. I know it’s just one slice of a massive Earth, but the success in Santa Monica Bay gives me hope for the future. Not all environmental causes are doomed.
Matthew King is communications director for Heal the Bay.
Do you remember your grandmother Veronica?
I am writing to you on the very day that your grandmother Veronica turned 7 months old. She is my first grandchild, and she is your grandmother. That is how quickly time passes and people are born, grow up and pass on. When I was your age — now 20 (Veronica was my age, 65, when you were born), I did not realize how brief our opportunities are to change the direction of the world we live in. The world you live in grew out of the world I live in, and I want to tell you a little bit about the major difficulties of my world and how they have affected your world.
On the day I am writing this letter, the Speaker of the House of Representatives quit his job because his party, called “the Republicans,” refused absolutely to work with or compromise with the other party, also now defunct, called “the Democrats.” The refusal of the Republicans to work with the Democrats was what led to the government collapse in 2025 and the breakup of what to you is the Former United States. The states that refused to acknowledge climate change or, indeed, science, became the Republic of America, and the other states became West America and East America. I lived in West America. You probably live in East America, because West America became unlivable owing to climate change in 2050.
That the world was getting hotter and dryer, that weather was getting more chaotic, and that humans were getting too numerous for the ecosystem to support was evident to most Americans by the time I was 45, the age your mother is now. At first, it did seem as though all Americans were willing to do something about it, but then the oil companies (with names like Exxon and Mobil and Shell) realized that their profits were at risk, and they dug in their heels. They underwrote all sorts of government corruption in order to deny climate change and transfer as much carbon dioxide out of the ground and into the air as they could. The worse the weather and the climate became the more they refused to budge, and Americans, but also the citizens of other countries, kept using coal, diesel fuel and gasoline. Transportation was the hardest thing to give up, much harder than giving up the future, and so we did not give it up, and so there you are, stuck in the slender strip of East America that is overpopulated but livable. I am sure you are a vegan, because there is no room for cattle, hogs or chickens, which Americans used to eat.
West America was once a beautiful place — not the parched desert landscape that it is now. Our mountains were green with oaks and pines, mountain lions and coyotes and deer roamed in the shadows, and there were beautiful flowers nestled in the grass. It was sometimes hot, but often cool. Where you see abandoned, flooded cities, we saw smooth beaches and easy waves.
What is the greatest loss we have bequeathed you? I think it is the debris, the junk, the rotting bits of clothing, equipment, vehicles, buildings, etc. that you see everywhere and must avoid. Where we went for walks, you always have to keep an eye out. We have left you a mess. But I know that it is dangerous for
you to go for walks — the human body wasn’t built to tolerate lows of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and highs of
140. When I was alive, I thought I was trying to save you, but I didn’t try hard enough, or at least I didn’t try to save you as hard as my opponents tried to destroy you. I don’t know why they did that. I could never
figure that out.
Author Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel “A Thousand Acres.”
Seize the Moment
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 sooner get
to work on slowing 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 power 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!
Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, a global grassroots climate change movement.
The Paris Climate Project was organized by Melinda Welsh, founding editor of the Sacramento News & Review. Letters to the Future have appeared in numerous publications through collaborations with the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the nonprofit Media Consortium.
Dear Future Argonaut Readers,
I guess by now rents in Playa Vista must be pretty affordable. After the Ballona Wetlands flooded, the smell of decomposing vegetation and all those pesky mosquitos surely sent what’s left of our 21st-century tech companies seeking higher ground. Maybe they call it Bog Vista now. Maybe artists live there, like they used to in Venice.
Venice — that’s another story. Unless you’ve installed a network of solar-powered sump pumps and built up levees at the expense of what was left of the beach, most of Venice is likely underwater. Did you tear it all down before you left, or do waves pound against the brick skeletons of buildings along what was Abbot Kinney Boulevard? On calm days, do people row out under the old Venice sign and tie up to those angular steel arms poking out of the water, imagining the bizarre beach scene that once thrived on Ocean Front Walk below?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the county built up Marina del Rey to keep the boat slips and restaurants safely (though barely) above sea level as the acidified ocean water slowly but inevitably crept up a full six feet higher than it was in our time. Being able to save the marina seems possible because the wetlands north of Ballona Creek sit high enough to act as a natural barrier against Lake Ballona.
It must seem silly now, but long before Lake Ballona grew to submerge Culver Boulevard west of Lincoln Boulevard (and consume all the shops and bars in its path), environmentalists used to fight about the future of the wetlands and how “wet” they should be. Climate change answered that one for us,
I guess. If there are still herons and sea lions, I wonder if they hang out on Vista Del Mar Island north of a neighborhood we used to call The Jungle.
But this must read as horribly nostalgic to you. You have bigger problems: crazy weather, food shortages and all that trash we left behind. People used to come to L.A. from all over the country for our mild, sunny weather. If L.A. hasn’t become the boonies from running out of drinking water, I wonder if this is still a destination city. And if it is, how bad off is the rest of the country?
Joe Piasecki is managing editor of The Argonaut.