World leaders from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris in 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? Letters to the Future, a national project involving more than 40 alternative weeklies across the United States, including San Diego CityBeat, 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. Here are some of their visions of the future.
MY ENDLESS SKY
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.
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 John 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 toward 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 planetwrap. 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 the University of California, Davis.
When I was your age, great-great-great granddaughter, I did not realize how brief our opportunities were to change the direction of the world we live in.
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.
That the world was getting hotter and drier, 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.
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.
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.
—Jane Smiley 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
Dear Rats of the Future: Congratulations on your bipedalism: it’s always nice to be able to stand tall when you need it, no? And great on losing that tail too ( just as we lost ours). No need for that awkward (and let’s face it: ugly) kind of balancing tool when you walk upright, plus it makes fitting into your blue jeans a whole lot easier. Do you wear blue jeans—or their equivalent? No need, really, I suppose, since you’ve no doubt retained your body hair. Well, good for you.
Sorry about the plastics. And the radiation. And the pesticides. I really regret that you won’t be hearing any birdsong anytime soon, either, but at least you’ve got that wonderful musical cawing of the crows to keep your mornings bright.
And, of course, I do expect that as you’ve grown in stature and brainpower you’ve learned to deal with the feral cats, your onetime nemesis, 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.
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.
—T.C. Boyle A novelist and short story writer, T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
GREEN GLOBAL NEW DEAL
At the time I write this, the greatest fissure in global politics is between the affluent white 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, which 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 is a Green Global New Deal funded from public and private sources to begin saving the Earth.
California Senate 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 coequal 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 $2 billion or $3 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 with formal agreements with 11 U.S. states, and a growing list of major countries from China to Brazil to 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 in states pursuing low to no carbon policies in American 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.
—Tom Hayden A lifelong political activist and author, Hayden is a former member of the California Legislature.
To read more letters or to write a letter of your own, please visit LettersToTheFuture.org. This is a collaborative effort of San Diego CityBeat, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Media Consortium.