Louise Williams heard the results of the IPCC report on 1.5 degrees and was inspired to write a short story. It’s the conversation she doesn’t want to have with her grandchildren.
Caris sat cleaning the tools while I knitted. She reminded me a lot of her mum when she was ten. Back then I had always assumed I’d have grandchildren, but in recent decades I wasn’t so sure. Lennon was busy around us, packing things into boxes, unable to sit still as usual.
“Granny,” Caris said, as if asking a question.
“We were doing history in school today, and they were talking about the turn of the century. Did you really have computers that were too heavy to carry?”
I grinned. “Well, yes, at first, then as I grew up they got smaller and smaller – more like the pods you get now, except everyone had them.”
“Granny, you don’t talk a lot about the olden days, do you? Our teacher said it was really different, though she’s too young to really know. Can you tell me?”
I sucked in some air.
“Lennon, how’s that packing doing? We’ll be off in two days, before the snow sets in.”
Caris stopped working and looked up at me. I kept knitting but found some words.
“It’s hard to explain, Caris. Truthfully, I guess I feel bad talking about it. When I was your age, my grandparents sometimes talked about the war and how rough things got. More often they didn’t tell you the whole story, but you just knew it was terrible. But for us growing up in the nineties, it was the opposite. We had so much, too much really…”
Just then Rob came in with our son-in-law Ethan.
“Grandpa!” cried Caris, “Can YOU tell me about the olden days? I’ve never heard you say much either.”
Rob grunted as he took off his boots. “Those days are long gone.”
Ethan piled up some of Lennon’s boxes. “He doesn’t like to think about what we lost,” he commented, and half-hummed a line from an old song we used to sing in the car: “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”
Rob bristled a little. “There’s some truth there, but you know that’s not why we won’t go over it.”
“Why then, Grandpa?”
Rob and I exchanged looks. We had talked about this before. How could we dazzle them with tales of luxury and secure living beyond their wildest hopes? How could we admit that…except now felt like the time to tell the story, before we moved inland for the winter storms. Perhaps it would be the last time we’d all make it together back to the lodge.
“What else did your history teacher say, Caris?” I asked.
“Um, she said that everything was a lot more connected and organised, and computers led to an age of information. But at the same time, people ignored all the warnings. Is it true, Grandma? Did people really know about the breakdown before it even happened?”
Everyone in the room paused, even Lennon, who was only six but wise enough to grasp the question. I answered.
“Yes, they did. We did. Well, we did and we didn’t. Things were clearly changing, but they also stayed the same and there was a lot of confusion.”
“There were a lot of folks intentionally confusing people too,” said Rob, and I could see his old anger rising up. Well, let him let it out.
“How do you mean?” asked Lennon.
“You can’t believe it, but there were people with a lot of money and power who wanted to carry on just as they were, selling their gas, running their airlines, and to hell with the consequences. So they deliberately confused the public: they’d query the science, skew statistics, put out fake facts…and instead of standing up to them and pointing out their private financial interests, the journalists kept inviting them onto the TV to give their case!”
He was pacing by now.
“Of course, some of these folks were actually in Government! There were politicians with big money in fossil fuels, so they strongly opposed renewable energy and gave the push for fracking.”
Caris’ eyes widened.
“You mean, the GOVERNMENT knew and they covered it up?”
“They didn’t need to cover it up,” I replied. “They just distracted us. Everyone knew. We learned about it at school. Every year there’d be a new report about record temperatures, rising sea levels. People didn’t put two and two together. There they were, rock stars raising money for an Ethiopian famine, not seeing that this was all part of climate breakdown, and one-in-a-hundred-year disasters would become one-in-every-ten, one-in-three…”
I broke off. The news footage started replaying back in my mind. The 2023 drought across East Africa. Images of emaciated mothers choosing which child to feed. The 2026 floods in South Asia. The third European heatwave. A succession of hurricanes battering central America while wildfires swept across Australia. One crisis appeal after another. The fall of Mont Blanc in 2031, which finally made Western governments sit up and take action, but by then the permafrost was melting, releasing vast quantities of methane, and it was too little, too late. The global food shortages, then climate refugees, firstly from Africa, then Spain, Greece, Italy. Boatload upon boatload. The riots, the protests, the collapse…
Lennon had sat on Ethan’s lap. “If everyone knew, why did no one do anything? Couldn’t people have stopped it?”
“It wasn’t that no one did anything,” said Rob. “Some went to prison for speaking up. Some Governments tried hard to change things. They were fighting a huge wave though. It’s not like our leaders now, who take decisions for the good of everyone, even if it’s unpopular. Lots of leaders back then just did what they thought the people – and the media – wanted. They didn’t splash out on public transport or a nationwide insulation programme, because it wouldn’t go down well. They didn’t dare tax our petrol. They could’ve had the balls to change things, and they didn’t.”
“But if everyone had gone on the streets and protested, like the big demo in 2040, they’d have had to listen, wouldn’t they? Why didn’t the people just rise up?”
Ethan chipped in.
“Some did – I remember our friends at school going on a march. But most people didn’t seem that bothered. Politicians would rarely be asked about climate change when they went out canvassing or appeared on TV. It’s as though the threat wasn’t immediate enough, rather like the image of a frog slowly boiling in a pan of water. And the American film was right – it was so inconvenient. It was the age of consumerism and convenience, and most people didn’t want to let go of even a tiny bit of that. I guess, deep down, they hoped it wasn’t as bad as the scientists said.”
Rob nodded. “I used to hear some folks say, ‘There’s no point me changing my life, because the governments can’t sort themselves out and China is building a new power station every month.’ They were right, in a way. We did all feel sort of helpless.”
“It’s crazy”, I said, “when you think about it. We had the highest rate of education in world history, greatest access to information, such a spread of wealth and resources, and the clearest evidence of the coming future possible. I mean, it wasn’t even the future – it was already happening in front of our eyes. And we could have transitioned quite painlessly into a greener way of doing things and probably been happier for it. But we failed. We hoped technology would magically suck all the carbon out without us lifting a finger, or we pointed at China and kept our own feet on the pedal, or we looked at Africa and the Maldives and thought, “it’s OK, I don’t live there.” In one way or another, the world allowed it to happen. It didn’t have to be like this.”
Caris lifted her head from my lap and looked up at us, her eyes sad.
“And what about you, Granny and Grandpa? What did you do?”