Letters to the Future

Scientists, authors, activists and more 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—an SN&R-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 are presented here. 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.

My endless sky

Stephen K. Robinson

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.

Your ancestor,

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.

Brief opportunities

Jane Smiley

Dear Great-Great-Granddaughter,

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 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.


Great-Great-Grandma Jane

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, Smiley has composed numerous novels and works of nonfiction.

Sorry about that

T.C. Boyle

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,

T.C. Boyle

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, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.

Incredible people

Annie Leonard

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 that 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 be poisoned by pollution, the Arctic melt or California die of fire and drought. They couldn’t bear to think of New Orleans underwater again, or New York lost to a superstorm. Right now, as politicians weigh up 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 towards 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.



Currently the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, Leonard made the 2007 film The Story of Stuff, which has been viewed more than 40 million times.

Seize the moment

Bill McKibben

Dear Descendants,

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!

Author, educator and environmentalist, McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, a planet-wide grassroots climate change movement.

For my children

Nitanju Bolade Casel

As we move toward the 2015 U.N. climate talks in Paris, my prayers are for you, your children and your children’s children’s children. May the outcome be in your favor; for your future. I pray that you will be blessed not only with a better world than we have today, but also the courageous wisdom to nurture and respect all living things. It is a privilege to inhabit the Earth, a gift we share with all other forms of Life. I pray that you will honor and protect this special treasure. I pray that you will see yourselves in one another, understand that we are all connected and move forward with love for humankind; for all living things. And although we have not always been kind, you can begin. Be kind. Humanity has repeatedly moved against itself toward destruction throughout history, rarely seeming to learn from past mistakes. Learn. Please know that there were also visionaries who worked endlessly for positive changes in this world—changes to benefit the many, not just the few; you may have to do the same. Work. 

And remember to pray for your children’s children’s children. Your prayers will be waiting for them when they arrive. … Pray.

Bolade Casel is a singer in the Grammy Award-winning troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble. Letters from the group’s other singersCarol Maillard, Louise Robinson and Aisha Kahlilcan be found at www.letterstothe future.org

Rock, ice, air and water

Pam Houston

Dear Future Inhabitants of the Earth,

I was speaking with an environmental scientist friend of mine not too long ago and he said he felt extremely grim about the fate of the earth in the 100-year frame, but quite optimistic about it in the 500-year frame. “There won’t be many people left,” he said, “but the ones who are here will have learned a lot.” I have been taking comfort, since then, in his words.

If you are reading this letter, you are one of the learners, and I am grateful to you in advance. And I’m sorry. For my generation. For our ignorance, our shortsightedness, our capacity for denial, our unwillingness or inability to stand up to the oil and gas companies who have bought our wilderness, our airwaves, our governments. It must seem to you that we were dense beyond comprehension, but some of us knew, for decades, that our carbon-driven period would be looked back on as the most barbaric, the most irresponsible age in history.

Part of me wishes there was a way for me to know what the earth is like in your time, and part of me is afraid to know how far down we took this magnificent sphere, this miracle of rock and ice and air and water.

Should I tell you about the polar bears, great white creatures that hunted seals among the icebergs; should I tell you about the orcas? To be in a kayak, with a pod of orcas coming towards you, to see the big male’s fin rise in its impossible geometry, 6 feet high and black as night, to hear the blast of whale breath, to smell its fishy tang—I tell you, it was enough to make a person believe she had led a satisfying life.

I know it is too much to wish for you: polar bears and orcas. But maybe you still have elk bugling at dawn on a September morning, and red-tailed hawks crying to their mates from the tops of ponderosa pines.

Whatever wonders you have, you will owe to those about to gather in Paris to talk about ways we might reimagine ourselves as one strand in the fabric that is this biosphere, rather than its mindless devourer.

E.O. Wilson says as long as there are microbes, the Earth can recover—another small measure of comfort. Even now, evidence of the Earth’s ability to heal herself is all around us—a daily astonishment. What a joy it would be to live in a time when the healing was allowed to outrun the destruction. More than anything else that is what I wish for you.

With hope,

Pam Houston

Author of short stories, novels and essays, Houston wrote the acclaimed Cowboys are my Weakness, winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award.

The California example

state Sen. Kevin de León

When the iPhone (remember those?) and its contemporaries first took the world of electronic communication by storm, smartphones were a luxury—only the affluent and tech-savvy could enjoy the convenience these technologies offered. Now, as I write, smartphones are ubiquitous. We take for granted what only a short time ago was revolutionary.

I hope that by the time you read this, our energy systems have experienced a similar revolution. I hope that smokestacks and suffocating smog are relics of a long gone past. I hope that no matter where you live, or where you fall on the economic ladder, you can take clean air and a healthy environment for granted. Countless dedicated individuals are working tirelessly to secure that right for you.

We understand what’s at stake. Extreme weather is already changing the world as we know it; drought, flooding, extreme heat and sea-level rise are altering the face of our planet and wreaking havoc on society. The economic costs of climate change are mounting, and there is overwhelming consensus in the global scientific community that the toll will only rise the longer we wait to take decisive action.

You would be proud to know that California is leading the way. A remarkable coalition of forward-thinking businesses, national and international world leaders, and prize-winners in science and technology are all united in support of aggressive climate action. Californians of all stripes rallied behind my bill, Senate Bill 350, to make clean power the mainstream for our state. The families living beside the freeways, refineries, factories, and in the fields, whose voices are rarely heard—whose quiet struggles are the reason I ran for office—were finally given a public forum to talk about the consequences they suffer as a result of our continued dependence on fossil fuels.

Together, we enshrined historic standards that double energy efficiency in all buildings and require half the electricity in the largest state in the union to be generated from renewable sources by 2030. Along with our existing laws supporting clean air and renewable energy, SB 350 lays the groundwork for a more equitable and sustainable future for California.

As world leaders gather in Paris later this year to negotiate a global treaty, they will have the California example to guide them. We are demonstrating how one of the great economies of the world can cut greenhouse gas emissions, promote new industries that bring clean, affordable power to our energy grid, and create good-paying jobs.

This fight is larger than me, larger than any industry, state or nation. It’s about you and the future of your family. It’s about protecting your right to a healthy and livable planet. I hope—for your sake—that we prevail.

President pro tempore of the California State Senate, de León is the highest-ranking Latino politician in the state and a key leader in its effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Our best achievement

Kim Stanley Robinson

Dear Great-Great-Grandchildren,

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, by dumping carbon into the air and disrupting biosphere processes in many other ways, we were 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 writer of speculative science fiction and winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards, Robinson has published 19 novels including the award-winning Mars trilogy.

The home office

Donnell Alexander

Good day, my beautiful bounty. It probably feels redundant to someone rockin’ in 2070, a year that’s gotta be wavy in ways I can’t imagine, but …

Your great, great-grandpappy is old school.

And when my old-school ass thinks about how the backdrop to your existence changed when the Paris climate talks failed, it harkens to the late-20th century rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. Music is forever. Probably, it sounds crazy that the musical idiom best known in your time as the foundation of the worldwide cough syrup industry could ever have imparted anything enlightening. You can look it up though—before the Telecommunications Act of ’96 such transformations happened not infrequently.

But that’s another letter. MC Rakim had this scrap of lyric from “Teach the Children”—a pro-environment slapper that hit the atmosphere closer to Valdez newspaper headline days than when the Web gave us pictures of death smoke plumes taking rise above Iraq. For you, these are abstract epochs. Alaska still had permafrost, the formerly frozen soil that kept methane safely underground. The domino that fell, permafrost. And I could tell you that humans skied Earth’s mountains. Yes, I know: Snow. An antique reference, no question.

That Rakim verse. It went:

Teach the children, save the nation

I see the destruction, the situation

They’re corrupt, and their time’s up soon

But they’ll blow it up and prepare life on the moon

My bounty, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback* from my 2015 vantage point. But I did not do an adequate job of teaching the children about what our corporate overlords had in store for them. Didn’t do it with Exxon or Volkswagen. Didn’t do it when Rakim initially sold me on the premise. And to be honest I haven’t done a bunch of it this year, as sinkholes form and trees fall in parts of the Arctic that Mother Earth could only ever imagined frozen solid.

Make no mistake, I want these words to function as much as a godspeed note as one of confession. Good luck with your new methane-dictated normal, and the sonic pollution and spiritual upset of those executive flights to colonized Mars. Or, as the President calls that planet, the Home Office. Conditions should have never come to this though. And we’ll always have Paris, to remind us of what might have been.

Grandpappy Donnell

*The NFL will be around forever, like herpes.

A former staff writer for ESPN The Magazine, the LA Weekly and freelancer for other publications, Alexander wrote the memoir Ghetto Celebrity.

Something precious

David Harrington

When we hold something that is very precious, the only one of its kind—a baby, an heirloom from a beloved ancestor, a grandchild’s painting—we take care of it, we cherish it and ensure that it is safe. This is a human trait. Earth is our collective heirloom “borrowed from our children.” Many elders have forgotten the fragility of our singular planet, with its wildly generous teeming nature now unsafe in a teetering balance. The elders have much to learn. I am an elder. Learning is renewal.

Let’s step back for a moment and recall the words of Eugene Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission: “You have to literally just pinch yourself and ask yourself the question silently: Do you really know where you are at this point in time and space, and in reality and in existence? When you look out the window and you’re looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens—the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and we know it. … We’re home. It’s humanity; it’s people, family, love, life. And besides that it is beautiful. You see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents. You can watch it turn, and there’s no strings holding it up. And it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.”

When our Earth is seen from this perspective, Cernan’s observations become like a prayer or an invocation to the powers we must immediately harness in order to surmount the devastating abyss humanity has allowed free reign. Now with each decision, each action we make, with every learning opportunity and new discovery, we must gain more of the energy, strength and wisdom needed to create a counterbalance to the immense environmental destruction we have wrought on our Earth. We desperately need the most nimble imaginations, the most flexible of visionaries, people at ease with the tools to solve some of the nastiest, seemingly impossible problems ever confronted.

Our schools and teachers have to unleash and empower the creative fire of all students. A worldwide community of objectors must rise up. All those who object to the un- survivable situation humanity faces must mobilize every available resource to circumvent dire shortsightedness. Our global society must grow a new conscience. Students will teach the elders. Together we must vault beyond the ignorance, greed and bad decisions of the past.

Let’s also remember that so often explorations in the arts have fueled discoveries in the sciences. Inspiration and uplifting ideas need to be gathered from all areas of life. Fearless questioning is paramount. People who can see things in different, alternate and unusual perspectives are needed more than ever. We need a huge splash of ice-cold water on our tired, lethargic faces. It’s time to change the face of reality.

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be a giant leap for mankind if the momentum of this small step propels us to reinvent our path forward.

Violinist and artistic director of the Kronos Quartet, Harrington founded the contemporary-classical string quartet.