Dear 2040: Climate change activist Richard Whiteford thinks about the future

By Richard Whiteford

Hello. My name is Richard Whiteford. I’m writing to you on August 24, 2015. I’ll turn 69 next month so, if I live to be 94, there’s an outside chance that I can be there when you open this capsule.

In my lifetime I’ve watched humans destroy the world’s biological diversity to the point of increasing the extinction rate to 1000 times the natural background rate from habitat loss and climate change. For instance, fish populations are crashing, agricultural areas worldwide are being decimated by extreme droughts. Many rivers are running dry from the loss of glacial feed. Insect infestations and wildfires are destroying forests because of climate change.

Richard Whiteford_United Nations 4-16-09We pump 110 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every 24 hours that stays in the atmosphere for over a hundred years. This increased CO2 levels from an 800,000 year average of 280 parts per million to todays 401 parts per million and raised the planetary average temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius (1. 4 degrees Fahrenheit).

Most scientists urgently warn that this .8 degrees Celsius we’ve already reached from burning 565 Billion tons of carbon brings us almost halfway to the 2 degree limit and the planet is already experiencing a rapid increase in extreme weather events. Therefore, humanity can only burn another 565 Billion tons of carbon to get us to the 2 degree level and right now we have 2,795 Billion tons of carbon in inventory to burn – that’s 5 times more fossil fuel than we can afford to burn. If we burn that much it may drive the planetary temperature as high as 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

According to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium, from 1983 to 1992 the world averaged 147 climate, water, and weather disasters each year. In the last ten years that number jumped to 306 disasters a year. Since 1992 there have been over 6,600 major disasters worldwide at a cost of $1.6 trillion in damages killing more than 600,000 people.

Other observations that the planet is heating up is glacier and polar icecap loss. In 1850 there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana; today there are only 25 and they’re melting fast. In May 2014 a huge hunk of glacier, the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, broke off and is slowly sliding into the sea. Scientists say this glacier assures the planet at least a four foot sea level rise before the end of this century and likely an eleven foot rise by the middle of the next century. The polar ice cap loses over 40% of its ice during the summer months and the dark open water absorbs more heat melting more ice. The biggest worry is Greenland. If Greenland’s glaciers melt they will raise sea level 28 feet. Coastal areas on all continents contain the highest human populations, sea level rise could displace more than 50 million people. By the time you read this, the coastlines will probably be very different than they are now.

Land destruction due to severe floods, droughts, mudslides, wildfires, tornados and hurricanes will displace millions more people, disrupt transportation, industry, and agriculture causing food and commodity shortages sending prices skyrocketing.

Your generation probably wonders why we didn’t do something. Well we tried. In 2013 an organization called drew 40,000 protesters to the White House to prevent Canada’s Keystone XL Pipeline from piping oil to a refinery in Texas. As of today, there is no pipeline. In 2014 over 400,000 protesters marched in Manhattan to stop climate change. This year President Obama issued an executive order to cut carbon emissions with his Clean Power Plan and Pope Francis announced in his Encyclical that climate change is real and is the most serious threat to humanity.

In spite of all of this, capitalism’s blind and insatiable demand for endless economic growth with no responsibility for maintaining a sustainable planet continues unabated. The biggest hurtle has been that our democratic system is hijacked by a handful of billionaires who rely on runaway capitalism to feed their wealth. They bought our government, control the media and finance all efforts to continue reliance on fossil fuels.

We in the environmental movement won’t give up in spite of the formidable opposition, in fact, we plan to push much harder because the stakes are direr. Here at the fulcrum between yesterday and the unforeseeable future when you read this, you’ll judge how well we did.

Richard Whiteford

Editor’s Note: Dear 2040 is a series of blog posts containing some of the letters included in our 50th anniversary time capsule, buried in October 2015.  Throughout the rest of 2015 we’ll be posting some of those letters, sharing what our leaders, thinkers, artists, and Schuylkill Center staff are thinking about the year 2040.  You can read all the posts here.

2 thoughts on “Dear 2040: Climate change activist Richard Whiteford thinks about the future

  1. possibly injured hawk seen on I 676 at 715AM on Monday 11/2/15
    could someone follow up or let us know if all was OK with hawk

    • Hi Egan,

      Were you able to find the hawk? The best way to reach us with injured animal information is to call our clinic directly at 215-482-8217.

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