Note; I wrote this article a couple of years ago, but I’ve always liked it so I’m republishing it now, with a few minor edits.
Yesterday, my first nephew was born. He is small and wrinkled and has acne on his nose. He has wispy black hair and silvery-blue eyes. He knows the voices of his mother, father, and grandmother, and now the scents and sounds of the hospital. Mostly he’s been asleep when I’ve visited. He does not know about his home, going to school, or getting a job. He doesn’t know about casual friends, mean people, or birthday cake. He doesn’t know what the world will be like for him.
Life expectancy for a white male American at birth is currently 75.9 years. I don’t know how that is calculated, but it’s probably something like an average, drawn down a bit by the mortality of the young, and that the men of this generation who die of old age will last a bit longer than that. I figure my nephew has a good shot of seeing 2100, and his 89th birthday. He will be an old man, with great cottony billows of hair spilling out his ancient ears and nostrils. He might be cranky, but hopefully he’ll still be sharp as a tack. Given his family history, he has a one-quarter chance of being bald. Either way, his breathing will be slow, regular, marred by occasional coughs and rumbles.
Today, he breathes rapidly, his tiny barrel chest bared to the sun-lamp to treat a mild case of baby jaundice. When he remembers he is all alone in his tanning bed he cries, his lower jaw vibrating oddly, and his mother reaches in to rub his belly. Her hand cups his entire ribcage.
He comes from farming people in the Piedmont of the Mid-Atlantic, an extended, cheerfully argumentative community likely to hold him close for many years. He could stay here. This land could be his world until he dies, the outer reaches of what we can imagine for him coinciding curiously with the outer reaches of time across which global climate change predictions make any claim at all to be reliable.
Climate change predictions are made by powerful computers working off various scenarios of technological and social development. For each scenario—how well future emissions are controlled, what future birthrates and economic development patterns are like—there are various predictions that diverge, as time goes on, like the anticipated tracks of a hurricane. Which scenario will play out is impossible to predict; these are not prophesies, they are examples, what might happen as a result of what we, collectively, do or don’t do. They are the best we’ve got.
This child will go home soon, and become the son of the land. He’ll rest in a cradle on the floor of a barn, his mother rocking him with one bare foot as she directs customers picking up vegetables in June. In two or three years, he’ll carry handfuls of squash guts as gifts for the chickens, and a rooster as tall as he is will look him in the eye and decide he’s ok. He’ll listen to his parents worry about droughts. He’ll learn to hope the heavy rains don’t rot the tomatoes, and that rising gas prices don’t break the bank. There will likely be more such worries as he gets older. Summers will be hotter. His mother will say it didn’t used to be like this, but grown-ups always say that.
According to the IPCC, by the time he’s a teenager, temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic will average maybe two degrees higher than they did during his mother’s childhood. That does not sound like much, but averages rarely do. One degree can turn a pretty snow into a destructive ice storm.
Warming, in and of itself, will be good for the crops; only a local rise of about five degrees or more hurts productivity. That’s unlikely to happen here until my nephew is a very old man. But the Great Plains may warm faster, enough to cause a problem; he could study the shifting agricultural economics in college. Or, he might prefer the shifting flights of birds, since many migrants head south based on conditions in Canada, and Canada will warm faster yet. Should be interesting.
Our area could either get wetter or drier. Parts of northern and central Mexico will almost certainly get drier, maybe much drier. These areas are dry already, so I imagine a lot more people will start heading north. My nephew will discuss the refugee problem with his friends, lean on his shovel in the morning sun and wonder if the United States has a responsibility to keep Mexicans from dying when Congress is already deadlocked over how to pay for the flooding in New England. Seems you can’t keep a bridge built in Vermont, anymore. He takes off his sun hat and scratches his thinning hair.
Years pass. My nephew thinks about his next birthday, his fiftieth, and also about New York City, where three of his grandparents grew up. It’s turning into a ghetto. It’s not under water, exactly, though the highest tides creep slowly across abandoned parking lots in some neighborhoods, spilling over the older seawalls. The problem is this is the second time it’s been stricken by a hurricane, and now no one can get the insurance money to rebuild. The same thing has happened to New Orleans and Miami. Boston may be next. Those who can get out, do. Those who can’t, riot. They have a right to be angry. His daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild. My nephew cannot keep his family safe indefinitely. He’s glad his parents taught him how to grow food.
Sixty-five, now, and semi-retired, my nephew is proud of his skill as a farmer, especially with the way the rules keep changing. The farm seems to be in Zone 8, these days. He’s got new crops and new weeds. He’s got friends in southern Maryland who haven’t had a hard frost in two years. Maybe this year they will; Farmer’s Almanac says it’ll be cold. Last year he and his wife took a trip through New England, let his kids take care of the harvest for once. They stayed at romantic little bed-and-breakfasts and took long walks in the woods, holding hands. There was white, papery birch-bark on the ground, here and there, the stuff takes a long time to rot, but he knew he’d have to go to Canada if he wanted to see one alive. In the coffee house in Danby, where they still have that pie he’d remembered, the waitresses complained about the economy because the sugar maples were dying. No sugar maples, no leaf-peepers, no local syrup. Pretty soon, you’d have to go to Canada for that, too. It’s sad.
My nephew lives long enough to see more change than any prior human generation has, and that’s saying something. A lot of the change is environmental, but not all of it. Major technological shifts rework the country yet again, and the entire political and economic center of gravity pulls away from the coasts. He is aware of this upheaval intellectually, but viscerally he is used to the world he lives in. He lives well. He is loved and he is useful. No dramatic disaster befalls him because lot of disasters that could have happened didn’t and lot of disasters simply happened to other people. My nephew is sympathetic. He writes his Congress-people, gives generously through his church whenever he can.
But a lot of good that could have been done decades ago wasn’t.
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I saw my nephew tonight. He’s at home now, wrapped in a blue blanket like an animate dumpling, slowly fretting against the swaddling, his wrists and ankles as thin as my thumbs. He’s too young for baby fat. He doesn’t know what his future holds. And neither, really, do we.
This daydream about the future life of my little nephew is based on the coincidence that climate predictions tend to reach about eighty to a hundred years into the future, the same number of years that an optimistic aunt can hope her baby nephew will have. Most of the climate predictions I used were taken from the website of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). The prediction that Northern Delaware could end up the USDA Growth Zone 8 is conjecture taken from a variety of sources. That New England might no longer support sugar maples is consistent with this conjecture, although I know of no one else predicting a loss of sugar maples. The loss of paper birch due to climate change, on the other hand, has already begun. The predictions I made about sea level rise are taken from a variety of sources as well, mostly from the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a Science Daily article on sea level rise with respect to North Carolina. As noted, I wrote this article several years ago. My prediction that New York City would be flooded by hurricane storm surges became creepy when Hurricane Sandy hit and did exactly that.
I want to be clear that the predictions I used are not some kind of worst-case scenario. I assumed, perhaps optimistically, that some global constraint on carbon emissions would be worked out, that no uncontrollable positive-feedback cycle would be triggered, and that a lot of the disasters that could happen would not (historically, only a few of the things that could have gone wrong really did). However, I also assumed that some aspects of climate change would be faster and worse than anyone can predict, since this has been true so far. I assumed that we don’t take a lot steps we could take to slow climate change.
But the present is the future’s past; we still have time to make our future better than the one I have imagined.