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It's hard to talk about climate change. This storytelling project wants to make it easier.

Jennifer Crosslin with a letter she wrote to her daughters as part of the Dear Tomorrow project.
Jennifer Crosslin with a letter she wrote to her daughters as part of the Dear Tomorrow project.
Jill Kubit

With July as the hottest month on record, climate change just keeps getting more real.

And yet surveys show that Americans still have disparate opinions about it. In 2015, Vox's David Roberts broke down data from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which has surveyed the American climate opinion since 2007.

Here's how he summarized it: "Americans don't understand climate change very well, but they see it as a long-term threat and support policies to address it — just not the policies wonks want them to support."

Most Americans believe climate change will harm future generations. (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication)

If people are aware of climate change, why do so many seem to ignore discussions about the future? And how do you engage people in the conversation? That's what DearTomorrow, an online project founded in 2014, is tackling.

Co-founders Trisha Shrum and Jill Kubit are asking people to create messages, photos, and videos to be opened in the years 2030 and 2050. The idea came about after Shrum heard a speech by Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Figueres said she had a dream where children look at her and ask, "You knew about climate change. What did you do?"

After Shrum heard the speech, she wrote a letter to her daughter responding to that question, and then reached out to her fellow students at the Harvard Kennedy School (she graduated in May 2016) to start a campaign.

We reached out to Kubit, DearTomorrow's co-founder, to hear more about the organization's storytelling project, which has collected 201 letters and 83 more photo submissions so far. It also recently was honored with the Judge's Choice Award in MIT's Climate CoLab Shifting Behavior contest. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lauren Katz: This project is so unique. What's the idea behind asking people to write letters to younger generations in the future?

Jill Kubit: The main focus right now is on writing letters to our own children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, or other people in our lives that are really young. The purpose is to write them now in order for us to document what we're doing, and how we're thinking about climate change. Those messages are going to be received in the future to our children when they're grown. There's also a photography project, and we're starting to move into videos.

(DearTomorrow)

We think that by getting people to thinking about climate change in the context of someone they actually care deeply about — their own children, their grandchildren, students of theirs, nieces or nephews — it changes the way people think about the issue of climate change. It makes it much more relevant to them.

The project comes out of my own experience of working in this field, and also becoming a mother. My own thinking about climate has changed because I'm a mother.

LK: How so?

JK: When people talk about climate change, it seems very far away and distant into the future. People talk about making a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and they say something like, "By the year 2050, we cannot use fossil fuel," and the year 2050 as a number still seems like a really far distance. But when you have a child and you start to think about how old they will be in that year ... it changes how I think about time.

LK: That makes a lot of sense. You've also spent 10 years at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations working to engage the US labor movement on climate change. How does the work you've done shape how you approach this project?

JK: My previous work has been thinking about climate change through the lens of the policies that need to be implemented and how that is going to impact people, communities, and workplaces. So I've always had this sense that climate change is not about open fields or preserving the wilderness. It's not about polar bears. It's about how the environmental changes that we're making will impact people.

I think being a parent makes me personally more motivated to do this work because everything I know about climate change and all the transitions we need to make toward renewable energy, I'm thinking about it in a way that impacts me in a personal way. I have a 3-year-old son, and I'm thinking about what I want his world to look like as he's growing up. I can kind of parallel the transition that's needed with the way I would like his life to develop and unfold.

LK: People can send messages via letters, photos, and videos. And they're not all parents or people with children in their lives – some letters are written to future children. Is there one letter that stands out as particularly moving?

JK: Currently, my favorite letter is written by a woman who is a field organizer and does environmental work in Tennessee. She wrote a beautiful letter to her daughter. She starts from a place of talking about her love of nature, and then she goes on and talks about the threat of climate change. (Read the letter here.) I found her letter very personally moving and very inspirational.

A section of a DearTomorrow letter.

LK: The plan is to save the messages and make them available again for future generations in the year 2030 and 2050. What's your archiving plan?

JK: The archive is a work in progress. Right now, the plan is to keep the project open [until] 2020. We see this as the most important period of time in engaging people on climate, and it's really important that we start to shift our policies so that we can move toward renewable energy.

All the letters will be available during this time period. Then the plan is to, at some point, take the letters down and to relaunch them in the year 2030 and 2050. We're currently working with a professional archivist whose job is to transition this data of the period of time. We know the technology is going to change over this period of time. Her job is to figure out how to transition year to year, so we'll have the data available to people in 2030 and 2050.

We're currently looking for a major institution to partner on the project that would house the long-term collection, so that our own children and future generations would be able to view the letters.

LK: What do you hope the recipients will gain from reading these letters in the future?

JK: I hope that in 2050, when people see the letters, they'll be able to look back on this period of time and see how people thought about climate change and how that thinking changed during this important period of time. We think that could be a very powerful thing, for people to look back and say, "Wow, there were a lot of people who fought for us to make a transition to renewable energy."

Maxime Zucca, France. (Trisha Shrum)

In my vision of the world, in that period of time people would be able to look back on today and say, "What was it like to live with fossil fuels? What was it like to live through this massive transformation?"

When I think about the conversation I have with my own son in 2050, I don't want say to him, "I'm sorry, we tried." I want him to ask me questions like, "What role did you play in this transformation? And what did the world look like before?"

LK: It's great that you're laying the groundwork for a future history lesson.

JK: I hope the history lesson is a positive one. I have a lot of faith in people, and I have a real sense in the power of individuals and the power of the collective. I believe that people will come together and make this transformation happen. What I love about the project, maybe more than anything, is that I'm constantly struck by how much people care about this issue, and how much emotion comes through their letters. Like me, they're able to connect the love they have for their kids with the passion they have for this issue.

LK: There are plenty of opportunities for motivated people to take action online or volunteer in person. How will contributing to your project have an impact in addressing climate change?

JK: The project is unique because it allows people to reflect on their thinking. We know the project has the potential to get people thinking about climate change on a deeper level.

It's also an opportunity for people to share what they're doing with their friends and family. The environmental movement sometimes is an echo chamber, but we're not talking about climate change to our friends and family. One of the most powerful parts of the project is when people write in and ask them to share through their social networks. The project provides an opening for people to talk to each other about climate change beyond those who are already committed.

You can send your own DearTomorrow message here.


Watch: What people get wrong about climate change


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