Dear Miss Isabel* :
This is a letter from another grandfather, to mark my appreciation of your work on Friday to help your own, Secretary of State John Kerry, sign the Paris Climate Agreement on behalf of the United States. Photos of you both have been seized on and circulated by the world’s media, with little thought for their deeper meaning.
Normally young children are entitled to privacy and discretion from strangers. However, your grandfather chose to put you for a short but important moment on a very public stage, with the world watching. I therefore feel entitled to write to you, and hope that your family will keep this open letter (published on my group blog) along with other mementos of the day, for you and perhaps your own children to look at in the years to come. Sadly, you will be unlikely to retain any direct recollection, and the public record must serve as your memory.
Your function was a very important one. You represented and symbolized a billion children all over the world, including my own grandchildren Cassie, Alice and Jayson. It is the quality of all your lives that is under grave threat from global warming. The Paris Agreement, which your grandfather did much to bring about, is the last great hope of mobilizing the general will to stop – and ultimately reverse – it. By the time you read this letter, if you ever do, we will know whether this was enough. Perhaps it won’t be.
But all each of us is ever asked to do is simply what we can. You did your part on Friday: in fact you nailed it. This was not just being cute and photogenic. Very many toddlers can do this, when not complaining about the many injustices of life. What you did show, and this is much less common, is concentration on the work your grandfather was doing, not playing to the cameras. You were I think overawed, and quite right too. This was no ordinary occasion.
Some will say that you were not a fair representative because of your background of privilege. You family is much wealthier than that of most Americans, let alone most citizens of the world. You will probably never have to worry where your next meal or rental payment or tuition fee is coming from. You will be free to quit any job that does not satisfy you. Virginia Woolf wrote in the 1920s, “freedom is £200 a year and a room with a lock on the door”. That freedom you will always have, unlike most.
Wealth does not ensure happiness. I am suspicious of the moralising trope that wealth emasculates the drive for fulfilling work and the esteem of peers, and encourages a life of idle hedonism. Your own family are counterexamples. When the children of celebrities go off the rails, there are more likely to be photographers at hand. Still, the challenges are genuine. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich”, has to undergo a painful sentimental education before she finds her true path. However, that prospect also holds for Cassie, Alice and Jayson too, minus the “rich” part, and does not draw a sharp dividing line between them and you.
One other thing that family wealth cannot give you is the public good of a rich and healthy environment. In that respect, you are in the same boat as my grandchildren – the only Ark we have, the world itself. The climate is either safe for all, or dangerous for all. That was the reason your grandfather took you with him to the podium of the United Nations, to remind us of the fundamental reason why we must all act, now: you, and those you stand for.
Thank you for being there.
April 24 2016
* Or is it Isabelle? The media can’t agree.