Daddy, could we have our planet back now?

A Father’s Day essay on the world we’re leaving our children

On the one hand, should I be blogging on Father’s Day? On the other hand, what more important day is there to blog on climate change than Father’s Day? So as a compromise, I’m doing some cross-posts and reposts.Last year, Salon published my Father’s Day essay. It was a sequel of sorts to “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?” Sadly, it needs to be updated since, of course, we didn’t pass a climate bill and thus took a quantum leap closer to leaving our children a ruined climate.

As parents, we constantly admonish our children to share with others. The joke is that as adults, we hardly like to share anything at all. Who likes to lend out their car? Or their tools or books? We’re so worried they won’t come back in the same condition — or won’t be returned at all.

But the truth is that the people we like to share the least with are our own children. “We do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children,” the saying goes. Right now, though, we’ve borrowed the entire Earth, trashed much of it, and don’t plan to give back the rest of it.

We are plundering the world’s “renewable resources” — arable land and tropical forests and fisheries and fresh water. And we are using an ever-greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources, especially hydrocarbons, with devastating consequences.


As one example, our carbon pollution is acidifying all of the oceans simultaneously, while heating them up to record levels, threatening mass extinction of aquatic life. Australian marine science professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the lead author of a major study on acidification, says the result is that “we are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail.” He adds: “It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day” — except, of course, the smoke comes from our addiction to fossil fuels, not the Earth’s. (Sew Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred).

The website RealClimate points out that the amount of dangerous carbon dioxide we spew into the air each day from burning fossil fuels and deforestation is roughly equivalent to “five thousand spills like in the Gulf of Mexico, all going at once … every day for decades and centuries on end.”

And if we listen much longer to those anti-science disinformers who have been counseling inaction, we won’t just be trashing the climate for our children — we will be destroying a livable climate for countless future generations. A 2009 study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that “the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.” What kind of changes? Well, besides destroying the oceans, the study warns of “irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the ‘dust bowl’ era and inexorable sea level rise.”

The dust bowl that will hit the American Southwest and a half-dozen other heavily populated regions around the Earth will likely last far, far longer than the one that devastated the Great Plains in the 1930s (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path). And the sea level rise could hit 4 to 6 feet by century’s end and then continue rising a foot or more a decade, until all the land-based ice on the planet is gone and seas are more than 200 feet higher Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100). How will our children’s children and their descendants adapt to that?

Conservatives have demagogued even the most moderate, business-friendly proposal to put a price on carbon, falsely labeling it and “energy tax.” President Obama has never given a single major speech to the American public on the greatest threat we face — the threat posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, the urgent need to make polluters pay for emitting carbon dioxide. He failed to press hard for the passage of a Senate bill As a result, the prospects have dimmed for serious climate legislation for the foreseeable future (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2”).


To refuse to place a price on carbon dioxide pollution is to ignore the damage your actions today will inevitably have on the health and well-being of your children and everyone else’s children. Something to think about on Father’s Day.

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Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Jorn Bettin

Thanks, very well written. Apparently this message can’t be repeated often enough. It’s overdue for everyone on this planet to take practical steps to reduce the debt we leave our children.

June 19 at 10:26amRichard Pauli

Thanks Joe.

Hey kids, we know that we subsidize carbon wealth at the expense of damaging the future. We just don’t know how to stop. Sorry. You may have to help.

June 19 at 11:11amMike Roddy

Good one, Joe. The fossil fuel and banking interests that fight to protect their fortunes may see their own children experience privation, too. If climate change rages out of control, money and big houses won’t save them from social and environmental disintegration.

I think the deniers and those who pay them are often greed crazed psychopaths.

June 19 at 11:17amSteven Earl Salmony

Our generation of leading elders can do better than we are doing now. That is for sure.

June 19 at 1:21pm


We may be leaving our children Venus, not just a somewhat warmer Earth. It’s actually looking very, very bad. If appreciable amounts of methane are released, according to numerous authorities including Isaksen, this will set off a cascade of atmospheric chemistry reactions which will amplify heating still further. This cascade would result in ozone, stratospheric water vapor, increased methane lifetime, and CO2 which produce radiative forcing several times as large as the forcing from methane at its current lifetime.And each bit of radiative forcing, from any source, including CO2, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, and CFC’s will be more than matched by the water vapor feedback.


This is the most horrifying scientific paper I have read in my life- and Isaksen does not even mention the very strong water vapor and cloud feedback to forcing from any source:


Isaksen — Strong atmospheric chemistry feedback to climate warming from Arctic methane emissions.

June 19 at 12:07pm


At the end of James Hansen’s book Storms of my Grandchildren he speculates on an Earth 500 years from now with a runaway greenhouse effect like Venus and surface temperatures approaching 100 degrees Celsius.

June 19 at 1:02pm


Yes, I need to read Storms of my Grandchildren. I’ve been doing a bit of amateur math, projecting Isaksen’s curves from his Table 2 into higher methane concentrations, then adding in CO2 from fossil fuels and the water vapor feedback. At 150 ppm methane and 1500 ppm CO2, I get numbers approaching 70 W/m2 of forcing- plausibly high enough to tip the planet into true runaway heating.

The highest methane concentration Isaksen considers directly is 23 ppm (13x current values), and he does not consider the water vapor feedback. But methane lifetime would increase due to degradation of hydroxyl radical levels, so after a threshold it passed, 150 ppm methane from the hydrates escaping the oceans is all too likely, I think.

Even the shape of the absorption bands suggests to me that true runaway warming is possible.Water vapor bands have long tails on them, which could rise like curtains as water vapor concentration increases, shutting the door on outgoing infrared radiation.

At some point, as the sun increases in brightness, the earth will likely undergo a runaway greenhouse effect. But which point, and how soon?

June 20 at 10:29am


Skeptics will ask why this runaway has not happened yet. Perhaps the anthropic principle is at work here. If a runaway had occurred in the past, we would not be here to ask that question.

June 20 at 10:38am

Paul Magnus

perhaps the runaway is happening only like the recession its easier to recognize in hindsight… only I dont know if you can do that in this case at 70W/m2….

June 20 at 4:11pm

Kent Burnside

“We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”

June 19 at 1:51pmSailesh Rao

We can give you your planet back, but we just can’t help pretending to be top predators, eating animals, birds and fishes until they are all gone. Even those of us who ought to know better, just can’t resist the taste. We were brought up to be caterpillars, and we intend to die as caterpillars. Sorry, kids…

June 19 at 2:29pmAndy Hultgren

Good article Joe. Thanks for your work, and happy Father’s Day.

June 19 at 3:42pmHarvey Summers

And today, in the Richmond Times Dispatch, some ignorant citizen rants on the op ed page that climate change isn’t real because CO2 is such a small part of our atmosphere. Stunning in its ignorance, made only more sad because of the paper’s complete disregard for facts as a total tool for the GOP.

June 19 at 4:47pmRichard Brenne

Where does the Times Dispatch stand on slavery?

June 20 at 12:39am

Harvey Summers

Same as the GOP: pro

June 20 at 7:11am

Shirley Sandys

Send to all you know. Shirley

June 19 at 4:50pmLeif Erik Knutsen

On this Father’s Day, take a moment to write to the President and plead for viable future for our children and Earth’s Life Support Systems…

June 19 at 8:10pmTenney Naumer

Happy Fathers Day to all fathers!

June 19 at 9:13pmMelissa Neighbour

Underneath all the layers… deep down inside… what really DRIVES me is for my children to be born into a world just as beautiful (with all our amazing species) and with as many resources as I was LUCKY enough to see and have. That is WHY I do what I do. At the very least I will be able to look them with smiling eyes and say I did everything I could.

June 19 at 9:57pm


Whoa, stop the presses, you are now averaging a dozen instead of eleven comments per essay, each day.

Rejoice tender comrades…and Melissa below especially, and I mean that sweetie, since your heart is in the right place, as are your other features, below that crucial element known in others as a brain…but we needn’t anymore look to our parents for guidance. The State is now Daddy:

June 20 at 2:55amTerry Gallagher

Had a great Father’s day yesterday surrounded by my children and their children. Amidst that joy, It gives me pause to consider that “We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children”. Wonder what they will think of us when we return it?

June 20 at 8:04amPaul Magnus

? President Obama has never given a single major speech to the American public on the greatest threat we face — the threat posed by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions”.

Considering this I am not sure what Obama is…. any ideas?

June 20 at 4:14pmClimate Hawk

Yet another first rate piece by Joe Romm.

June 21 at 7:53pm