climate : A Letter to My Son About the Earth He’ll Inherit

Wednesday 12 June 2024 10:46 PM

Nafeza 2 world - Dear River,

Against all odds, you were conceived in a lighthouse, born into a pandemic, learned to crawl amid democratic and industrial revolutions, and have tasted just enough of Life as We Know It to resent us when it’s gone.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry we broke the sea and sky and shortened the wings of the nightingale.

I’m sorry that the Great Barrier Reef is no longer great, that we value Amazon much more than the Amazon, and that the waterfront neighborhood where you are growing up could be condemned by rising seas before you’re old enough to apply for a mortgage.

The Earth I joined in 1967 is gone now, and no one knows what kind of planet will replace it.

The United States of America I knew and loved is gone now, too, eaten from the inside by metastasized lies fed to furious people in forgotten places.

But I’m most definitely not sorry that you’re here. In fact, I’m delighted that your mom’s one remaining 42-year old ovary surprised us with the most lovable little boy nine months after a vacation to Croatia, the birthplace of my Grandpa Miller. That’s where we found a Dubrovnik lighthouse on Airbnb, and until you know what it’s like to fall in love, the story will bring eyerolls of mortification, but I can think of no better omen for the kind of boy we hope to raise—a solid source of light for those who need it most.

I get to introduce you to mountains and oceans, penguins and lemurs. I get to watch you taste wild blueberries and see your expression the first time you hear your sister, Olivia, sing from a stage. We will zip open tents from the Boundary Waters to Baja, and you will feel the rush that comes with dawn birdsong and no plans for the day. We’ll savor marvels made by water and wind and the hands of ancient women and men, and you will meet too many kind souls to remember as you build a better world on the wreckage of our mistakes.

Looking back from what’s left, it might be hard for you to understand how we could let it get this way.

You will turn 30 in 2050 and I want to believe that reality will have made a comeback by then and that you’ll read this as soon as you’re ready for big questions. By then, you’ll know whether the Disenlightenment turned deadly, if the Age of Unreason broke like a fever, and whatever happened to the President in the Red Hat.

Maybe yours will be a world with hydrogen airships instead of diesel tractor trailers and sting ray–shaped robots that sink seaweed to bury carbon instead of factory-fishing trawlers that clear-cut the sea. Maybe your buses will bring you to school on sunlight and then help power your classrooms after dark. The world’s most abundant fuel source might be the isotopes in sea water, or little nuclear fusion stars in boxes, or minerals mined on an asteroid named Psyche somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Right now, River, there is a spacecraft also named Psyche in the sky, and just the other day NASA fired up the solar-and xenon-powered propulsion system that will send this American invention the size of a tennis court across the galaxy at up to 124,000 miles per hour! You are four now, and when you turn six, Psyche will slingshot around Mars and by the time you are nine we’ll get our first pictures of an asteroid so rich in precious minerals it could be worth the trip.

Selfishly, I’m glad you’re here to keep me in shape, educated, and fun because, believe it or not, Your Old Man used to be fun. Ask around.

I used to lead pub crawls and skydive and fight for more airtime for my wacky bloopers. Covering sports in Green Bay, Chicago, and LA was so much easier than covering climate. For one thing, when the Bulls lost to the Jazz, no one called the station to argue that Karl Malone is a Chinese hoax. And no matter how badly it hurts when our teams missed the playoffs, the beauty of sport is there’s always next season. In this gig, every day I’m forced to think about what happens if seasons go away.

Olivia arrived in 2003, when the wounds of 9/11 were still fresh, and we moved cross-country and settled next to the hole that once held the Twin Towers. I was a cub network anchor, and between reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina and Fukushima, I watched your sister and One World Trade Center grow in astonishing leaps.

And the American story change in staggering ways.

She was 16 when I first held you in the crook of my arm and felt the curl in your Tic Tac toes and in her lifetime our nation had moved from a so-called War on Terror to fresh wars with new terrors, homegrown. My Old Man did duck-and-coverdrills in case of Russian missiles, I did them in case of tornados, Olivia did them for school shooters, and you may have to worry about all the above.

We brought you home from a plague and into the Age of Unreason, where gun violence had just passed car accidents as the leading killer of kids and your first kiss from your mother came through a mask that smelled like wildfire smoke. At this point in the pandemic panic, faceless and soulless internet profiteers were charging $600 for a box of N-95s, so Mom wore the leftover mask from my go-kit to the hospital, last used to cover a fiery place called California.

You entered a world in lockdown, with a death ticker in the corner of every screen, where people suited up like astronauts leaving the airlock to walk the dog on empty streets. We sanitized mail, forgot to unmute ourselves, drank too much, and cried. And as the President in the Red Hat instigated improvised rage in the background, I’d rock you, inhale the delirious scent of your tiny head, and thank the universe that you came with a Canadian passport.

After day-drinking from the firehose of peer-reviewed scientific dread, I still do the New Old Dad stare into the middle distance, but so much good has also happened during the first four years of your life that I now wake with more wonder than worry.

“How?” I can hear my peers echo with an edge. Because we are made of stories that never end.

Now, more than ever, human stories will be the difference between destruction and salvation. Old stories got us here, but new ones can get us out. They are the most powerful things we have, and they start with the stories we tell ourselves. For example, there is an old story that most Americans either don’t know that Earth is overheating or don’t care. This story was so sticky that if I’d asked my average countryman in 2022 to guess the percentage of fellow citizens concerned about climate change and supportive of action, they would have said between 37 and 43%.

Read More: Don’t Ignore Your Climate Anxiety

In reality, researchers at Princeton, Boston College, and the University of Indiana found it is 66 to 80%.

“Supporters of climate policies outnumber opponents two to one,” the authors of the study found, “while Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true.” They call this “pluralistic ignorance,” which means we are surrounded by allies we never knew we had. At the same time, while two-thirds of Americans say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming the same percentage says they talk about it with friends and family “rarely” or “never.”

River, this means that change for the better depends on the brave, lucky few born with the means and freedom to start conversations and a conviction to use that means and freedom, come what may.

The day I saw your scrunched little face for the first time, I went from the ultrasound to a climate march led by Greta Thunberg. By the time you read this, you’ll be able to find volumes written on how she was canonized and demonized, but back then I knew her as a young woman your sister’s age who had captured the world’s attention by leaving school every Friday to stage a lonely climate strike outside the Swedish parliament. When we met, she quietly entered the interview room with her hand-painted protest sign tucked under one thin arm, and she quickly showed a mind curious enough to digest the warnings from the scientists that others were ignoring, and honest enough to call out the arrogant ignorance and ignorant arrogance of all the grown-ups in charge. Her work has connected millions to the allies they didn’t know they had, and that post-ultrasound march was walking, breathing, traffic-stopping proof that the story might be changing.

After a century and a half of burning our fuel because it was cheap, the cheapest form of fuel man has ever known now comes from solar-powered batteries and onshore wind. And that is why, despite fierce partisan and industry resistance, Texas produces more of this clean energy than California.

It’s not the end of life.

It’s the end of “as we know it.”

And climate change on a degraded planet is not a problem created or solved by physics or technology. It is a problem created and solved by stories.

River, you have a good shot at seeing the 22nd  century!

And when you get there, I want you to tell them how we came together, sorted out our problems, and wrote a better story.

Excerpted from Life as We Know It (Can Be): Stories of People, Climate, and Hope in a Changing World by Bill Weir. Published by Chronicle Prism, an imprint of Chronicle Books. Copyright © 2024 by Bill Weir.

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