NOTE FOR 2019 READERS: This is the sixth in a series of open letters to the next century. The series marks a little-known chronological milestone. According to UN data, life expectancy at birth in 27 countries now exceeds 81 years — meaning babies born in 2019 are more likely than not to see the year 2100.
What will the world be like at the other end of our kids’ lives? Today’s scientific discoveries, Silicon Valley visions, and science fiction can give us glimpses. But in this series of digital time capsules, we also recognize that our hopes and fears can shape what the future will become.
Dear 22nd century,
Do you still use that quaint phrase ‘the elephant in the room?’ Does the family Elephantidae, currently at risk, still exist, or is its extinction such a horrific elephant in the room that no one dares speak that name?
Either way, you’ve probably noticed the metaphorical elephant in my letters so far. This is one large and increasingly sweaty pachyderm. It’s the one aspect of your world our current U.S. president, Donald Trump, has affected the most; the one that the rise of fake meat could mitigate; the planetary project you’ll likely be focusing on instead of interstellar travel; the thing I keep apologizing for on behalf of several billion friends, many of whom have barely begun to realize they’re staring it in the face.
In my era, we usually call the elephant “climate change.” Millions still use the outmoded term “global warming.” My preferred coinage is “global weirding,” which is more precise: Earth’s climate is now weird, it’s getting weirder, and that process has no known end.
I don’t need to tell you that. For you, climate change is decades-old history and an ever-present headache, even if we stop burning fossil fuels now. I expect you’ll use a more somber term to convey its historic magnitude. It will become a capital-T word in the style of The Bomb and The Holocaust. Let us simply call it The Catastrophe.
Many of my contemporaries found such comparisons overblown. In which case, I advised they read The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, a round-up of the latest climate science currently giving a lot of readers nightmares. Often, scientists of our era mince their words and make conservative projections. Wallace-Wells, in stitching their research together, is unafraid to describe the interconnecting calamities of a relentlessly warming world. And it’s hard to gainsay any of it. More droughts, more storms, rising seas, rising disease: all are coming, all will make each other worse.
To take one minor aspect of The Catastrophe: air pollution, which climate change is already making worse, will kill an estimated 150 million more people worldwide for every single degree celsius of warming, researchers estimate. This, the author points out, is the death toll of 25 Holocausts or two World War IIs. Human activity has already locked in one degree of warming compared to pre-industrial levels. Two, three, or four more may come along before you do.
If anything, a name like “The Catastrophe” undersells what may be about to happen — just as “four degrees of warming” sounds like a fight over the thermostat instead of the end of our entire way of life.