Literary adaptation of a formally delivered speech.
Good morning, everyone. Here is the meteorological forecast for the 13th of August, 2035. Seas will be rough, with violent storms, and visibility will range from poor to very poor for the next 24 hours. The outlook for tomorrow is less fair. Persons are advised to exercise precautionary measures in areas of heavy showers/ thundershowers and rain, given that the soil may have reached saturation and additional rainfall may result in water accumulation and flooding in these locations. Hilly areas may experience landslides. Above-normal high tides may result in over-topping the river and sea defenses in vulnerable areas. Residents are advised to take the necessary precautions.”
I write this imaginary forecast with an apology to the multitude of scientists who, from time immemorial, tried to warn their colleagues and the general public on the lasting effects of climate change; those same scientists who were criticized and shunned for their ‘cretinous, half-baked ideologies.’ These discoveries were not taken seriously in the scientific community, and at that time, many experts believed that nature could self-regulate and that man's impact was minimal. The hypothetical weather bulletin presented above can be released and broadcasted by many meteorological stations worldwide in the coming years of this century. Destructive torrential rainfall may not sound good news, but these will be among the least of the world’s problems in the coming era of peak climate turbulence. With social collapse a real threat in the next 14 years, it will be an achievement in 2035 if there are still institutions to make weather predictions, radio transmitters accessible to share them, and seafarers willing to listen to the ‘anachronistic’ content.
Journalists generally abhor writing about the future. They are trained to report on the very recent past and current happenings, not gaze into crystal balls. However, Tim Radford, a former science magazine editor, allowed himself no such safe distance or equivocation in 2004. Radford looked forward to a point when global warming was no longer so easy to ignore. Applying his expert knowledge of the best science available at the time, he predicted 2020 would be the year the planet started to feel the heat as something real and urgent. “We’re still waiting for the Earth to start simmering,” he wrote back in that climate-comfortable summer of 2004. “Expect summer 2020 to be every bit as oppressive.” How right he was. He also correctly anticipated how much more hostile this would make the climate – with increasingly ferocious storms, intensifying forest fires, and massive bleaching of coral reefs.
The difference will be visible from space. By the middle of the 21st century, the globe will change markedly from the blue marble humanity first saw in wondrous color in 1972. The white northern ice cap vanishes completely each summer, while the southern pole will shrink beyond recognition. The lush green rainforests of the Amazon, Congo and Papua New Guinea are smaller and possibly enveloped in smoke. From the subtropics to the mid-latitudes, a grimy-white band of deserts has formed a thickening ring around the northern hemisphere.
It is the year 2035. Adolescents and young adults of Generation Z (Gen Z) are now in their early thirties. Their teenage fears of the complete extinction of the human race have not yet come to pass, but the risk of a breakdown of civilization is higher than at any previous time in history – and rising steadily. They live with a level of anxiety their grandparents could have barely imagined. The world is more hostile, less fertile, crowded, and less diverse. The rich have retreated into air-conditioned sanctums behind ever higher walls. The impecunious – and what is left of other populations – is left exposed to the ever-harsher elements. Everyone is affected by rising prices, conflict, stress, and depression. It feels as if the dial on a cooker has been turned from nine o’clock to midnight. World Cups and Olympics were moved to the winter to avoid the furnace-like heat in many cities. Now they are not held at all. It is impossible to justify the emissions, and the world is no longer in the mood for games.
In 2035, the world could look back and see the pandemic as little more than a blip in a long and mostly futile effort to stave off global warming. Despite a temporary drop in carbon emissions from the 2020 outbreak, countries turned to cheap fossil fuels to revive their economies after the crisis. Carbon emissions soared, and temperatures followed, setting the stage for 5°C warming by the century's end. Beyond the emissions reductions registered in 2015, no further efforts were made to control emissions.
The first thing that hits you is the air. In many places worldwide, the air is hot, heavy, and depending on the day, clogged with particulate pollution. Your eyes often water. Your cough never seems to disappear. You can no longer simply walk out your front door and breathe fresh air. Instead, before opening doors or windows in the morning, you check your phone to see the air quality. Everything might look fine—sunny and clear—but you know better when storms and heat waves overlap and cluster. Air pollution and intensified surface ozone levels can make it dangerous to go outside without a specially designed face mask (which only some can afford). Our world is getting hotter, an irreversible development now utterly beyond our control. For many years, oceans, forests, plants, trees, and soil had absorbed half the carbon dioxide we spewed out. Now there are few forests left, most of them either logged or consumed by wildfire, and the permafrost is belching greenhouse gases into an already overburdened atmosphere. In five to ten years, vast swaths of the planet will be increasingly inhospitable to humans. No one knows what the future holds for their children and grandchildren.
Because multiple disasters often happen simultaneously, basic food and water relief can take weeks or even months to reach areas pummeled by extreme floods. Malaria, dengue, cholera, respiratory illnesses, and malnutrition are rampant. Melting permafrost is releasing ancient microbes that today’s humans have never been exposed to—and as a result, have no resistance against. Diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks are rampant as these species flourish in the changing climate, spreading to previously safe parts of the planet and increasingly overwhelming us. Worse still, the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance has only intensified as the population has grown denser in habitable areas and temperatures continue to rise. Every day, because of rising water levels, some parts of the world must evacuate to higher ground. Every day you see images of mothers with babies strapped to their backs, wading through floodwaters. News stories tell of people living in houses with water up to their ankles because they have nowhere else to go; their children coughing and wheezing because of the mold growing in their beds, insurance companies declaring bankruptcy, leaving survivors without resources to rebuild their lives. Those who remain on the coast must now witness the demise of a way of life-based on fishing. As oceans have absorbed carbon dioxide, the water has become more acidic and is now so hostile to marine life that all but a few countries have banned fishing, even in international waters. Many insist that the few fish left should be enjoyed while they last.
As devastating as rising oceans have been, droughts and heat waves inland have created a special hell. Vast regions have succumbed to severe aridification, sometimes followed by desertification. The wildlife there has become a distant memory. You try not to think about the 2 billion people who live in the hottest parts of the world, where, for upward of 45 days per year, temperatures skyrocket to 140°F (60°C) —a point at which the human body cannot be outside for longer than approximately six hours because it loses the ability to cool itself down. Mass migrations to less hot rural areas are beset by a host of refugee problems, civil unrest, and bloodshed over diminished water availability. Even in some parts of the world, there are fiery conflicts over water, battles between the rich who are willing to pay for as much water as they want, and everyone else demanding equal access to the life-enabling resource. The taps in nearly all public facilities are locked, and those in restrooms are coin-operated. Governments are in an uproar over water redistribution: countries with less water demand what they see as their fair share from countries that have more.
Food production swings wildly from month to month, season to season, depending on where you live. More people are starving than ever before. Climate zones have shifted, so some new areas have become available for agriculture (Alaska, the Arctic), while others have dried up (Mexico, California). Ever since the equatorial belt became challenging to inhabit, an unending stream of migrants has been moving north from Central America toward Mexico and the United States. Others are moving south toward the tips of Chile and Argentina. The same scenes are playing out across Europe and Asia. Some countries have been better global ‘Good Samaritans’ than others, but even they have now effectively shut their borders, their wallets, and their eyes.
Even if you live in areas with more temperate climates, such as Canada and Scandinavia, you are still highly vulnerable. Severe tornadoes, flash floods, wildfires, mudslides, and blizzards are often in the back of your mind. Depending on where you live, you have a fully stocked storm cellar or an emergency go-bag in your car. People are glued to weather forecasts. Only the foolhardy shut their phones off at night. If an emergency hits, you may only have minutes to respond.
The weather is unavoidable, but lately, the news about what is happening at the borders has become too much for most people to endure. Under increasing pressure from public health officials, news organizations have decreased the number of stories devoted to genocide and refugee virus outbreaks. You can no longer trust the news. Social media, long the grim source of live feeds and disaster reporting, is brimming with conspiracy theories and doctored videos. The demise of the human species is being discussed more and more. For many, the only uncertainty is how long we will last and how many more generations will see the light of day. Suicides are the most obvious manifestation of the prevailing despair, but there are other indications: a sense of bottomless loss, unbearable guilt, and fierce resentment at previous generations who did not do what was necessary to ward off this unstoppable calamity. A storm is indeed brewing. The science is clear on that. The question is how we face it in 2022 before it reaches a devastating climax in later years.