Without warning, and still recovering from their physical torment, the Ejected were catapulted in different directions. Keith watched with amusement as others’ arms and legs flailed, and they all made the exact same ridiculous, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, terrified expression. He thought it was funny until he was catapulted, too. He found himself not only flailing, wide-eyed, and open-mouthed but screaming as well.
Some people were catapulted in groups, but Keith was alone with his Defender of the Future. The Defender was too angry to introduce himself or try to make small talk. Keith felt there was something familiar about his Defender but didn’t know why.
What Keith didn’t know was that his Defender had been observing him throughout his entire life. Because of this long history, the Defender knew Keith was capable of selflessness that served the greater good. But during the last decade, when given a choice, the Defender watched Keith make self-serving choices over and over. The Defender had lost patience with Keith. He’d decided it was time for a little tough love.
The Defender looked straight ahead, struggling to concisely explain decades of injustice. He feared being long winded would allow Keith to tune out. Finally, the Defender began to speak in a direct and even tone. He turned to Keith and stared him straight in the eyes so it was impossible for Keith to look away. “Twenty-five fossil fuel producers are responsible for half of the global emissions in the past three decades,” the Defender explained, “and one hundred oil, coal, and gas companies are linked to seventy-one percent of emissions since 1988.”4
“Half? Seventy-one percent?” echoed Keith. He knew fossil fuels were responsible for emissions, but he actually hadn’t realized it was that much. Keith was learning not to argue with the Defenders, so he just looked down at his feet. He was having a hard time processing what this meant and the destruction that he was a part of.
“You lobbied for nearly all of these fossil fuel companies. It’s your job to prevent further destruction now. Years ago, Georgina Gustin laid it all out in the Carbon Disclosure Project that traced the greenhouse gas emissions. More was emitted over the last three decades than during all of the previous two centuries. To be more specific, fossil fuel producers contributed 833 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in the last twenty-eight years, compared with the 820 gigatons total that was produced during the previous 237 years.5
Wow. That’s about ten times faster than the natural rate, thought Keith before sheepishly asking, “What did you mean by carbon dioxide equivalent?”
The guide answered, “There are many types of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide makes up the largest portion, and is the most talked about, but other gases—like methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and chlorine and fluorine-containing solvents and refrigerants play a role, too. Gases like nitrous oxide are less common but about 300 times more damaging. In order to compare these gases, we need to compare apples to apples, so we use a math formula to do that to make them equal. So, if the greenhouse gas that we’re talking about isn’t actually carbon dioxide, but is lesser-talked-about methane or something, we say carbon equivalent.”
Keith nodded, and the unnamed Defender stated flatly, “You knew lobbying for fossil fuels wasn’t right, but you did it anyway. You justified your actions by saying, ‘If I don’t do this, someone else will.’ Now you need to know the consequences of your actions.”
Bewildered, Keith asked, “How do you know so much about me? What is your name?”
“My name is Salomon Asger Vester the third and I knew you before you were born. I knew your mother too,” replied the Defender, hoping Keith would make the connection.
“Salomon Asger Vester?” Keith whispered, “From West Denmark?”
“You’re my grandpa?” said Keith slowly with disbelief.
Again, Salomon nodded.
“But you’re young! Mom said you lived to be 81,” exclaimed Keith.
“Age is irrelevant in the realm, son. I chose my favorite age when I arrived here,” said his grandpa.
While Keith’s head spun, his legs crumpled beneath him. The arguments he had been formulating about how developing countries were to blame evaporated. He was talking to his grandpa! Although he had never met this man before, his mom spoke of his honesty and character every day of her life. He was a legend and known for his kindness. Everyone in town who knew Keith’s grandpa had heart-warming stories to share about his integrity, helpfulness, and humility.
As Keith stood before his grandpa, he felt ashamed that he had made a living as a lobbyist by mastering the blame game—pointing fingers, and making baseless accusations to purposefully muddy the waters and cast doubt on indisputable facts. Keith’s voice was his power, but he found himself speechless.
Keith suddenly floated above a flooded village. Although he couldn’t tell exactly what had happened, he could see that the people in the village were utterly destitute. Every house was submerged underwater, and the stench of sewage stuck to the back of his throat and made him gag. The town square was empty. People looked hungry, and their eyes were downcast. The only sounds were from children running and playing despite the filth and destruction that surrounded them.
Salomon explained, “What you’re looking at here are the latest climate refugees. These ‘natural’ disasters are a result of our world’s changing climate. With an overall warmer world, we have more evaporation, resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere. This excess moisture makes for a very turbulent atmosphere that is ripe for unstable weather patterns, like supercell hurricanes and tornadoes. The sea level is also rising as the ice caps are melting. The ocean salinity is changing, which is changing the fish populations, and people are losing the fish they depend on to eat. Simultaneously, their crops are being washed away.
“So, they have to move,” Keith acknowledged. “You know that moving isn’t the end of the world.” Keith wanted to add “Grandpa” at the end of that statement but didn’t. Even though this man was kin, he could tell Salomon meant to hold him at a distance.
“Sure, a move within your own country might not seem like a big deal, but consider the fact that skills such as herding, fishing, and farming are not going to be useful in urban areas. So, once these people move, work will be hard to find. These good people are also losing their social networks—their friends and family, their identities, and their culture,” explained Salomon.
“OK,” Keith conceded, “I see we have some refugees. But how many, really? How big of a problem could this possibly be?”
“Try about twenty-five million. And the number of climate refugees is expected to double over the next five years. It’s predicted that as many as one billion people will be displaced by climate change over the next forty years. In fact, the United Nations estimates that more people are displaced due to climate change than war.”6
“Wow. That’s a lot. At least it’s not killing people, though,” said Keith attempting to make the situation not seem so dire.
“Ha! Climate change is absolutely already killing people!” hollered Salomon, “Air pollution alone kills seven million people each year. That accounts for one in eight deaths.7 And when you factor in secondary problems caused by climate change—like heat stress, malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, vector-related illnesses, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding—you could say there are lives being lost due to climate change. So just stop making excuses for your inaction.”
Again, Keith wanted desperately to defend himself to alleviate his guilt. He also wanted to un-see those skinny, sickly bodies and all the poverty he’d witnessed. He closed his eyes to block the awful scene and kept them squeezed shut until Salomon told him sternly to open them. He reluctantly reopened his eyes to find that he was in a wetland, thick with mosquitoes. He swatted and ran in a pointless attempt to outrun the swarm.
“Increased rainfall and rising global temperatures are expanding the habitat and the breeding season of mosquitoes, exposing more people to diseases like dengue, chikungunya, Zika, Nipah, and Q fever,” said Salomon unfazed by the swarming mosquitoes. “These conditions also breed vector-borne diseases caused by parasites, viruses, and bacteria transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas.”
Keith jumped and wildly swung his arms in a futile attempt to escape the high-pitched buzz of the mosquitoes that voraciously bit him through his clothes.
“Climate change also opens the door to communicable diseases, Keith. As human-caused climate change has taken hold over the last several decades, dozens of new infectious diseases have emerged or begun to threaten new regions, including Zika and Ebola. Cholera is also becoming more difficult to control because the warm, brackish waters and rising sea levels help spread the disease. Cholera infects about four million people each year and kills about 100,000 of them.”8
The Defender paused before continuing, “Ever heard of the bubonic plague?
“Of course, spread by rats and fleas during the Middle Ages. We kicked that disease eons ago though,” Keith replied.
“Well, it wasn’t actually eradicated; it was just controlled, so it became less common. And now it’s increasing thanks to warmer springs and wetter summers, Keith.”
Keith was again speechless, and the words bubonic plague tumbled around in his brain.
“Now let’s talk about deadly bacteria called anthrax,” said the Defender. “The anthrax spores are released from soil by thawing permafrost and seem to be spreading farther as a result of stronger winds.”9
Keith thought about these huge numbers compared with the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was caused by the novel coronavirus. When the global death toll hit 20,000 people in the middle of March 2020,10 global activity had come to a near screeching halt, as people around the globe quarantined. Climate change is already causing substantial death tolls, yet there is virtually no response.
“That’s right,” the guide said, responding to Keith’s thoughts. It freaked Keith out that his thoughts were no longer private.
Salomon explained, “People aren’t acting collectively on climate change, although it’s changing everything. It is the basis of most of the disturbances that have been hitting the news. People see the tragedies as unrelated and keep putting Band-Aids on the consequences. Climate change needs to be addressed from every angle. Just as people chipped in to do their part with stopping COVID-19, so must humanity come together to halt the climate crisis. And it’s your job to stop the bleeding.”
Keith was holding his breath, trying to find calmness in the swarm of mosquitoes. It seemed to work! He no longer heard the insanity-producing, shrill whine of the mosquitoes.
He opened his eyes to realize that he didn’t hear the mosquitoes because he was no longer in the wetland. He saw the world off in the distance looking like a beautiful, blue marble just like he had when he’d first arrived with the Ejected. Judging from the size of the Earth, he decided he must be in the mesosphere. An overwhelming sense of peace relaxed his body. He felt serene and connected to the universe, with no pain or discomfort. Warmth and positivity surged through him. This was the best feeling he’d ever experienced. Euphoric. Clear-headed. Dark, but utterly peaceful, he acknowledged his state and wanted to exist in it forever.
Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last, and the smell of smoke overwhelmed him. He was on land again, but this time in a dry landscape. He turned in circles to find fires surrounding him in every direction. The heat was unbearable. He wanted to run, but there was no way out. As the fires came closer, the smell of burning flesh overtook him, and he threw up. The smoke choked him. He gasped as he prayed for air. The smoke stung his eyes, and he curled up in a little ball with his shirt and arms over his head. He knew he was powerless, and again he surrendered to the world.
With what he thought was his last breath, he was compelled to open his eyes. He was shocked to see that there were no longer fires surrounding him. Now his only thought was water. He needed water. His tongue was swollen. He looked down to see that his body looked like the skin and bones of a concentration camp prisoner. He held his bleeding nose as he staggered around in search of water.
“You are currently experiencing the effects of wildfires, dehydration, and famine caused by drought,” said Salomon, obviously upset to see another being—especially his own grandson—in such a miserable state. But he had tried for decades to teach Keith from afar and point out the moral path, but Keith was stubborn and didn’t seem to learn lessons. Salomon firmly believed there was a place for corporal punishment to make a lesson stick.
Keith couldn’t verbally respond, so he slowly shook his head. As soon as Keith surrendered to the situation, he was ejected to hover above a mountain top. This time, Keith was too weak to even flail.
Keith looked down and saw glaciers! Oh, blessed, beautiful sight! The air was crisp and fresh. But terror replaced his elation as the glaciers avalanched down, crashing into the sea. Everywhere he looked, the glaciers slid away. He gasped and was catapulted to an Arctic region where he watched a bony polar bear swim to an ice floe and struggle to pull itself up on top of it. The starving bear looked around with no prospects of food in sight. He could feel that bear’s exhaustion, and he had an incredible urge to lie down. He would do anything to sleep. To drink. To get the smell of burning flesh out of his nose, and to have his eyes stop stinging.
That, of course, didn’t happen. Instead, he was ejected back into the mesosphere again, where he could see the lower 48 states before him like a map. A clock ticked under his view that showed the passage of years. The clock started in 2020 and went to 2100, then started over. He examined the regions one by one, starting from the top left as if he were reading a book.
In the Northwest region, he saw reduced water supplies, the sea level rise, and increased ocean acidification that limited fishing and aquaculture. There was not enough food, and he saw signs of massive malnutrition. Erosion, caused by the flooding, threatened the utility lines and he could see that power was unreliable as the light from cities flickered on and off. Wildfires that ravished the area were followed by insect outbreaks and tree diseases, causing widespread tree die-off.11
In the Midwest, where he lived when he wasn’t lobbying in Washington, D.C., he witnessed extreme heat, followed by torrential downpours and flooding, which devastated agriculture and caused widespread hunger. The rich, precious topsoil created by the prairies that once covered the region, slipped away into rivers. The sediment found its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it choked out the aquatic life there. The Great Lakes were largely evaporated and choked with invasive species. The flooding disrupted transportation and cell towers.12
Tears streamed down his face as he looked toward the Northeast, where he saw more heatwaves, followed by further heavy downpours and even higher sea levels. He witnessed towns slipping into the ocean; and infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems collapse.13
Hoping for a positive scene, he looked toward the majestic Southwest, only to see the bleakness extend: intolerable heat, drought, dwindling water supplies, insect outbreaks, and wildfires.14
He couldn’t stand another minute of this. He would do anything to make this all stop. Just please make this all stop, he thought over and over. Please, please, please, please.
Against his will, the tour continued, and he saw the Southeast’s sea level rise so much that it destroyed the region’s fishing economy and swallowed up homes and businesses at a breakneck pace. The extreme heat devastated the people’s ability to work, and the lack of clean freshwater made survival in this region difficult.15
“Make it stop!” yelled Keith as he threw himself down on the ground and wept. “Just make it stop. I can’t take this anymore! How can I make this stop?”