In 2002, before the Age of Social Media, I wrote a regular column called “Find/Replace.” The following “Letter to Santa” went sort-of-viral, which means it got copied and sent out on various people’s email lists (including science fiction writer Bruce Sterling’s list, which was an important list at the time).
I thought about that article today when catching up on the latest news from the North Pole, which has been 20 degrees C, or 36 degrees F, warmer than usual. Those temperatures are not a mistake. Read them again. The Washington Post called the numbers “insane“.
Unfortunately, this was exactly the future I asked Santa to help us avoid, when I first wrote to him 14 years ago. But there’s still a grain of hope, because maybe — just maybe — Santa might finally be giving me the present I asked for.
Here is the 2002 original article (which was also published in my essay collection Because We Believe in the Future), followed by a new 2016 “P.S.” that reflects on what we actually got … and what we still need.
Dear Santa, I Hear the North Pole is Melting
© 2002 by Alan AtKisson; new “P.S.” © 2016
Permission granted to turn this into an email virus. [2016 update: share on social media.]
This year, unlike certain previous years in my life, I have been a relatively ‘good boy.’ Starting a family will do that to a person. I’m betting that I’ve made your list for a pretty good present.
However, I’m afraid that what I really want for Christmas this year, you can’t give me: a new energy system for planet Earth. A stabilization in our emission of greenhouse gasses. The avoidance of global climate catastrophe.
I’m betting that no amount of patient, no-complaints baby care gets me that big a pile of chips to play in the old Christmas Casino. You can’t cash in your karma on miracles.
But Santa, you know, global warming is a lot more real than you are.
You know as well as I do that Nature does what it does, regardless of whether certain political leaders and automobile advertisers might like to pretend to the contrary.
In fact, you know the immutability of Nature’s laws better than I do, since you’re sitting up there on a melting sheet of ice that’s thinned 40% since the 1970s.
By midcentury, Santa, you’ll need a summer houseboat – for you, the elves, and several thousand homeless polar bears.
And apparently, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Bangladesh that we humans are going to do much about it. Did you see the news from India, Santa, about the latest international climate negotiations conference?
‘Experts espousing the views of industry were thrilled with the shift in New Delhi,’ said the New York Times on November 3, 2002. The ‘shift’ was this: the world is basically giving up on trying to stop or slow down global warming. ‘Industry’ (not all industry – some industry makes the ‘Nice’ list) was thrilled because they won’t have to invest in innovation, pay carbon taxes, reinvent their products, convert to zero-emissions energy systems.
All the serious talk now, said the Times, is about adapting to the inevitable.
Santa, I know climate change is inevitable, because it is already happening. I try to read the science journals, in between diaper changes: I know that hundreds if not thousands of indicators, from the pole-ward migration of warmer-climate species, to the increase in devastating El Niños, are ‘consistent with the expected effects of an increase in global temperatures.’ Because I’ve been patiently taught, I know – unlike about two-thirds of MIT graduate students tested on this question! – that even if we stopped emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gasses today, global temperatures would continue to rise for years.
It’s called ‘a delay in the system.’ It is going to happen, for the same reason that summer days keep getting hotter even when they’re getting shorter (after June 21, for you and me, who both live in the northern hemisphere).
You know all about delays in the system, Santa. That’s why after you make your lists, you check them twice, in case some naughtiness or niceness got reported late.
But delay or not, I’m not willing to just give up, and watch my favorite Andean glaciers or Swedish ski areas disappear. I don’t like the idea of New Orleans vanishing under 20 feet of water when the next global-warming- enhanced hurricane goes partying on Bourbon Street. (People usually drink ‘Hurricanes’ on Bourbon Street; this Hurricane could drink them.)
Santa, I know it is unseemly for a grown man to come begging and pleading to a fictitious troll in a red polyester suit. But I’m writing to you, rather than to our World Leader types, because the World Leaders have essentially tossed in their monogrammed towels. You – the great dispenser of unexpected gifts for the often barely deserving – seem to be our only hope.
So, Santa, please give us something to replace the burning of fossil fuels.
You’ve got to give it to us quick, and it’s got to be relatively cheap and easy to spread around – because let’s face it, Santa, everybody wants energy. And food (grown with energy). And water (transported with energy). And transport (powered by energy). But we’ve got, well, bad energy right now. Energy is our major need, and our major problem. Major change is in order.
For instance, if we’re really going to do something about global warming, all our cars need different motors. All our coal-fired power plants need to be converted to some space-age hydrogen fuel cell array, or maybe some wacky Tesla coil device, harvesting the warps and woofs of space itself.
I don’t know if you’ve got something like that for us in that slick, reindeer-powered, zero-emissions sled of yours, Santa, but you better have something. We’re about to go to war over this stuff, again – just in time for Christmas.
But I’m not giving up hope. We may be a kooky species who, when it comes to planetary management, is still a little slow on the uptake. But we try to be good. We deserve to be on the ‘Nice’ list, even if some of us are being a little naughty with our corporate accounting practices.
Santa, please, give us a new energy system. Give us climate stability. Give our great-grandchildren the gift of a white, icicle-y, Frosty-the-Snowman Christmas. Or better yet – give us the guts to do it ourselves.
P.S. Santa, I’m re-sending you this letter in December 2016, with an update on my 2002 wish list.
First, thanks for starting to stabilize our CO2 emissions. That’s really nice, and I really love all those new windmills and solar panels. But it was a little late in coming, and maybe I didn’t ask precisely enough. Here’s an updated wish: instead of stopping at stabilization, please give us emissions reduction. Eventually, to net-zero. Otherwise our goose is cooked. Literally.
Second, a big thank you for Al Gore’s 2006 film, all those IPCC reports, and most especially, the Paris Agreement of 2015. Back in 2002, that Agreement seemed absolutely impossible. Now, even India — where that 2002 “world gives up” meeting happened — is on board. Not bad, Santa. But once again, just a little slower than I’d been hoping. (Plus, I’m a little worried about that new guy in the White House. Try to convince him to get onto your ‘Nice’ list too. The world needs it.)
Third, just to be clear: when I wrote in 2002 about New Orleans eventually getting flooded by a hurricane, I was expressing a big worry, not a wish. Not to say I blame you for Hurricane Katrina three years later. I just want to make sure you had not misread my letter. No more killer hurricanes, please!
Fourth, when I wrote about all cars needing new motors, that reference to a “wacky Tesla coil” was just a joke. But I guess you understood that, because you gave us the very un-wacky Tesla electric car instead. Fantastic. Now, could you just speed up that global car-motor conversion process, like, a lot? And throw in lots of fast-charging stations? (I drive a Nissan Leaf now, and it’s really great. But you can give me a Tesla if you want.)
Finally, Santa, let me just go ahead and ask you for a miracle.
We’re not supposed to want miracles. We’re supposed to just work really hard. But you know, we could really use some help here.
Current climate debates seem to be split between the optimistic techno-fix types, and the melancholy preachers of a drastic drawdown in consumer consumption behavior. Frankly, we probably need both, but either of them would probably be a miracle. So I guess I’m asking for two.
Plus, please throw in anything else you’ve got in that magic bag of yours — anything that can result in rapid reductions in emissions and even the removal of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
I’m getting the feeling that maybe you don’t think we deserve a bunch of miracles. I understand your skepticism. But we’ll be really good.
After reflecting on the US presidential election, the Brexit vote and other recent political events, I put my thoughts into an open letter, published on my company website. You can read it here.
To the President-Elect of the United States:
Considering who your closest advisors are, it is a fair guess that no one else is going to give you a briefing on sustainability. So I offer you one. I will keep it short, because you have a lot of information to absorb now. (People say that you have a short attention span. I don’t believe that, because you have been single-mindedly focused on one thing — winning the presidency — for the better part of two years.)
This is what you really need to know: the problems are real.
Climate change, dying seas, melting ice, dangerous pollutants, people driven to migration because they are desperately poor and/or under attack, and because they see attractive wealth and safety elsewhere in the world, and because the Earth under their feet or the fish in the sea no longer support them … There is a long list of problems that I wish I could tell you were just a bluff. Just an elaborate conspiracy by scientists who, for obscure reasons, are trying to grab power by scaring the public. (Believe me, scientists want a lot of things, but power is not one of them.)
Unfortunately, these are facts, not a bluff. And although you campaigned on denying facts like these, as president, you will have to deal with them.
“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are words used by the rest of the world to talk about how to tackle these huge, complex problems. In fact, the world came to a mega-agreement, last September, that included 17 “Sustainable Development Goals”. Just read the list of 17. If you want to know what sustainable development means, that’s the briefing.
FYI, the US was just one of 193 nations that adopted those 17 goals. If you pull out, there will still be 192.
My guess is that you know some of this already. You’ve already been getting confidential briefings, and now you’ll get secret military briefings too. And the US military sees climate change and related sustainability problems as a major security risk. They’re going to tell you all this, and they’re going to show you that melting ice and rising seas and drought-driven migrants are just as real as Russian ICBMs and the artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea.
Maybe this new knowledge you are getting — much of it from generals and admirals with a ton of medals on their chests, or spy chiefs with access to top secret CIA information — explains a tiny bit of the more humble tone you’ve been striking in public. Maybe the awesome responsibility is sinking in. We hear that you are a fast learner. (At least, we heard that from you. I very much hope you are right in that self-assessment.)
I said I would keep this short, so I’ll add just a word or two about the economy. Sustainability is taken very seriously by many leading US, Chinese, and other global companies — and increasingly by the global stock and bond markets, too — which means that you will have to take these issues a lot more seriously. But fortunately, this part will be easier.
You are a businessman, so you understand the language of risk, and the magic of compound interest. Economically, all these issues we group under sustainability are now understood as serious risks to business and financial performance — if you don’t deal with them.
The risks are growing exponentially, which means surprisingly fast, just as a good rate of return on an investment, or compound interest, doubles your money surprisingly fast.
But when we do invest in addressing them — spurring innovation in energy and materials and construction methods and all the rest of it — it turns out that the benefits grow exponentially too. Just ask a few CEOs. Or check out this recent report, backed by a big panel of global business leaders, on the trillion-dollar benefits (that is not an exaggeration) of sustainable development in just one business sector: agriculture. (I know, agriculture is not your favorite topic, but as president, you have to deal with everything.)
Let’s wrap this up. You’ve got a lot of things to do, like figuring out how to break the news to your followers that much of what you were promising them, during the campaign, now appears impossible to deliver.
Here’s a hint: you’ll come closer to, say, delivering on millions of new jobs if you take sustainability and climate change seriously, instead of scrapping environmental protections or the Paris Agreement. You’ll do more to address the issue of illegal immigration if you take sustainable development seriously, and invest in helping other countries to build secure and resilient economies, than if you build a monster wall.
An earlier Republican president with whom you are already being compared, Ronald Reagan, famously quipped that “facts are stupid things.” Well, in a way, he was right, because facts alone tell us nothing. They certainly don’t tell us what to do.
But the facts don’t go away, no matter how many tweets one throws at them. Here’s another historical fact: presidents, once they leave the mud-pit of the campaign trail and come into the actual command center of government, often seem to mature quickly. They find ways to finesse those promises, and react to reality, as adults must do. Information is power, but getting power also brings with it new information. And with information comes responsibility.
That responsibility — which you have won at high cost to the social fabric of the United States, using campaign tactics that have sent tremors of deep worry around the world — is yours now.
I hope you exercise it wisely.
P.S. If there is anything more you want to know about sustainability, and how to actually address these problems that you have just inherited from your predecessor, I know a lot of people who might be willing to help you. Some of them are even Republicans.
As a dual citizen of the USA and Sweden, I am determined to keep working for the vision and reality of sustainable development for all, here in my beloved Europe where I live, in my beloved USA where I have both family and business ties, and around the world. That imperative does not change no matter who is sitting in the White House or any seat of government. The science is irrefutable. The values and ethics of human rights, equity, and opportunity for all, powered by empathy, the creative impulse and our innate curiosity, are the best of what make us human. There may be headwinds now for the issues I and so many others care about – addressing climate change, ocean health, peace, justice, gender equity and more – but the arrow of history has only one direction worth working for, in every country. I don’t plan to stop now, or ever.
First published on my Instagram & Facebook accounts. Photo © Alan AtKisson from Instagram.
Postscript: There is a very traditional little Swedish cafe (“konditori”) near my home, where I go to often, to sit and think and write. Oddly, they have decorated the place with Americana. The combination — an understated and very Swedish environment, where local workers go for breakfast, but with reminders of American culture and New York (where I lived for many years) all around — was the perfect place to reflect on a stunning election result in the United States.
There is a Swedish word used to describe foreign people (or things) that have been absorbed by the unique culture of Sweden, but have been given a kind of Swedish twist in the process: försvenskad. Or in English: swedified.
Which is the name of the new blog I launched recently. To get a sense of what it’s about, read the Welcome letter. And to read the first full article on the site — commemorating the remarkable life of my friend Vincent Williams, an American-Swedish artist who passed away in 2016 — click here.
I woke up early this morning, pre-dawn. Storm, wind and rain. For some reason, I had a strong urge to watch a bit of the classic film “Blade Runner”. I was surprised to note that the future it depicts so compellingly is dated November 2019 — just around the corner. Fortunately, our world does not yet look the way it was portrayed in that dystopian vision from 1982, full of smoke and flames and killer living robots. But in some ways, Ridley Scott got it right.
This same morning, I read an article about Elon Musk and his plans to send paying customers off in a giant rocket to colonize Mars, in less than 10 years. Link to article & video
“Start a new life off-world, in the colonies!” says a big advertisement blimp in the opening sequences of “Blade Runner”. (See photo) Maybe we’ll be seeing ads like that pretty soon.
And if the Republican candidate wins the US election, I’m betting Elon Musk gets a line of ticket buyers to Mars outside his door, longer than the queue for a new Tesla.
“The word ‘debate’ loses its meaning when one candidate is serious and the other is a vacuous bully.” So wrote the New York Times in today’s edition, and I could not agree more. I am breaking with my usual habit of staying publicly neutral on US electoral politics and strongly endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. I hope you will too, and if you are a US citizen, please be sure to vote, and please encourage others to vote. This is the most crucial US election of our lifetime — I certainly hope the ugliness of the campaign and the risk factor attached to a major candidate (the Republican candidate in this case) never gets this bad again. The Times’ editorial endorsement echoes my own thinking.
A few important facts that Americans must keep in mind as we head to the voting booth in 2016:
The Republican candidate has said publicly, “I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” adding, in other appearances, “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” and “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing to us.” (Links to sources provided below.) Regardless of what one thinks of this candidate, one should never forget that the candidate has strongly advocated torture.
The US is a party to at least four ratified international agreements against torture. Ordering the use of torture can be construed, in armed conflict situations, as a war crime.
Advocating torture is universally considered immoral. If elected, it means the candidate could also be ordering the women and men in national service to commit war crimes.
And it is clearly established that it doesn’t “work” as a way to get reliable and actionable intelligence. The US Senate concluded an in-depth study on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — a deplorable and Orwellian way to say “torture” — less than two years ago (Dec 2014). The results were published and are easily available, and they are summarized here:
These facts should not be drowned out during the rest of this campaign season’s deeply unfortunate noise.