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Fighting climate change with compassion, one letter at a time

  • DearTomorrow cofounders hope to inspire climate action today by having people write letters their children will open in 2050.
  • The initiative seeks to make climate change more pressing by imagining what the world will be like in three decades.
  • Anyone can write a letter – and Kubit and Shrum have made sure their program accepts people with different political, religious or cultural beliefs.

What can you do that transcends climate policy and unites us all in a better, more resilient future? Imagine writing a letter to your children about climate change that they’ll open in the year 2050. What would you want them to know about this pivotal moment in history?

Jill Kubit and Trisha Shrum are moms, environmentalists, and cofounders of DearTomorrow, a project that invites people to compose letters, photos, or videos to the children in their lives, to be made available for them to read when they grow up. Anyone can participate.

As Kubit says, “I like to think that in 2050 the world looks very different, but it’s not just negative, it’s also positive in terms of better health outcomes, switching away from fossil fuels, livable cities…” In addition to letters written to kids and grandkids, they have letters that are written to “future selves” and also sometimes to nieces, nephews, students, future generations, communities, and more (see Jill’s TED Talk here).

Shrum and Kubit co-founded DearTomorrow with the goal of engaging people on the topic of climate change through the universal values of family, love, and legacy, and hope to generate 10,000 messages that reach more than 20 million people.

AN INTERVIEW WITH TRISHA SHRUM AND JILL KUBIT

Kayla Walsh for Mongabay: What motivated you to start DearTomorrow?

Trisha Shrum: Two and a half years ago, I went to a climate and energy conference in Iceland to give a talk on how to leverage insights from behavioral economics to broaden support for climate change policies: how do we get beyond the idea that climate change is distant, vague, and unconnected with our day-to-day lives?

With those ideas swimming in my head, the words from another talk sparked the idea of DearTomorrow. Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC climate negotiations, ended her speech with a powerful story of a dream she had where the children of the future look at her and ask, “You knew about climate change. What did you do about it?” On the plane ride home, I wondered what I would someday tell my own daughter, who was ten.

Jill Kubit, cofounder and director of DearTomorrow (left) and cofounder Trisha Shrum (right). Photo Credits: Mustafa Onder and Matt Nager respectively.

On the flight home, this question echoed in my mind. I wanted my daughter to know what I did. And how I felt. And what I had not yet done. So I opened my laptop and wrote her a letter. When I wrote that letter, I realized that to my daughter, I am not small and powerless. To her, I am the most powerful person in the world and it is my job to protect her. While I wrote, it hit me. This could be the answer to my question I explored in my talk. Looking back from the future might reduce our problem of global procrastination. Parental love is a universal value with a uniquely empowering frame. Writing and sharing letters like these could reach and activate millions.

When I got back home, I met Jill Kubit and together we created DearTomorrow. We’ve gained amazing traction as people feel the unique power of this project.

Jill Kubit: I’ve been working on climate change since around 2006 and for the first seven or eight years I basically worked in the trade union movement on climate change… A lot of the work was around building bridges between organizations, doing coalition building…. I’ve always had this sort of people-centered understanding of climate change. I would hear that we need to make this [energy] transition by the year 2020 or 2030 or 2050 but I always thought those years or timeframes were really far in the future – until I had my own kids.

I have a son; he was born in 2013 and when I had him I really started to think about those years and the transitions we have to make in a much more personal way. I got involved in [DearTomorrow] at the end of 2014 and I wrote my letter to my son in the spring of 2015.  In 2020 he would be in first grade. In 2030 he would graduate high school and then in 2050 he would be about the age that I was when I started this project. I thought about the types of changes we needed to make and the short timescale in which we needed to make them…In thinking about climate change through my own son’s life and what his life was going to look like when he grew up, I had a different experience in terms of how I thought about the issue…I really started to think about if other people who were parents and grandparents and teachers, or people who had nieces and nephews, and if they started thinking about the issue in terms of people who they loved who were younger than them – could that motivate them to be more engaged and take more action on the issue?

Trisha Shrum at a demonstration in Paris during the Paris Climate Talks in December 2015.

Mongabay: How many letters have you received?

Jill: We have 609 messages published, including 453 letters, 144 photos, and 12 videos.

The archive is a very important part of the project and we want to make the entire collection of letters, photos and videos publicly available in the years 2030 and 2050. But, since we don’t know how people will receive and share information during those years and what kind of technology will be available, we are working with archivists to think through how we are going to store the data and transition it from now until 2050. We are also working to identify an institution or multiple institutions that are interested in holding the collection, as we believe it will be a historical documentation of how people thought about climate change during this important period of time (2015-2020). We want to preserve this collection for the year 2050 and beyond.

Mongabay: Why are you concerned about climate change, personally?

Trisha: One of the most terrifying courses you can take in college is Introduction to Environmental Science. It is eye-opening and frankly quite depressing to learn about the massive impact we are having on the planet that is here to support the only future we have. So I am concerned because I’ve spent the last 15 years studying climate change and I know that literally everything is at stake.

Now that I am a parent, this concern is crystallized: my daughters will inherit that future. I want to give them the best possible chance at a happy, healthy life. I hope they can someday snorkel in vibrant coral reefs and not worry about how the air they are breathing might be harming their unborn child. But at a minimum, I want them to have the resources they need to live.

Jill: I understand where we’re headed. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve worked in the field long enough to understand what kinds of negative implications are happening, actually right now in places, but are also projected to happen in the future. Understanding that through the lens of my own kids has been very personally motivating for me. Having my own child and thinking about it through his life, moves thinking about the problem in an intellectual way to thinking about it in an emotional way and that’s very powerful. It changes it from something in your head in terms of data, statistics and science to thinking of it in terms of the heart, in terms of emotions and why this is important.

Mongabay: How old will you be in 2050 and what do you think the climate will look like?

Trisha: In 2050 I will be 68 years old. My daughters will be 36 and 33. Long before 2050, I think any trace of doubt in whether climate change is real will be erased by the world we see around us. But I hope that I’ll live to see the other side: when the climate begins to grow more stable. If we take strong actions today, then we can start to reverse the damage and bring the climate back into a safe zone for our kids and grandkids.

Jill: In 2050 I will be 74. It’s hard to predict what the world will look like, because I think we know what it will look like if we continue business as usual. We’re pretty much on course to pass [a two degree Celsius global temperature increase] by 2050. If that happens, scientists predict increased storms, drought, floods, and more severe weather…If people can’t farm and live in the places they currently live in then people will be forced to move to other countries or locations within their countries. People often think one degree or two degrees…that’s not really big, but we’re talking about changing our water systems, the amount of food that’s available, having land where people can no longer live. I think the bigger problems are around water and mass migrations. And that creates bigger questions around political instability.

We actually do have the solutions that we can be putting in place to make a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and we’re in a period of time right now where we’re making a choice to either continue business as usual (which we know is kind of scary) or take this amazing opportunity to make a transition and put the policy and practices in place to make this transition.

I like to think that in 2050 the world looks very different, but it’s not just negative, it’s also positive in terms of better health outcomes, switching away from fossil fuels, livable cities…We don’t spend enough time really envisioning what a positive 2050 could look like. Part of the [DearTomorrow] project is to get people to put themselves in the year 2050 and to look back on the present and imagine having a conversation with your own child in the year 2050 and having them ask you, “What did you do?” And instead of asking the question, like, “Why didn’t you do anything?” I envision my own child would ask me: “What was it like in a world where there was fossil fuels? What was it like to live before this massive transition that we took and what role did you play in making this happen?” or “What did the world look like when people used gasoline and what did a gas station look like?”

Mongabay: Do you feel that since you’ve started this project you’ve had a more hopeful outlook on where we could be in 2050?

Jill: It has changed my perspective in terms of meeting so many interesting and engaged people who are not only leading organizations, but I’ve met so many people who have day jobs who volunteer their time on climate change. They’re so passionate about the issue… They’ve opened up and expressed in a very personal way how they feel and that’s kind of what keeps me very hopeful – the depth that people feel when they really understand the choices that we’re making now… It really motivates me to continue this project. I think I’ve been most surprised by the relationships I’ve formed with people who’ve participated.

Screenshots of letters posted at DearTomorrow

Mongabay: Trisha, you told Grist, “When people write to their own children, instead of envisioning the apocalypse, they envision a better path – a future I would want to leave for my kids.” Why is this positivity important? What can it do for the climate movement?

Trisha: If you want to grab someone’s attention, fear works. But if you want to hold someone’s attention, you must also have hope. When we build a tangible vision from today’s polluted world run by fossil fuels to a future run by clean energy, then we can get people to walk down that path with hope and an understanding that they are fighting a winnable fight.

Mongabay: How can DearTomorrow reach people who aren’t impacted by climate change or don’t perceive themselves to be impacted by climate change?

Jill: There are people currently impacted by fossil fuel development or by climate change and those people have important stories to tell – either about living in areas that have drought, or living on coasts that are impacted by storms, or living next to a fossil fuel plant, or in Appalachia by mountaintop removal. Those stories are all very important. But, I think it’s important for us to understand that we can’t wait for everybody to be impacted before we take action. It’s really important to address this distance that most people feel around climate change. Most people in the U.S. understand it as an issue that is happening, but happening somewhere else in another place or in the future. It’s hard to connect their everyday actions and political beliefs to something that feels very distant from them.

The DearTomorrow project is trying to address this distance that people feel by getting people to think about it in terms about their own children and grandchildren. I think the power of the project is not to necessarily ask people to become environmentalists, but to ask people to build off the beliefs and values they already have. People care about their children, families, legacy and climate change is part of that. We’re trying to connect the values of protecting your family, protecting their kids, and protecting their future (and their future is really at risk because of climate change). Therefore, part of protecting the people that we love – that are younger than us – is putting in place the policies and practices that provide for a safe and stable future for them, and that’s the value that DearTomorrow has.

Mongabay: Let’s get political – How does the Trump Administration – particularly pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord – inform your work at DearTomorrow?

Jill: It doesn’t have an impact on the day to day of DearTomorrow because we’re not a political organization that’s responding to policies that are being passed. But, it does point to the need for us to have a conversation about why climate change is important and to get past the political divide that we’ve created in this country. We support the Paris Agreement, but our project is trying to address the underlying problem – that this issue has been politicized and that we continue to argue about whether or not this is a problem. The Paris Agreement is important because it recognizes the need to make a transition away from fossil fuels and to keep [global] warming well below two degrees. The decision made by President Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the Agreement is only possible because the issue of climate change has become so polarized that it is often still seen as a liberal issue.

For me, this decision underscores the need to reframe climate change not as a political issue, but as a personal one. We think our project can help tell the story about why climate change is important for people regardless of ideology or political affiliation, because ultimately we have shared values – parenting and family – that can reach across political and social boundaries. We think the values we connect to around parenting and family and legacy – those are values that exist in all communities. This is a project that people from all different communities can participate in and connect to.

Mongabay: How do we talk about climate change to conservatives, skeptics, or religious groups?

Trisha: Traditional environmental messaging about pandas and polar bears has been effective with the small segment of the population that identifies as environmentalists. Fear-based messaging works for a short time to get the rest of the population to pay attention, but eventually that fear turns to denial or apathy unless there is also a pathway of hope.

If you try to get people to set aside their deeply held identities and values and take on your own, your outreach will backfire. But if instead you work to understand where they are coming from and understand what motivates them and gives their lives meaning – then you can start to build bridges. DearTomorrow appeals to universal values of legacy, family, and love, those values across social, political and geopolitical boundaries. And the love a parent has for their child is the most powerful force on the planet.

The other unique power of DearTomorrow is that it helps to amplify the stories of hundreds of different people who come from a diverse range of backgrounds and belief systems. Those messages resonate with different people for different reasons. But the connection to a trusted messenger helps motivate those who have not yet viewed themselves as the kind of person who takes action on climate change.

Jill: I would start by saying that there’s already a lot of great organizations and visionary leaders doing work around climate change in those communities. There’s faith-based efforts, business efforts, Republican efforts [to] change how their communities think about climate change. I think the value of DearTomorrow is not to tell people what the correct way to talk about climate change is, but to give people a platform to create their own narrative and share their own stories within their own communities. We want to provide a place where Catholics, Evangelicals, business leaders, environmentalists, environmental justice people, Republicans and Democrats can create their own stories and share those stories within their own communities – instead of creating a prescriptive narrative for everyone to follow. I think it’s more empowering to give people the tools to create and share their own narrative. I think our project is something that’s very easy for people to use and organizations to use, because it’s an idea and a place where people can write stories, read stories, and post their own. Really anybody with a computer or smartphone can do the project.

Mongabay: How does the Voter Pledge Work?

Jill: People want to take action. Our basic philosophy is that people should take on a commitment that’s important to them in their own lives, so we don’t have any parameters over what people should do. In the photo part, we ask people to take pictures of themselves, write down one commitment that they’re willing to make – something new for the next year, like installing solar panels, eating less meat, riding your bike more, attending community meetings, or calling representatives. They commit to taking this action by writing it down and they take a picture.

Jill makes a pledge for DearTomorrow’s archive.

At the same time, the changes that we have to make are profound, so we do need major changes in terms of policy and business practices. So, when we’re offering people one suggested action, we’re saying that voting is actually a really important action to help make these major policy changes.

On the site, we identify one thing we think it’s unanimously important for people to do, and that is [to] vote. We partnered with the Environmental Voter Project (EVP) which…gives people information about the elections in their area. It gives reminders for midterm elections and local elections where people might actually be less inclined to vote. The reason why voting is really important is because climate change in the past is considered to be a very low priority voting issue and the EVP has identified that there are 15 million environmentalists out there who don’t vote.

Mongabay: What’s on the horizon for DearTomorrow?

Jill: Our goal for 2017 is to have 2,000 participants and in 2020 our goal overall is to have 10,000 participants but then to reach more than 20 million people through those 10,000 messages. We’re generating this very rich content that we then want to distribute in a variety of different channels through art, radio, newspapers, public events, and exhibits that get the word out to a larger group of people.

Mongabay: What’s one letter that really resonated with you?

Trisha: I love this letter because it is so honest and so normal. This guy seems like a great dad. But he isn’t a superhero Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist. He’s a regular guy who has a vision for the future he wants for his kids and he is willing to stand up to do the simple things in his life to make the future a reality.

Jill: I read all of the letters and there’s so many of them that are really moving. One of my favorite parts of my job is to actually go through the material and read people’s stories. It’s super motivating to understand the depth of how they care about climate change. One of my new favorite letters was written by a coral reef researcher in Australia…she witnessed all the coral bleaching that’s been taking place and she had this realization that because her son is only three years old – and he has to be ten before he can scuba dive with her – she isn’t sure where she will actually be able to take him SCUBA diving.

And so she’s telling me this story – she’s almost crying – and I’m getting emotional because our sons are close to the same age. It’s the idea that this is something in her life that’s so important to her and she doesn’t know if she’ll get to share that with her son because of climate change. I connected with her because both our kids are about the same age, but also with this idea of passing down memories and places and things that we love about life, and there’s a question of if we will be able to do that.

The whole point of the project is to get people to think about climate change in a much more emotional and relevant way. I think that there’s a power to if we all have experience growing up and things that we love – and those are things that we want to share with our kids and our grandkids that are disappearing or changing. When we think about climate change in that way, it actually does impact us. And in addition to scary projections of “what the world could look like if we don’t take action,” we’re forgetting about the memories or places we love that potentially are lost or at risk… and I think those things are very important to us as we define our lives.

Read messages to the future and submit your own at http://www.deartomorrow.org