A letter to my children

Clive Elwell

15081432 There is a well-known saying: “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat the mistakes”.1 If this is true, then it must be that no one has ever learnt the lessons, because mankind endlessly repeats the same old destructive patterns. Historians claim in the last 5000 years or so there have been 15000 wars. Yet, people still divide themselves by religious belief, by nationality, by race, by political persuasion, causing endless conflict and suffering. It would be interesting to find out why we seem incapable of learning from history, but that is not the principal thrust of this article.

Historians and archaeologists also describe how so many civilizations have collapsed because they destroyed the natural environment that supported them.2 In the past this has been localized – Easter Island, the Maya, The Anasazi, the Norse in Greenland, Pitcairn Island, and so on. But at this present point of history we are repeating the mistakes on a global scale. We are destroying the planet’s ability to support us in so many ways. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the legacy of the present generation will be destruction on an unprecedented scale. Unless of course we change the path that we are on – drastically, fundamentally. And that too very quickly indeed, as time is rapidly running out.

With such cataclysmic events facing the human race, what impact should this have on how we are educating our children? Is that not a question that we urgently need to consider and address? Can we continue in the same old way, with the same old courses, the same emphasis, with a slight modification here and there? Does this not perpetuate our own indifference, our own lack of caring on to the younger generation? Are we not lacking a sense of urgency in confronting and dealing with this, including in the classroom? Should we not be communicating to students what exactly we human beings are doing, what path we are on, and the all too likely consequences of our actions? Or would this be too big a shock for them?

It is a fact that this is how human beings are, and fundamentally have always been, throughout recorded history. We have always been selfish, greedy, separative, violent – but now those birds are coming home to roost with an impact that will likely bring about widespread chaos and suffering, perhaps even bring an end to human civilization. What does this imply for education, for teachers and parents of the generation that will have to live, or die, with the consequences of the history of human folly?

My own children have now gone beyond school age, having been mostly home-educated. It is only in recent years that I have studied intensively “current affairs”, and have realized just what destruction humans have wrought upon the environment. It is only recently that I have seen clearly the nature of the world, the horrors that my children and their children are going to have to live with. And I have been asking myself, how to meet this issue? And how to communicate the situation to them. They are good young people, and they deserve something better – all children deserve something better, of course. On the one hand I do not want to be a doom-sayer, to everlastingly harp on to them about impending future catastrophes. I do not want to take away their dreams, and their innocence. And yet, is it not my responsibility to present them with the facts, with what the future holds? Even if I have no solution whatsoever, even if I do not have any effective course of action to recommend?

A few days ago I was moved to write the following letter to my children.

My children

This is not an easy letter to write. You will have to bear with me.

Where to start? Perhaps by stating that on the journey to NZ, I finished reading a book by Dr James Hansen, who is a scientist working for NASA. He doesn’t help send people or things into space, but has been studying the Earth’s climate for many years. In the 1980s he testified before the US Congress about climate change. No one listened to him. The book is called “Storms of my grandchildren”.

It says on the front of the book, the headlines so to speak, “The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity”. Sounds alarmist, does it not? Unfortunately, it seems to be all too true. All the real scientific research is supporting that statement.

I would not like you to think that I have just been influenced by reading some weird or fanatical book, and now am acting like some evangelist. When I first came across the notion of climate change, or global warming, some years ago, I became confused. There seemed to be a wide spectrum of opinion on the issue, and one often read very contradictory things – predictions of imminent disaster, and those who said it was all nonsense, some sort of conspiracy. So I determined to try to arrive at the truth of the matter, if that was possible. It has been quite a long journey, sorting the wheat from the chaff. At least my early scientific training stood me in some stead when trying to understand learned scientific articles and trying to distinguish between ‘lies, damn lies, and statistics’. I did not understand at first that there are special interest groups who go to great lengths, and spend a lot of money in deliberately trying to mislead people. Rather like the ‘smoking doesn’t harm you’ lobby a few decades ago (some of the same people, in fact, are now spreading lies denying climate change).

After all my research it is very clear to me that the next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years. And after that – god knows. I will venture to say that we are “ on a mass extinction course set by human action”.

Do you believe me? In one sense I do not want you to believe me, I haven’t raised you to accept blindly, I hope. I would prefer you to research it all out for yourselves, and if you are interested to do that I include some links below. But I know you are both busy with what is called ‘your lives’. And …… the issue is so very urgent, the prognoses for the future so very dire that …… but at this point I am feeling a need to explain why I am writing, why I haven’t written before (not that I haven’t mentioned the issues before) and my own state of mind about writing.

Remember the title of Hansen’s book, “Storms of my grandchildren”? It was the fact that he had two young grandchildren that finally convinced him to write, and took him out of his beloved laboratory into politics and activism. He said that he did not want his grandchildren to look back and say: “Opa understood what was happening, but he never made it clear.”

So like James Hansen, I also feel it is my responsibility to describe to you the likely prognosis for the planet and for human affairs. You may turn away from the facts, that is up to you. To say they are deeply disturbing is an understatement. I doubt that anyone else you know is going to seriously discuss these issues with you. Seems the world is in the grip of a mass denial of fact, and not just the facts of climate change (do you know how many Americans deny that evolution of life took place?). I doubt if your friends are unduly concerned. The media, if you read it, has other concerns – endless politics, the gossip of celebrities, sport, technology, entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.

But you have to know the truth. I am assuming it is better to know the truth than remain in ignorance. Perhaps truth is an absolute value in itself.

I am sorry that I have been too cowardly to write these things before. Perhaps even to write is cowardly, instead of discussing face to face. I hope we can do that. Perhaps one thing that has held me back is that I have no advice for you. I don’t really know how we should respond to the looming crises (actually looming is not the word; we ARE in crisis. 2010, with its many climate-related disasters, has especially revealed the path the world is charging head-on along.

Given your age, you have recently been branded as ‘ Generation Hot’. I quote:

“It’s now September, the end of summer, and my five year old has started kindergarten. It’s a huge transition, as every parent knows. Meanwhile, the oldest members of Generation Hot are embarking on their own huge transition. Now 21 or 22-years-old, they are leaving childhood behind for the adult world of work, marriage, and children.

But a third transition, just as huge, awaits each and every member of Generation Hot. One of the key facts of the 21st century is that climate change is going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better. Like it or not, the kids of Generation Hot will have to learn how to cope with the consequences — not only for their health and economic prospects but their emotional well-being”.2

But I do not know about this “getting better”. There is no factual basis to think things will get better, all the facts point towards a downward slide of things getting much, much, worse. I’m sorry to have to write such things, my children. And I am sorry for all the children. But in fact Hansen’s book may well be mis-titled. All the indications since it was written is that things are deteriorating more quickly that expected. Not only his grandchildren but his children are likely to be profoundly affected by the consequences of climate change. The predictions of the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change under the UN), originally criticized as being extreme, are beginning to seem quite modest.

It is not a case of what might happen if we don’t act to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. We HAVE failed to reduce them, and irrevocable changes are already in the pipeline.

Sorry, I am not being very orderly in this letter. I was talking about the difficulty of communicating these issues. Quoting again:

“I had dinner with my grown children yesterday. They are successful, liberal, and well educated. Among the usual family chatter, a conversation about a ruined couch and another about the last time my younger daughter got drunk summarized the (lack of) consciousness or simple avoidance of the topic. I want a relationship with my children and conversation about the latest news on Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not welcome. These young adults know and ignore.”3

Not saying you are like that! But it is somehow hard to introduce these issues in ‘social occasions’. And one senses that people generally don’t like talking about such a terrible shadow that we are living under. There is a sort of …embarrassment. One of the problems is that the issue is …… but how can one find the words to meet such cataclysmic prospects for the future? How can one begin to really conceive of the human suffering to come, or the degree of destruction of the environment? It is all so gigantic. Human consciousness has never before had to live with the knowledge of such impending disaster, and perhaps it just cannot do so.


Up to now I have been a bit light on specific facts. Perhaps deliberately so. Perhaps I fear your minds will just turn off. Perhaps they have already done so.

Once one starts making somewhat precise predictions for the future, immediately one is faced with uncertainty. But climate change is bringing:

  • Increasing temperatures (but also lower temperatures in some places at some times).
  • More violent storms due to increased water vapour in the atmosphere.
  • More extreme weather of various sorts – dry areas becoming drier, wet areas becoming wetter.
  • Rising sea levels (modest as yet), as warming oceans expand and ice melts.
  • Changing climatic zones. Forests are dying, animals and plants are disappearing as their habitat changes.
  • Great water shortages in many parts of the world, as the glaciers that feed rivers melt, as rivers evaporate, as drought becomes more common.
  • More problems in feeding the world’s growing population.
  • Acidifying oceans, with marine life in severe decline – including, perhaps worst of all, plankton. At any time in the future, instead of continuing to absorb carbon dioxide, the oceans may start to release it.

I have to explain that the greatest danger lies in “tipping points”. These are positive feedbacks which can quite quickly accelerate the rate of change, in completely uncontrollable processes. For example:

As the Arctic ice melts, it stops reflecting back heat to space, so Earth gets hotter, and more ice melts, and so on in a vicious circle.

As the Arctic permafrost melts (which it undoubtedly is) it releases methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, causing more warming, causing more release of methane, etc.

The same for the huge quantities of solid methane at present frozen on the Arctic sea floor. There is more carbon in the methane than in all the fossil fuels still unburned.

As the trees are destroyed, as is happening in parts of the world because of changing temperatures, draught, disease, insect attack and perhaps other reasons (see 4), they stop becoming carbon sinks, instead they start to release their stored carbon.

Sorry to present this science (why am I sorry?), but climate change IS a matter of observation and scientific fact, it is not a question of belief or ideology or opinion, as the climate ‘deniers’ present it.


Extreme pessimism about the near future is not only a matter of the effects of climate change. There are plenty of other approaching crises that are going to stop you living the sort of life that you might otherwise want to. Oil is getting more scarce, and so more expensive, and basically our whole society is based on a plentiful supply of oil, for energy, transport, farm machinery, fertilizer, plastics. In many parts of the world, the supply of water is drying up, and with that comes food shortages. Which in turn probably means large uncontrolled displacement and migration of people.

There is a book you might care to read, by Jared Diamond, called “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed”. In that book Diamond outlines 10 distinct crises which could cause the collapse of society as we know it.

Enough. More than enough. I am wondering what you make of all this. Would be good to talk with you, and perhaps we can soon. As I said, I have no advice for you about meeting these crises. I myself do not know what to do about the grim future facing us. Just to be concerned with one’s own security does not seem an adequate response, even if there was such a thing. You are free to ignore the facts, or just hope ‘something turns up’. I cannot think what that something might be, although some people have a blind faith in the ability of science and technology to meet any problem. But that is proving rather hollow. I think it is clear that unless there is a fundamental change in human consciousness, we are not going to work together, not going to act with intelligence and real concern. And perhaps that is the only real pointer for action.

If someone told all the parents of the world that there was a 98 per cent chance that radical environmental changes in the next 10 – 50 years will wipe out half of all known life forms on earth, and that famine, plagues, floods, and droughts on a scale not seen in thousands of years would become routine for billions of people, you would think they would tell their kids. Well, most climate scientists in the world have been telling us that, but we don’t do anything about it.

Much love to you both on your journey into the future.

PS: Even though I said that I have no advice for you on how to meet the tremendous challenges that are almost certainly coming your way, I have still been racking my brains about how to end this letter. Thinking, pondering, wondering, questioning. Somehow I cannot live by a fixed conclusion, although I do not want to manufacture some false hope. No matter what situation we live in, I feel we cannot escape the fact that our real challenge is what it has always been for mankind – to understand ourselves. Is it not the lack of self understanding that has brought about all the crises facing us?

If you want to investigate the facts about climate change – and that is not at all an easy thing to do, because of the tremendous amount of dissemination that is happening – here are some links you could follow:

  • Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher – “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm.”
  • M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F – with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F
  • Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year – and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!”
  • Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”
  • Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred
  • New study of Greenland under “more realistic forcings” concludes “collapse of the ice-sheet was found to occur between 400 and 560 ppm” of CO2
  • Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100
  • Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path.
  • Royal Society special issue details ‘hellish vision’ of 7°F (4°C) world – which we may face in the 2060s!
  • “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” warns “Without significant mitigation, the report says global mean warming could reach as high as 7 degrees Celsius by 2100.”
  • NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe
  • http://climateprogress.org/2011/02/17/nsidc-thawing-permafrost-will-turn-from-carbon-sink-to-source-in-mid-2020s-releasing-100-billion-tons-of-carbon-by-2100/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+climateprogress%2FlCrX+%28Climate+Progress%29


    1. There are variants of this; the original by George Santiyana
    2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-hertsgaard/meet generation-hot_b_737163.html
    3. See, for example, Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed”
    4. http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/p/basic-premise.html

    The author has qualified in Education and has taught for some years. The limitations of the objectives of conventional education has made him experiment in various alternative schools. The most significant engagement, however has come from home learning with his own children. He can be reached at clive.elwell@gmail.com.


    (for my daughters)

    I want to tell you that the world
    is still beautiful.
    I tell you that despite
    children raped on city streets,
    shot down in school rooms,
    despite the slow poisons seeping
    from old and hidden sins
    into our air, soil, water,
    despite the thinning film
    that encloses our aching world.
    Despite my own terror and despair.

    I want you to know that spring
    is no small thing, that
    the tender grasses curling
    like a baby’s fine hairs around
    your fingers are a recurring
    miracle. I want to tell you
    that the river rocks shine
    like God, that the crisp
    voices of the orange and gold
    October leaves are laughing at death,

    I want to remind you to look
    beneath the grass, to note
    the fragile hieroglyphs
    of ant, snail, beetle. I want
    you to understand that you
    are no more and no less necessary
    than the brown recluse, the ruby-
    throated hummingbird, the humpback
    whale, the profligate mimosa.
    I want to say, like Neruda,
    that I am waiting for
    “a great and common tenderness”,
    that I still believe
    we are capable of attention,
    that anyone who notices the world
    must want to save it.

    – Rebecca Baggett

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