Scientists have warned for decades that current greenhouse gas emission trends have put the Earth on track for calamitous storms, floods, droughts and rising oceans. But the world’s governments have yet to sign a legally binding agreement to do what it takes to avert climate disaster. The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 is humanity’s last best chance to finally get this done.
Environmentalist and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has said, literally, that “the future of the world” depends on the outcome of the Paris talks.
Government representatives of more than 190 nations are set to meet in Paris to talk about a possible new agreement on climate change aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and averting the looming disaster for the planet, the oceans and humanity.
Paris was thrown into chaos in November as terrorists launched coordinated attacks, murdering concertgoers and setting off suicide bombs in cafes. The attacks have had an impact on the world, and an impact on the talks – France will not allow marches planned for Nov. 29 and Dec. 12 during the climate talks because of security concerns. Those marches were expected to attract 200,000 people. But as the New York Times reported, no world leader has asked France to postpone the talks, something French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says would amount to “abdicating to the terrorists.”
Below you will find a selection of letters from more than 100 people that were submitted to the Letters to the Future project. To read all of the letters, please visit www.letterstothefuture.org.
The project was coordinated by Melinda Walsh, founding editor of the Sacramento News & Review, and funded by the Association for Alternative Newsmedia and The Media Project.
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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of A Thousand Acres, Carmel Valley Resident
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 them 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, Journalist, Activist, Professor
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 20-30 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 are all 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 to 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.
(Adapted from an interview in Vice Magazine.)
Author, Educator and Environmentalist
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!
Professor of Religion, Pulitzer Prize-wining author of God: A Biography
We are sorry, so very sorry. You are living in a wrecked world, those of you who have not already perished, but you did not wreck it. We did, we of the early 21st century.
The great nations of our day knew that climate change was their greatest enemy and that no military could defeat it. They knew that no invading enemy could do them the terrible harm that climate change had already begun to do. But despite this knowledge, our leaders continued to squander their wealth on massive military establishments rather than on what they well knew could have been done to defeat the climate change enemy.
As you now know all too well, the climate change enemy won, and though we are gone, you are living in the ruin that we created. India against Pakistan, America against Russia, China against Japan, Arabia against Iran – how silly, how almost trivial these conflicts must seem to you in retrospect. Alas, we chose to arm against one another rather than uniting against the enemy that has now defeated us all.
We are sorry, so very sorry.
Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency
We are doing our best on your behalf in California right now, but only you will be able to measure whether it’s been enough. As public officials, scientists and policymakers prepare to gather in Paris for the world climate conference, California Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials will bring California’s efforts to the table and hope that others think enough of you, the future, to act in similar ways.
California has not waited for federal or world leadership to act on lowering its own greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to a changing climate. The state sanctioned higher automobile efficiency standards, protected the law in court and paved the way for similar standards at the federal level.
California’s landmark 2006 law, AB32, requires that California lower its greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15 percent so that by 2020, emissions are at the same level as those of 1990. California is on track to meet that goal, and through persistent effort, will continue to lower emissions after 2020.
California has incentivized a cap and trade program to regulate the total amount of emissions and incentivize lowering emissions through market forces. My own Natural Resources Agency has received support from this program for emission lowering actions and agricultural land protection, wetlands restoration, forest health and drought response.
Recent news indicates that the world has heated by one degree in recent years, and is halfway to the dangerous level of two degrees, which will have a devastating impact on the planet’s health. At this crucial point, we are urging other states and nations to join with California and employ similar efforts to safeguard our planet’s future.
The fact remains that even if the world is successful in collectively lowering greenhouse gas emissions, our climate will change. Sea levels are predicted to rise – they have already risen seven inches in the last century – and jurisdictions by oceans and bays must be ready for extreme events where storm surges will exacerbate impacts to low lying coastal areas. The plants and wildlife that make up California’s iconic natural ecosystems are being affected by changing temperatures and drought, and many will be threatened with extinction. The power grid will be susceptible to fire, heat and other impacts of climate change. While California is preparing for these dramatic impacts, low-lying nations and many vulnerable populations in developing countries that have done little to contribute to climate change will bear the brunt of the changes.
This is why Paris is so important. World leaders are finally realizing the imperative to understand and act on climate change issues. There must be progress by all countries of the world, and we can all learn from each other. California’s efforts can help illuminate the path to what a positive future might be. The Paris conference is just a few weeks into the future, but if other countries take the action that California has, the future can look back on this as a turning point.
With hope for a better tomorrow,
Children’s Book Author, Professional Storyteller
Have you seen my grandchildren?
But with their own brand of tenacity
Do they still reproduce?
Please bear an apology
And this prayer:
Care for your Mother
As your self
Retired Astronaut, Research Scientist and Engineering Professor
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
Assemblyman Luis Alejo
Dear Future Earth Inhabitants,
In my time, it’s considered an old saying that whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’. And in the course of California history it holds true. I hope that by the time you are reading this, we have developed more high-tech water efficiency technology, settled our fights over water rights and allocations and managed our natural resources responsibly enough that water is no longer a resource you are fightin’ for.
During my time as a state legislator, I can tell you I did what I could to make that hope a reality. Right now, in 2015, water is an absolute scarcity; over the past few years the state has grappled with one of the worst ongoing droughts in history. We have had to get creative with how we manage our dwindling water supplies and deliver clean water to communities that don’t have it. It may be hard for you to believe – because it’s definitely hard for me to believe today – that in this day and age in California, we have communities that lack access to water. People turn on their taps and nothing but dust comes out. I have worked with the state to guarantee that investments made today create a permanent solution to bring clean and affordable drinking water infrastructure systems for those communities in need. After all, in the state of California, it is a human right to have access to clean, affordable water.
Water is not an infinite resource. We have to preserve enough today for the generations of tomorrow. Here is another old saying: Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we can’t eat money. Water is life and without it, we – along with nothing else – can’t live.
This is my letter to the future,
That cannot write to me, –
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet citizens,
Behave more tenderly!
Pacific Grove councilwoman, U.S. Congressional candidate in the 20th District
Dear Future Generations,
I see your future as more promising than our current state of affairs, but only if our political decision-makers act to prevent more climate change.
I think you will live in a world in which everyone has sufficient food and water to thrive and achieve their full potential. Today, in 2015, nearly 800 million people are undernourished and 1.2 billion lack sufficient access to water. More than 1.9 billion are clinically obese or overweight, and preventable chronic diseases have become veritable epidemics, yet one in four children worldwide suffer developmental stunting from poor nutrition.
By the time you are reading this, our current “business as usual” approach to the daunting challenges of food and water security will be behind us, thanks to technology, new ideas and courage from political decision-makers.
Already, here on the Central Coast, agricultural technology and practices have led to reduced water use to produce food; solar panels and wind turbines are reducing reliance on fossil fuels; and increased emphasis on recycled water and desalination is improving our ability to sustain lifestyle and protect the environment.
I hope you will be thinking and acting smarter in the decades ahead about dietary choices and their impact on health, on our communities, on the planet and on those many species who share this space.
J. Phoenix Smith
Oricha Priest, Ecofeminist, Ecotherapist
Alafia and Peace to you my Relations:
Are you still living in the light? How is your vision? 500 years ago the world went dark, but I remember that great proverb “Without darkness there can be no light.” I pray that you have remembered and continue to practice the ancestral and Earth honoring healing ceremonies that were passed down from before my ancestors were enslaved. My ancestors were able to survive in very dark times so I pray that you are remembering and honoring the spirits through ceremony and divination. If there is any fresh water left on Ile, the Earth, I pray that every morning you give a drop to the ancestors in prayer as libation, and give thanks to the Yoruba Goddess Ochun who traveled out of Nigeria to Cuba, Brazil, Trinidad, and to the United States where I first encountered her.
Some of us tried our best to raise the consciousness of our fellow humans to turn the tide against the homicidal and pathological forces that were determined to destroy the Earth. Many Elders said this deranged behavior began when the sacred was removed from daily life and Humans became to be known as just Consumers and Slaves.
We were able to wake up some people but others were lost to the darkness. But we never gave up trying. Our plant relations continued to give us medicine during the dark times I lived in and we were able to save some seeds. You know where they are located, so please keep their location sacred and secret as they are the key to keeping you in and bringing back the light. Our two-spirit, Black and Brown warriors continue to keep up the fight against the “dreamers”, as the great Black Author Ta Naheisi Coates called those that consider themselves white. Most of the warriors are women and men in all bodies, shapes and forms who lead through their mastery of the secrets of the Mothers. Be sure to maintain the water ceremonies as Ochun says, because without water there is no life. I send you my love and strength from the spirit world, you know how to reach me just sing those songs I taught your ancestors.
Monterey County Deputy District Attorney, U.S. Congressional candidate in the 20th District
I live in the most beautiful place on earth – the Central Coast of California. I grew up here and appreciate every aspect of our surrounding environment, from the resplendent coastline to the rows of crops to the rolling oak-lined hills. I purposefully chose to raise my children here because I want them to have the same sense of belonging to this area and an appreciation of its natural splendor. To achieve that goal, our community has taken steps to safeguard its beauty with a marine sanctuary, a national park and monument and numerous state and county parks.
Although we are succeeding locally, we must act globally in order to give our children the chance to experience the beautiful world where we grew up. That starts with the understanding that we all need clean air, water and natural resources to lead healthy lives. Our nation must lead with our innovation and the ability to transition to new, cleaner, more sustainable resources. However, every nation must take bold steps forward to prepare for a safe, reliable and secure energy future in order to save the planet for future generations.
Our children may face a number of issues that we could never have imagined. Hopefully, they can draw strength from our continued responsibility to protect our home and planet so they will have a cleaner and brighter future.