A letter from the future written in the past

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My novel’s heroine was going to be a time traveler from fifty years in the future. I liked the idea of a Cassandra figure, someone who lived in the everyday hell of an unstable climate gifted to her generation by ours. She arrives in New York City in December of 2009, just in time for the Copenhagen climate summit. I had fun with implanted nanotechnology merging powerful databases and communications with her organic brain. And with what she would think of the quaint, primitive technologies we have now. (Actual cell phones! Power cords! ATMs!) Or the things we take for granted that they no longer have in 2059, like sushi, cars, coastlines and forests.

In 2013, I dispensed with the future-world scenario when I realized that we don’t need someone from the future to tell us what climate change does to the planet. We are living it already. My first draft from 2011 has plenty of rookie writing mistakes, but it also has this letter that my heroine writes on her second day in 2009. Despite all the changes this novel has been through, it still forms the DNA of my story. Enjoy this letter from the future written in the past.

To the citizens on New York City:

I invite you to imagine life fifty years from now. Set politics and religion aside, and just imagine New York in the year 2059.

Going to the Stock Exchange? Better take a water taxi – unless you’re a strong swimmer. The buildings around Wall Street were sealed off years ago on their lower stories and the streets are now navigated with water taxis and gondolas, similar to Venice. The water levels do fluctuate several feet at times, but New Yorkers have proven to be quite adaptable.

In fifty years, the coastlines of Brooklyn, Long Island, and the Bronx have been dramatically altered, in many cases beaches and whole communities erased. The resulting move inland has caused real estate prices to rise ever higher – harder still to imagine than a watery Wall Street, I know.

Fifty years hence, higher sea levels have given severe storms much more water to funnel toward the city. Surges of water come from both Long Island Sound and the Verrazano Narrows. Vital infrastructure — hospitals, sewage treatment plants, communication conduits – has been paralyzed by flooding with corrosive seawater. It took decades and billions of dollars to rebuild them, and some were simply abandoned.

Like hot weather? Hope so, because here in New York, in fifty years, we now have close to 50 days a year with temperatures over 100 degrees. And about 600 heat-related deaths each year.

Is this just fantasy, or, at best, science fiction? Afraid not. And New York is not alone. Since all life on the planet is connected in an intricate web, the effects are everywhere. Collapsed economies, severe energy shortages, dying ecosystems, disappearing fresh water sources, floods, droughts, resource wars, and increased terrorism are some of the signs. My intent with this letter is not to overwhelm you with dire warnings, rather to give specific advice on how you can avoid or at least mitigate these effects. Think of it as a legacy project. What sort of world do you wish to leave behind for your loved ones?

Humanity opened a Pandora’s box with our years of burning fossil fuels and emitting the carbon dioxide that warmed our atmosphere. Once nature began her response, she quickly took over and magnified the effects beyond anything we could control. It’s been like driving a car with a gas pedal but no brakes.

I could write many paragraphs here about species extinction, disappearing forests, dying coral reefs, droughts that have killed millions, hundreds of millions of people homeless from coastal flooding. Millions with no access to fresh water because mountain glaciers have melted and gone the way of the dinosaurs. Or streams and aquifers have been irrevocably polluted by increasingly desperate drilling technologies designed to suck the last remaining fossil fuels out of the earth’s crust in every form imaginable.

But you don’t live near a melting glacier, do you? And you probably don’t know any of those people who have been flooded out or starved by famine. And no drilling has begun near you – yet.

Another angle would be the worldwide instability of governments, social structures, and economic systems. The intensification of the divide between “haves” and “have-nots.” Between rich countries in temperate zones, where wealth and technology provide a buffer against climate risk and poor countries close to the equator that are deeply exposed to the twin climate hazards of flood and drought.

But that’s all pretty abstract and far in the future. Reading that probably didn’t even raise your heart rate.

I’ll also refrain from going into detail about fuel costs and trade embargoes that have wreaked havoc with world economies. About political and climate refugees who are increasingly hopeless, funneling into global terrorist cells and crime syndicates.

Because, let’s face it. In fifty years, you may very well not be alive, having lived a full life and died well.

Ah, but your children or grandchildren, nieces and nephews will be around. It will fall on them to clean up the mess.

Today, scientists and policy makers argue passionately back and forth over what to do about all this. Some rightly question whether climate change is real, or whether it’s caused by human activities, or whether it’s happening now. Wonder no more, because here are the answers to those questions:

Yes, yes, and yes.

Besides, and this is harsh, the earth doesn’t care what you believe in.

That out of the way, let’s roll up our sleeves and talk action. If I lived fifty years in the future, I would have a unique perspective on things. In that spirit, here are my suggestions, offered with deep respect and in no particular order. I have divided them into two categories: 1) shift your thinking and 2) things to do now.

Shift your thinking (or, suspend disbelief, even just until the end of this letter):

  • Start by asking yourself what is truly important to you. What do you most value in your life now and in the future, for your family and friends?
  • Steer clear of the debate between climate-change believers and non-believers. This is an unproductive dead end.
  • Look beyond the science, especially when it threatens people’s values. Too much scientific data will only create resistance and denial.
  • Find ways to talk about the same thing, not a middle ground. There is always a place where people have more in common than we have differences.
  • For those of you who think climate change is a lot of hooey, fine. Just consider this: the greatest economic development opportunity since the early days of the industrial revolution is the dramatic expansion of energy efficiency and various sources of renewable, clean energy. Look around. It’s not just the European countries that are investing heavily in this; it’s also China and India. You don’t want the U.S. to be left behind, do you?
  • Climate change is not a distant threat, a “what if;” it is already upon us.
  • Bear in mind the critical role of public discourse, civic values, political leadership, cultural habits and economic interests, even spiritual beliefs. Science, wealth and technology do matter, but culture and politics trump them.

Things to do now:

  • Put about 75% of your efforts on making everything in your economy as energy-efficient as possible. Start with buildings, transportation, and agriculture. You have all the technology and knowledge you need to make it all at least 50% more efficient right now. By the way, that 50% is a very low number. I could just as easily have said 85%, but I didn’t want to sound too crazy.
  • Put another 75% into investing in innovations in clean energy sources. No, nuclear doesn’t count. (That’s another letter.) And, yes, I realize that adds up to more than 100%. Have I mentioned that there’s plenty of work for everyone?
  • Plant trees. Lots of trees, everywhere you can.
  • Ask: how would nature design an efficient economy? (Answer: one that runs on sunlight, produces no waste, and shops locally.) In other words, make all your industries clean and efficient by design.
  • You’re going to have to build levees and sea defenses, and the sooner the better. People are already talking about and even designing them.
  • Do not allow fear or despair, or even anger to be your only response. When you do feel that way, don’t resist. Lean into it, allow it to transform into a far more powerful emotion: love.
  • Stop arguing about things that do not matter.
  • Look at your neighbors, listen and smile more. Dance.
  • Look inside; the answers are all within you.
  • And never, never forget that you belong here. This is your home. Humanity is your family. You can design any future you want.

In closing, this is a country founded on a hatred of tyranny. Failing to do everything you can to address energy innovation and climate change now is a form of intergenerational tyranny. This generation would, in effect, be imposing the detrimental effects of its wasteful way of life on future inhabitants of this planet, dooming them to the suffering that we residents of 2059 see on a daily basis.

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