I think a lot about climate change; it’s my job. So every day I am confronted with the sobering facts of the issue. But for me, as for so many people, the worst impacts of climate change always seemed to take place in some vague and distant future. Recently, however, all that has changed.
Why? Because my first child was born a few weeks ago, and I know he will experience those impacts firsthand. Suddenly, I can’t stop thinking about the world my little boy will live in, and I am painfully aware of how different it will be from the one in which I grew up.
For instance, we just visited my parents in my home state of Ohio, where we have an old family tradition of hunting for morel mushrooms every spring. I want my son to learn how to hunt morels with his grandfather, but he may never have the chance. Drier spring seasons may mean fewer and fewer morels to be found, even as the ash and elm trees on which these mushroom depend gradually succumb to pests emboldened by warmer winters. So even if my son is able to go morel hunting, the accumulating effects of climate change on Ohio’s forests make it unlikely that he (or I) will be able to pass on the skill to his own children. A cherished family tradition will be lost.
On the other hand, my son may be able to fulfill one of his father’s dreams: to be a forest firefighter. By the time he reaches young adulthood, the extreme fire season we experienced in 2012 will be commonplace, and the country will need unprecedented numbers of firefighters to protect our forest resources. If, for example, my son lives near his uncle in Denver, he could find himself fighting devastating fires that race through the dry deadwood of forests decimated by the bark beetle, which thrives in a warmer climate. But his father’s dream of protecting forests will instead become a nightmare of powerlessness as my son watches them disappear.
As he enters old age, my son’s world could be one his parents would barely recognize. Western Europe and the Middle East may experience years of extreme droughts at a stretch, crippling their economies and transforming their cultures (imagine Italy and Spain without wine or the Alps without snow). The Brazilian Amazon, where we studied the rainforest as graduate students, may vanish after droughts trigger catastrophic dieback. All that will remain of the world’s greatest forest is arid savanna.
In Africa and Australia, heat waves and decades of drought will make many places uninhabitable, and reduced harvests in India and China will drive millions to uproot themselves and search for new lives in the few remaining fertile areas of the world. The world he was born into, so full of wonder and potential, could become a world of hardship and uncertainty.
These are the visions that, as a new dad, make me worry about my son’s future. But we can secure a better future if we begin to change course now. There’s still time to protect the places and traditions we hold dear. I think it’s worth it, for my son’s sake.