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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

A Letter to My Great-Grandchildren

By Greg Whitchurch

Hello from 2018. This is your great-grandad, Greg. I’m writing to you because I suspect that your parents and grandparents have shown you some of my old photos, and I just want to explain some things about those pictures of me and my cars, me barbecuing hamburgers, sitting around bonfires, our family traveling the world by plane and cruise ship, etc. I realize that you’re living in what happened on account of all the waste and pollution which that lifestyle caused. And I know that your life is not as comfortable and your options are not as broad as mine have been. (Ironically though, now that I think about it, the core character traits of my parents and grandparents — living through the first two World Wars and the Great Depression — was their determination and the sacrifices they made to make their children’s lives better than their own – perhaps you’ll try to do the same.)

I know that you’re at the end of the 21st century by now, and all of us back here in ‘18 have a pretty good idea of how bad a shape the planet’s in for you folks in the future. I just want to share with you what we were thinking. I can remember back to the late 1900s – when I was about your age. And I remember wondering then what it would’ve been like to live back in the early 1900s. Horses were just being phased out in favor of electric cars (gas cars were judged too smelly and noisy). Telephones were just becoming available near big cities. Indoor lighting was mostly gas and kerosene, with electricity just starting to enter homes. No TV. No computers. Phonographs were mostly hand-crank. Radios were just becoming affordable and popular. But then technology really took off.

Most of the power for all the advancements we take for granted today came from burning hydrocarbons that we pumped out of the ground. It probably seems weird to you, but it’s true: we actually dug up the sludge from prehistoric garbage pits of dead plants and animals; shipped it all over the world to be refined into a flammable (explosive!) gas or liquid; and then shipped it right into peoples’ homes and businesses to be burned for cooking and heating; pumped it into cars and drove those mobile bombs around while spewing noxious poisons into the air we breathed — we even burned the stuff to make electricity. (We’re well aware that our cars are less than 25% efficient; and that we spend an incredible amount of technology and money to help mitigate all the waste heat, noise, and pollutants from those engines.) I know it must sound crazy to you, but that’s what we grew up with, so that’s what was normal for us. You probably see us as we saw the people who cooked over open fires in caves and grass huts, and who set fire to forests and grasslands so they could plant. Oh, well.

Coal fired plants like the one pictured above and ocean freighters that carried so many things we thought we needed from other countries, released incredible amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere . Images: public domain.

But I suppose the main point here is: why did we keep doing all this polluting, even after having been warned about its outcomes for more than the past 100 years, and in spite of having clean, cheap, healthy, alternatives available to us? All I can say is, it’s hard to change one’s ways, and the threats always seemed sort of far off. Yes, I know that people – especially children – are suffering increased rates of asthma; there are lots of earlier cancers; millions more people die every year; the climate is changing so fast that our deadly weather events are coming at us faster and stronger; crops are already suffering from the changes in water availability and pest migration; our antiquated infrastructure is crumbling under the strains; etc.

I think the big companies are waiting for us private folks to show we’re willing to step up, and we’re waiting for them. Our government sees us waiting for someone to make it free – or even profitable – for us to stop burning stuff, but the corporate interests are protecting their investors (our retirement accounts) by resisting government intervention – and they don’t want to change unless they have to, either. And, yes, there are lots of incentives that make moving to sustainables cheaper than burning; but still, it does take effort. Most of us are just focusing on the day-to-day out-of-pocket financial costs of making the switch, not the much higher longer-term costs. It’s really like a giant game of “chicken” (look it up), but with you in the middle.

We’ve been lured out of keeping savings accounts decades ago; we’ve learned to borrow money whenever we need it (do you know about credit cards? – ask) and then we basically work for the banks to pay it back along with a LOT of extra charges. We won’t stop smoking or drinking or eating too much fat, etc. until the health effects actually hit us. Thinking into the future for our own best interests has atrophied to a vestigial state. So we’ve mortgaged your future for our present comfort. (Yes, I know that we, too, would be more comfortable moving on from fossil fuels; I’m referring to the comfort of not having to change.)

Thinking about you was similarly dismissed. Many folks said, “The kids will figure it out.” Or, “Science will solve this problem,” which belies one of our main excuses for doing nothing: calling climate scientists liars. Yes, we depended upon science for our food (including more meat than was good for us or our planet); transportation (banks always happy to get us into the latest gasmobile); medical needs (pills are easy to take). For example, hitting a button from inside my house or workplace to fire up my belch-mobile to warm or cool it saves me a few minutes of discomfort. But when those scientists have bad news for us that would require more effort than we want to expend, we call them liars.

So, we could have solved this problem completely anytime from the 1960s on, when it became apparent and would have been easy to address. (We went to the moon instead.) During the early aughts we could have redirected the extra money our polluting was costing us in health care, storm insurance, repair, spill cleanups, and our half-hearted attempts to make ridiculously archaic Oil Age technology “not quite so bad.” Or, if regular folks like me simply dedicated 5% to 10% of their income toward moving into the new Sustainable Age. But we didn’t.

You see, we didn’t like the “look” of solar panels on our roofs or in our yards (TV satellite dishes are OK, though); we suspect that wind turbines make “too much noise” and they “spoil our views;” [insert coal-fired power plant pic] we “prefer” to cook with gas; we don’t want to “learn” how to deal with an electric car (although they’re better than internal combustion engine cars in every way that matters to us); and our oil or gas furnaces are “working just fine.” And we’d “rather” listen to news reports about our politics instead of scary climate news – the political issues of the day are abortion, guns, immigration, more jobs (coal jobs, not solar or wind jobs). Both major political parties avoided talking about climate change as much as they can, because folks don’t care and it only scares them into thinking that maybe something uncomfortable might be imposed on them.

Yes, the polar ice caps were melting fast, releasing incredible amounts of methane and CO2. However, that just happens to free up shipping lanes for the worst-polluting of all our transportation choices: cargo ships (50,000 on the seas at any one time), which burn the cheapest, highest sulfur oil [insert oil freighter pic] — BUT which make the stuff we buy from China at discount stores even cheaper! We spend lots of our free time watching violent TV and movies, searching for fancy restaurants, cheap jet travel destinations, and the latest fad diets to extend our life spans, but no time at all researching the lasting effects of our lifestyle choices and what they will mean for our descendants.

Our atmosphere is very thin: a dime lying on a 12-inch globe of our Earth is five times thicker than our breathable atmosphere. I mentioned before that enormous numbers of people were already dying from our pollution and climate change effects. But we knew almost none of these people; and the few we did know have conveniently died from “acts of God” (a favorite euphemism these days for the effects of our neglect). Our current estimates in my time are that about 100 million people will die in the next 10 years because of climate change. By your time, it’s likely that a billion to 3 billion people will have died from thirst, malnutrition, climate/resource wars, migration, disease, pestilence, etc. directly caused by climate change. Some people seem to think that the food resources we depended upon can evolve to tolerate the five degree F. change in a couple of decades or so – and somehow evolve to resist the new biological attacks they’ll suffer from mobile pest and plant infestations that move with the climate.

So, I‘ve shared with you what looking back 80 years or so looked like to us — boy, those folks were old-fashioned, less healthy, and struggling; but they were improving rapidly in every aspect of their lives. And you can decide what it’s like to look back about the same distance to how we are living and what we are doing now compared to what you’re experiencing in your time.

I am truly sorry. But I did want to share with you our thinking back here in the past. I shudder to think that some of you, my own descendants, have passed on early because of the cataclysms we set in motion. We weren’t uninformed; we just decided to “go with the flow.” I pray that things aren’t even worse for you than our researchers told us they would be. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.

Greg Whitchurch writes occasionally for the Green Energy Times.

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