Dear Finn and Cy,
I hope this letter finds you healthy and happy. I am writing this in 2017. You are, as I write, 7 and 10 years old, respectively. I think a lot about what you might be like when you grow up and about what kind of world you will live in when you do. Today, more than any other time in my life, I worry about our future—about your future.
As you know, I study—or as the case may be when you read this, studied—the effects of climate change on plants and animals. Even today, scientists have known for a long time that people are changing the earth’s atmosphere and, in turn, our climate. The evidence is indisputable and the impacts are clear. Many plant and animal species are moving with the changes we have seen in the earth’s climate. Spring is coming earlier—plants leafing-out and blooming earlier, birds returning from migration earlier, insects hatching out earlier. Even some recent extinctions can be attributed to climate change.
The changes we will see in the future will be much greater. Many more species will likely go extinct as a result of climate change, and some, like the polar bear and the bull trout are clearly in trouble. I am very worried about the plants and animals, but they are not my greatest concern. Nature, however altered by climate change, will survive.
What I am most worried about is how climate change will impact people and how people will respond to an unfamiliar climate system. People are already feeling the effects of sea-level rise, drought, flooding, wildfire, heat waves, coastal storms, changes in disease dynamics and prevalence, loss of food security—the list goes on. Future projections are grim. But you know all this. You have very likely lived through it.
When I give public talks about my research—to groups of elementary school teachers, church congregations, pub-goers—I often get asked how I keep from getting too depressed. Two things that give me hope. First, we, as a species, have overcome some fairly large global challenges in the past. Before the Clean Water Act, rivers used to catch fire and before we controlled CFCs, the hole in the ozone layer was growing out of control. Second, we can adapt when we have to. During both world wars, people in the US drastically changed their lifestyles to support the war effort. Addressing climate change is a more complex issue, but we know what needs to be done and we can do it if we really want to.
I’m trying to do what I can to slow climate change. I’m working with students and groups to make videos and interactive video games about climate change. I’m working with The Nature Conservancy on carbon tax policies and climate adaptation strategies. As I’m sure you remember, I ride my bike to work and wherever else I can (you guys aren’t always enthusiastic about walking or biking to school in Seattle winters, but I’m that dad that never drives to school). We try to use as little electricity and natural gas as we can in our home. We’ve planted trees in our little backyard. We do what we can on our small scale.
Nonetheless, as a society, we have failed you. We have not acted quickly enough to prevent substantial damage to your world. For that, I am terribly sorry.
I do see change happening though and I think we will get our act together in time to prevent the worst from happening. There is already a steady trend towards replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. A year ago all but two nations signed the Paris Climate Accord to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The current US administration has just pledged to pull us out of that agreement, but I know we’ll be back in—and for the long haul—with a change in leadership. If we succeed, I can see you living in a city with buildings topped with solar panels and sided with living green walls. You’ll ride electric trains and shuttles to work and ride bikes and electric scooters to run errands. Your power will come form solar, wind, and hydro. You’ll eat locally grown food—mostly plants. Your air will be cleaner than it is now, your cities will be quieter, and people will be healthier. I do hope that is your world. The alternative is too hard to imagine.
I love you both. Please know that I am doing what I can to slow climate change and also to help you and others in your generation adjust to the world we leave for you. I’m doing my best to connect you to nature, build your compassion and resilience, and model the power of action big and small.
Joshua Lawler is a Professor of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington, College of the Environment.