Letters to the Future
Scientists, authors and activists predict the outcome of the upcoming U.N. Climate Talks in Paris
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 News & Review-led national project involving 40-plus newspapers and media outlets 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.
The project drew letters from an amazing assortment of people, only a fraction of which fit in this print version. See www.letterstothefuture.org for a complete set of collected letters. Some participants were optimistic about what is to come—some not so much. We hereby present some of their visions of the future.Stephen K. Robinson
My Endless Sky
Dear Future Robinsons,
Back around the turn of the century, flying to space was a rare human privilege, a dream come true, the stuff of movies (look it up), and an almost impossible ambition for children the world around.
But I was one of those fortunates. And what I saw from the cold, thick, protective windows of the Space Shuttle is something that, despite my 40 years of dreaming—I was never a young astronaut—I never remotely imagined.
Not that I was new to imagining things. As you may know, I was somehow born with a passion for the sky, for flight, and for the mysteries of the atmosphere. I built and flew death-defying gliders, learned to fly properly, earned university degrees in the science of flight, and then spent the rest of my life exploring Earth’s atmosphere from below it, within it, and above it. My hunger was never satisfied, and my love of flight never waned at all, even though it tried to kill me many times.
As I learned to fly in gliders, then small aircraft, then military jets, I always had the secure feeling that the atmosphere was the infinite “long delirious burning blue” of Magee’s poem, even though of all people, I well knew about space and its nearness. It seemed impossible to believe that with just a little more power and a little more bravery, I couldn’t continue to climb higher and higher on “laughter-silvered wings.” My life was a celebration of the infinite gift of sky, atmosphere and flight.
But what I saw in the first minutes of entering space, following that violent, life-changing rocket-ride, shocked me.
If you look at Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, you can see it “on edge”—gazing towards the horizon, with the black of space above and the gentle curve of the yes-it’s-round planet below. And what you see is the most exquisite, luminous, delicate glow of a layered azure haze holding the Earth like an ethereal eggshell. “That’s it?!” I thought. The entire sky—my endless sky—was only a paper-thin, blue wrapping of the planet, and looking as tentative as frost.
And this is the truth. Our Earth’s atmosphere is fragile and shockingly tiny—maybe 4 percent of the planet’s volume. Of all the life we know about, only one species has the responsibility to protect that precious blue planet-wrap. I hope we did, and I hope you do.
Stephen K. Robinson
After 36 years as an astronaut—with a tenure that included four shuttle missions and three spacewalks—Robinson retired from NASA in 2012. He is now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis.Jane Smiley
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, 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 break up 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.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, Smiley has written numerous novels and works of nonfiction.U.S. Sen. Harry Reid
You Deserve a Chance
As a young boy growing up in Searchlight, the unique beauty of the Nevada desert was my home. Our family didn’t travel or take vacations, but we were able to visit Fort Piute Springs which was just 15 miles from our home. Fort Piute Springs was a starkly beautiful place. From the gushing ponds of water to the beautiful lily pads and cattails, Fort Piute’s beauty was magical. Decades later I returned to visit Fort Piute Springs and found the magical place of my childhood in ruins. I remember thinking how sad it was that my descendants would never get to appreciate the stark beauty of the desert I cherished as a child. It was in that moment that I decided to fight to protect our environment.
Throughout my career, I fought to protect my home and my country from the permanent damage of climate change. I thought about the world you would live in, the burdens you would face and the health issues that could one day challenge your very existence. You deserve a chance to experience the beautiful world that I grew up in. We all need clean air, clean water and natural resources to lead healthy lives. The idea that our actions could jeopardize your future was simply unbearable.
The only way to solve this problem was if we all worked together to save the planet for you and future generations. During my lifetime, the overwhelming majority of scientists across the world concluded that pollution from burning fossil fuels was beginning to raise temperatures and alter our climate. These scientists predicted that if countries failed to work together to replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources, the world would face uncontrollable rising temperatures and sea levels, water shortages, climate-fueled migration crises, and landscape-altering wildfire, drought, and extreme weather.
At the close of 2015, the world finally did something about it. Everybody knew we needed to address climate change and that a failure to lead could destroy the progress we fought so hard to achieve and endanger your future. In the face of this reality, the United States pressed on and led a historic global agreement to change the course of climate change worldwide. We had already done so many things to make Nevada a cleaner, greener place—but now the entire world was ready to join us.
I’m proud of the work we did to protect our environment for you. I hope by now you can run just about everything on renewable energy and you no longer have to worry about if your children will suffer from asthma because of smog.
Today you may face a number of issues I could have never imagined. My hope has always been that the United States’ efforts to combat climate change would create a cleaner future for my descendants and future Nevadans. I hope that you are no longer burdened with the issue of climate change and can enjoy more of the Nevada I have always known. But if you face similar challenges, draw strength from my experiences and continue to fight for a cleaner environment.
A U.S. Senator from Nevada and former lieutenant governor, Reid has served since 2005 as Senate Democratic leader.Janette Dean
Did We Rise in Time?
I hope some of you will be able to not just survive, but to truly thrive and treasure your lives for millennia to come! You see, I cannot be certain about humanity’s fate nor so many species’ fate due to the thoughtless and escalating harm that we did in the 19-21st centuries A.D. to our exquisitely beautiful and irreplaceable home, planet Earth.
I want you to know that I tried to sound the alarms even louder for all to better hear and act, and I tried to personally do all I could to help protect planet Earth and its extraordinary life forms. I became an environmental activist and gave it precedence over other more joyful life priorities, and I also learned as much as I could at my local university and from organizations all over the world such as Stockholm Resilience Centre whose team has been working quickly to find answers and share solutions. Over the last three years as well, while seeing our environmental crises worsen and accelerate, I also tried to obtain help from anywhere in the universe with fervent SOS calls.
Love and best wishes to any beings left,
Earthling Janette Noelle Dean
Janette Dean is an environmental policy and human rights advocate in Washoe Valley, Nevada.T.C. Boyle
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.
With Best Wishes,
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.
A novelist and short story writer, T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.Bill McKibben
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 get sooner to work 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!
An author, educator and environmentalist, McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, a planet-wide grassroots climate change movement.