Letters to the future 

Scientists, authors and activists predict the outcome of the upcoming UN Climate Talks in Paris

World leaders from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris during the first two weeks of December for the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference. Will the governments of the world finally pass a binding global treaty aimed at reducing the most dangerous impacts of global warming ... or will they fail in this task?

Letters to the Future, a national project involving more than 40 alternative weeklies across the United States, including the Missoula Independent, set out to find authors, artists, scientists and others willing to get creative and draft letters to future generations of their own families, predicting the success or failure of the Paris talks—and what came after.

Alexis Bonogofsky

Wild things

Dear Future Montanans,

I have asked that you not open this note until 2115. There is a place I want you to go to read this letter, the place where I wrote it. It is a river valley in southeast Montana that thousands of people fought to protect from a massive coal mine in my time. We won. For centuries before me people cherished and protected this land you are sitting on and I have no doubt they are still doing so in your time. I know this because people will always come for what is underneath the ground in the Tongue River country. Our fights do not have an end; they are passed down from one generation to the next.

Your Montana, no doubt, is a much different place than my Montana. Although you are a hundred years and thousands of miles away from the 2015 Paris climate summit, what happened there was consequential to your life. The climate treaty that emerged was historic but it did not save us.

Decades of political timidity and inaction put things into motion that could not be undone. The treaty did not save the glaciers in Glacier National Park (have they renamed it yet?) or the wildlife that could not adapt or the people that live on the coasts.

I never put much faith in the idea that pieces of paper produced by governments create change. I have faith in the land. I have faith in people. I know promises made by politicians only have meaning when the people make them have meaning.

If you are living in a world where we have managed to mitigate the most severe impacts of climate change it isn't because governments agreed to reduce climate emissions at Paris; it is because while world leaders were negotiating in boardrooms, citizens were shutting down coal plants, stopping coal mines, protecting their homelands and taking control. It is because we took what they gave us, said it wasn't enough and demanded more the next year, the year after and the year after.

  • illustration by Don Button

We mourned deeply for what we knew we had already lost and yet had the courage to move forward. It was our only option. Only you know how we did.

Be still for a moment, the wild things might let you see them.

A young Montana goat rancher, writer and climate change activist, Bonogofsky is featured in the new documentary This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein's book of the same name.

Stephen K. Robinson

My endless sky

Dear Future Robinsons,

Back around the turn of the century, flying to space was a rare human privilege, a dream come true, the stuff of movies (look it up) and an almost impossible ambition for children the world around.

But I was one of those fortunates. And what I saw from the cold, thick, protective windows of the Space Shuttle is something that, despite my 40 years of dreaming (I was never a young astronaut), I never remotely imagined.

Not that I was new to imagining things. As you may know, I was somehow born with a passion for the sky, for flight and for the mysteries of the atmosphere. I built and flew death-defying gliders, learned to fly properly, earned university degrees in the science of flight and then spent the rest of my life exploring Earth's atmosphere from below it, within it and above it. My hunger was never satisfied, and my love of flight never waned at all, even though it tried to kill me many times.

As I learned to fly in gliders, then small aircraft, then military jets, I always had the secure feeling that the atmosphere was the infinite "long delirious burning blue" of Magee's poem, even though of all people, I well knew about space and its nearness. It seemed impossible to believe that with just a little more power and a little more bravery, I couldn't continue to climb higher and higher on "laughter-silvered wings." My life was a celebration of the infinite gift of sky, atmosphere and flight.

But what I saw in the first minutes of entering space—following that violent life-changing rocket-ride—shocked me.

If you look at Earth's atmosphere from orbit, you can see it "on edge"—gazing toward the horizon, with the black of space above and the gentle curve of the yes-it's-round planet below. And what you see is the most exquisite, luminous, delicate glow of a layered azure haze holding the Earth like an ethereal eggshell. "That's it?!" I thought. The entire sky—my endless sky—was only a paper-thin, blue wrapping of the planet, looking as tentative as frost.

And this is the truth. Our Earth's atmosphere is fragile and shockingly tiny—maybe 4 percent of the planet's volume. Of all the life we know about, only one species has the responsibility to protect that precious blue planet-wrap. I hope we did, and I hope you do.

After 36 years as an astronaut—with a tenure that included four shuttle missions and three spacewalks—Robinson retired from NASA in 2012. He is now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Davis.

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