Illustration by Kyla McCallum

Future Air

Our columnist asked scientists to answer a simple writing prompt: what will the air look like when today's teenagers are 60?

A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.

MY DAUGHTER HADLEY is nineteen years old. I am sixty-one. (Yikes.)


NOT LONG AGO I READ a description of the future of air in a book called The Future We Choose, written by two of the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement. The authors, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, are not doomsayers, but they have written a vivid description of what the world will be like in 2050 (when Hadley will be in her late forties) if we don’t take serious and bold action:

The first thing that hits you is the air. In many places around the world, 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: there might not be any.

According to the authors, one thing that won’t be going away in the future will be face masks. We’ll just have to repurpose them.

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EARLY IN THE PANDEMIC I began to wonder about what the world will be like when Hadley is my age. I have recently heard people use the phrase “living in the future” to refer to what life on earth feels like now. But what about the actual future? The future of weather? The future of heat? The future of storms? The future of fire? The future of human beings trying to adapt? The future of community and commitment to place? The future of, god help us, government?

With that in mind I began to reach out to scientists and asked them to help me imagine the world of 2063 when Hadley will be sixty.


I’LL ADMIT IT WAS KIND OF fun to give prominent scientists a creative writing assignment. A lot of them chickened out. They are cautious folk after all. One who didn’t was Caltech’s Paul Wennberg, the R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, who studies the influence of human activity on the global atmosphere.

He wrote:

For those old enough to remember, the sunsets in the early 2060s are reminiscent of the year after Mt. Pinatubo — the deep purples and reds and a sense of seeing the sky long after the sun has gone down.

That’s a pretty good start right? Not bad for a scientist. I’d give him an A.


“DOOM IS NORMAL,” Hadley said to me the other day.

We were renting a cabin in Boulder, Colorado and sitting at the picnic table in the backyard in the shade of two apple trees. Magpies yammered down at us. I had just been freed from solitary confinement after covid, the five allotted days passed, but to be safe we sat at opposite ends of the table and I wore a mask.

Some people still insist that those who worry about climate are overreacting. That things have not changed much. The earth is still the earth. Life is still just life.

Maybe they are right. Maybe we are not really in an age of crisis. Maybe the environmental scaredy cats are exaggerating. Maybe it will just blow over.

Maybe. But if I were forced to debate this notion, I would present Hadley’s high school years as Exhibit A.


During the fall of her freshman year our family evacuated due to Hurricane Florence and her high school was converted into a shelter for the storm’s victims. There was no school for close to a month. The next fall Hurricane Dorian hit, closing school again, and the spring of her sophomore year the pandemic struck. All of this punctuated by the now de rigueur bomb scares and shooter warnings. Spring freshman year was her single disaster-free term. On the bright side, she had to greet only one hurricane while wearing a mask.


DR. WENNBERG, MY FIRST my first scientist respondent, continued his foray into climate fiction:

By 2050, even though CO2 concentrations were now close to stabilizing at 500 ppm, methane concentrations continued to rise and the Earth was simply too hot. Summers in much of the subtropics were literally unbearable; droughts and fires had spread out far from the usual places (US West, Portugal, Australia) and were causing huge property losses across the world. Repeated crop failures were causing famine.

Through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the vast majority of nations had, a decade earlier, approved a scheme to inject sulfur into the stratosphere to reduce global temperatures back to those of 2030. Specially designed planes flew daily into the lower stratosphere, delivering H2S together with nucleating particles designed to produce a nearly uniform stratospheric haze capable of reflecting 1% of the incoming sunlight back to space and knocking almost one degree off global mean temperatures. In approving the scheme, the UNEP received commitments from all the signatories to pay for atmospheric CO2 removal. Most nations had chosen to use enhanced ocean alkalinity efforts and were mining limestone, milling it to small particles, and dumping it across the world’s oceans. It appears to be working, and scientists now predict that CO2 levels will decline back to 420 ppm in the next 30 years. If successful, by 2100 the sulfur band aid will be able to be pulled off completely.

Dr. Wennberg’s description of how we will respond to catastrophe seems about right to me. Even if parts of the world can break their fossil fuel addiction, other parts will understandably cling to it, wanting what we have, or by then, had. And while we are currently debating atmosphere-altering technologies, is there really any doubt, given our human tendency to meddle and fix, that we will embrace them if we find ourselves in a burning world?


TO IMAGINE THE FUTURE, consider the present. Currently seven million people a year die from air pollution.


BEFORE HADLEY CAME BACK from a hike to join me at the picnic table, I had been sitting here wondering how I would tell her that a rabbit had died and was lying below the tree of heaven that grew beneath her bedroom window. Then, just before she returned, the rabbit popped its head up, shook itself off, and hopped away. Another example of my questionable skills as a naturalist. The bunny was just napping.

“I used to talk about it a lot more,” my daughter said at the picnic table.

The “it” was climate change. She had gone to a public high school but briefly attended a private middle school that she ended up disliking.

“I became climate conscious in eighth grade when I began connecting the dots and realizing that this was not good for my future. I felt a sense of obligation because almost no one I knew at middle school really seemed to care about climate, because their futures were all planned out and paid for. But I was worried. Then in 2019, my sophomore year of high school, I really started to get involved. That was the year I became a vegan, spoke at a climate rally at city hall downtown, and started a Sunrise group that met every month.”

Sunrise is the youth wing of, the organization that climate activist Bill McKibben founded.

“Spring of 2019 was my last normal year of high school. Then the hurricane and covid hit and put a wrench in my whole activist plans. My friends and I had a feeling of like ‘Oh shit, this is it, it’s happening now, there’s nothing we can do.’ It was too big for us. I couldn’t speak up any longer except through the internet. We kept the Sunrise meetings going online for a while but then quit. It was really exhausting because of the state of the world. It felt like my activism wasn’t doing anything and I wasn’t capable of really changing anything.”

I considered this: by seventeen my daughter was a disillusioned activist.

“It just got so stressful and exhausting to put the idea of our futures in the forefront. Just thinking about it and my own potential future being not so great because of climate change was all consuming. Which was not so fun. And while I still wanted to participate in activism, I also wanted to have a decent high school experience, and to sometimes set it aside and focus on life, existing like a normal person.”


A RECENT GALLUP POLL says that only three percent of Americans believe that climate change is the most important problem the country faces.


IF YOU REALLY WANT TO imagine the air your children will be breathing, you could do worse than reading The Ministry for the Future. In this work of cli-fi, Kim Stanley Robinson describes an unending drought in India that takes place not in 2063 but in 2025:

It is too hot to cough; sucking back in air was like breathing in a furnace, so that one coughed again. Between the intake of steamy air and the effort of coughing, one ended up hotter than ever.

Last year The Lancet, one of the oldest and most-respected general medical journals, published a study of ten thousand young people, ages sixteen to twenty-five, in ten countries, that revealed that the majority of the respondents experienced climate anxiety as a regular part of their lives. The study concluded: “Distress about climate change is associated with young people perceiving that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, and that governments are failing to respond adequately, and with feelings of betrayal and abandonment by governments and adults. Climate change and government inaction are chronic stressors that could have considerable, long-lasting, and incremental negative implications for the mental health of children and young people.”


WHEN I ASKED HADLEY if thinking about the climate crisis left her feeling sad, she said no.

“The sadness doesn’t come through as much anymore as the anger does. I can’t mope. Or, I mean, I try not to mope. The main emotion I feel is anger at the people who did this. There are people who could fix this, people with money and power, people who could start to solve this, and they’re not. And that is what makes me mad.”

I have been on earth for six decades now, which means I have gotten pretty good at repressing, at stuffing the bad stuff down. If my daughter’s brain is still developing, mine is going the other way. I can’t really feel what she feels. But, listening to her, I am angry too. We have failed our children. That seems obvious enough. Given all the evidence our scientists and eyes have provided us with we have failed to imagine the future and act on what we have imagined. It is, among other things, a massive failure of empathy.

I wonder: are we really so empathetically challenged that we can’t see the mess we are leaving behind? Are we a bunch of drunken frat boys who have decided, what the hell, we might as well trash the place? I know I am culpable; I know I am one of the mess-makers.

To imagine the lives of those who will come after you. It is one of the essential imaginative acts. Picturing the lives of our children’s children’s children. But since we are so imaginatively stunted, let’s not even go that far. Let’s stick with one generation. Can we at least do that? Can we imagine the lives of our children?


AND YET IT is complicated, right?

“Climate change is not at the forefront of my brain,” my daughter said the other day. “I am still a nineteen-year-old girl.”

Maybe she, like 97% of the population, like you perhaps, is sick of hearing about the climate crisis. Maybe she is ready for her father to start working on a different book on a different happier subject.

I am not a nineteen-year-old girl but, like my daughter, climate change isn’t always in the forefront of my brain. We all have multiple lives and slide between them, sometimes incongruously and awkwardly, sometimes easily. It is true that the seas may drown the east coast and fires may burn the West. But how can that compare with the promotion we might get at work or the fight we had with our spouse or the moods of our teenage daughters?

And yet.

“When I am alone and really think about it,” Hadley admitted, “it freaks me out.”


LET’S END WHERE WE STARTED. Not with the usual images of rising seas and burning forests but with something simpler. With air. Try for a minute to imagine it, to really imagine it. You stay inside the house because to step outside means to breathe in the acidic taste, and you never quite feel like your eyes will stop burning or your throat will stop scratching. I experienced both not long ago, when I went walking through a burnt forest after a prescribed burn. This was the future of air: a black landscape of ash with logs still smoking, burning from the inside. I found myself coughing and choking, not quite able to breathe as I struggled to find my way through.


An image of Gessner and Hadley sitting back to back on a rock. Gessner is writing, Hadley has her fist under her chin. Both wear lightly colored hats, shirts, and shorts.
David Gessner and Hadley

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