Denis Hayes
National Coordinator of the First Earth Day
Seattle, Washington, United States

Not the Future

“I have a theory for why my generation has behaved so unforgivably toward your generation on this issue.”

Dear Granddaughter,

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that, to his regret, the much-anticipated Paris Climate Conference of 2015 would not produce a treaty. Or, for that matter, anything else “enforceable.” The U.S. Senate will not ratify anything that might actually work. Kerry at least appreciated the irony of making this announcement at a military installation that is doomed to be submerged by rising seas.

None of the Republican candidates for President—a pool large enough to field a football team—exhibit similar irony. They all sincerely believe that human beings cannot change the climate.

Democrats talk a much better line. But the executive actions on climate taken during the most recent Democratic presidencies have not perceptibly moved the needle.

I have a theory for why my generation has behaved so unforgivably toward your generation on this issue.

Of course, well-financed opposition by hugely powerful, ruthless, profit-hungry fossil-fuel behemoths (and the politicians and “think tanks” they own) played the central role. But there also was a deeper psychological phenomenon at work.

I grew up in an era shaped by the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The most important defense strategy of my youth was Mutually Assured Destruction. A devastating nuclear conflagration could occur in a moment. But until the moment the rockets were actually launched, it remained possible to take action to avoid oblivion.

Climate change, as your generation understands, is entirely different. Gases that we spew into the atmosphere remain there for geological periods of time. They accumulate to create geophysical conditions that inexorably lead to future consequences. Tragedy is “baked into” the atmosphere decades, and even centuries, before it actually occurs. Humans did not evolve to deal well with this sort of slow-moving issue.

For at least the past 40 years, people have been giving speeches saying we have only 10 more years to act on climate. And they have always been right! Each time we had 10 more years to avoid one more distant consequence. By one point, we had accumulated enough CO2 to ensure an ice-free North Pole. At another point, the desiccation of the American Southwest and massive forest fires were assured. At yet another, more violent storms became unavoidable.

Today, the best science says that we have doomed the West Antarctic ice field—the resulting sea levels inundating dozens of major cities around the world from Mumbai and Bangkok to New Orleans and Venice, not to mention most of Bangladesh. You are only 6 years old as I write this, and already we have condemned you to some unavoidable tragedies.

At low cost and with minimal pain, my generation could have avoided all this. Long before I wrote this letter, we had created every essential ingredient of a sustainable future. But we—and by we I mean the whole human race—failed to take them to scale. We knew how to create ultra-efficient, net-energy-positive Bullitt Centers and Tesla automobiles; resilient agriculture and high-speed electrified rail; green chemistry and FSC forests. We could have covered the entire built environment with solar films, much as nature harvests and stores energy on every green surface.

So that diverse, healthy, resilient future is not the future you have inherited.

However, if you live in Seattle, as your grandfather currently does, you have some huge advantages. Our city has suffered less from climate change than any other major American city. Of course, in doing so it has become very attractive to climate refugees. The world will have one billion displaced persons in your lifetime. Where will they go? Has Seattle been wise enough to learn from the current refugee crisis in Europe and prepare for its own future influx?

The Paris Climate Conference next month will not produce a binding treaty, but it will elicit meaningful outcomes. It may embolden a global movement. It will, at least, demonstrate that the real leadership is coming from cities, not nation states. Perhaps the next major conference will produce a United Cities organization that might succeed where the United Nations failed.
If I have one hope, it is that digital and real-world activities in the streets outside the formal deliberations of the conference will function as a massive global exclamation point! Hopefully, finally, this will be the moment when people across our planet recognize climate change for what it is: the fight of our lives, and yours.

Now president of the Bullitt Foundation, Hayes has served as national coordinator of the first Earth Day, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and professor of engineering at Stanford.