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Our Possible Futures

Maria’s Two Worlds: Light and Dark Climate Futures

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Ahem! A note from Good Energy: What follows is an immersive taste of what our lives and world could look like in the future, from the minds of a writer and science consultant for (among others) Marvel, and a leading scientist from NASA who, in our humble opinion, is the closest real-life scientist to the characters in Don’t Look Up.

Either of the following two scenarios could be our future. The first is what we’re looking at if we act now, curb our emissions, and attempt to stay below 1.5°C (2.7°F) of warming. The second is the projection if we continue with business as usual and see a 3°C+ (5.4°F+) increase.

Click the "Rise" or "Collapse" buttons to see either vision of the future.

The bones of these two worlds are based on consensus science from the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Of course, there are as many possible futures as there are writers to imagine them! Where might your characters end up in these scenarios?

Prologue

Maria Luna is born once, but lives twice.

On July 9, 2025, at 5:04 a.m., in Los Angeles, California, a nurse hands her to her father, Raul Luna, who holds her close while the doctor stitches up her mother Estrella’s belly. “Welcome to the world, nenita,” Raul says, before handing her over to her mother.

From there, Maria Luna’s life splits into two radically different realities. Both of the worlds she grows up in respond late to the climate crisis, but one of them ultimately rises to the challenge, while the other continues with business as usual, increasing the burning of fossil fuels and fear-based, hyped-up resource consumption, leading to a collapse of the social order. We’ve labeled the diverging timelines of these two worlds “Rise” and “Collapse.” We’ll visit Maria in these timelines at ages 10, 30, and 50.

Collapse

2035

Historic heatwaves

On Maria’s tenth birthday, she rides the bus with her mother. Dust cakes both of their faces. Maria feels tired most of the time because her body rarely gets a chance to cool off. She’s constantly thirsty. Shifting wind patterns mean the day started with choking wildfire smoke, followed by a dust storm carried on Santa Ana winds. In summer, it seems like every thermostat is set somewhere between uncomfortably warm and sizzling.

The temperature outside is 115ºF (46ºC). The bus Maria and Estrella are riding is air-conditioned but packed with miserable, semiconscious people, and the temperature inside is just under 90ºF (32ºC). Maria can feel the sticky sweat under her clothes. Families like Maria’s take refuge in any public space with air-conditioning—libraries, grocery stores, even city buses.

A screen behind the bus driver blares headlines: Another historic heat wave sets West ablaze; Ground and surface water depleting; Hurricane Colleen makes landfall in New York as a Category 4. Even though she feels self-conscious—she’s getting too old for stuff like this—Maria takes her mother’s hand.

As they drive through the city, Maria strains her eyes to see the Hollywood sign, but the smoke coupled with the smog makes it impossible. Anything she can make out is covered in trash and a thick layer of dirt, as is most of Los Angeles.

The bus passes a gated and walled neighborhood. The community has a large bank of batteries surrounded by a hedge wall, as well as air filters for their HVAC systems. Only the wealthy people in this world have reliable access to both power and clean air.

Power outages

When Maria and Estrella arrive at a bowling alley called Fast Lanes Bowling & Brews, the power is out. Maria’s face falls. Estrella puts an arm around her. “I’m sorry, baby. I wish we could just do what we did on my tenth birthday—play outside.”

Maria shrugs, trying to hide her disappointment—she knows her mom has enough stress between the rolling blackouts and paying rent. She knows it used to be a little easier when her father was around, but he died working as a firefighter when she was four, and she doesn’t remember much from before then.

But as they turn to walk back to the bus stop, the lights flicker on. The business has a small generator and solar array—an essential part of serving customers in a world where power can’t be taken for granted. The generator and batteries aren’t enough to keep everything running, so while the lanes are lit, the AC is quiet and it’s stifling inside.

Disinformation campaigns

Estrella and Maria wait at the shoe counter, which is plastered with a bunch of bumper stickers that read, KEEP THE LIGHTS ON WITH CLEAN AMERICAN COAL.

Estrella averts her eyes, turns to her daughter: “Maria, here, take your shoes.” The duo make their way to lane three. A rowdy group of men in the next lane is doing more drinking than bowling as Maria sits down to fill out her scorecard. Political turmoil stoking their heat-rage and despair, the men start shouting, “Keep the lights ON! Let’s ROLL COAL!” They stare at Estrella and Maria, as if challenging them to argue.

After only one game, Estrella leads Maria out, anxious that things will turn violent. They pass a billboard that promises energy restrictions will end next summer.

In this timeline, there is considerable popular support for increasing coal power, even as temperatures rise. When the effects of the climate crisis accelerated in the 2020s, energy companies and the top carbon polluters hired PR firms to test messages that would help them undermine a growing climate advocacy movement. Their strategy followed a playbook laid out by tobacco companies and chemical polluters before them: take a grain of scientific truth and distort it with patriotic messaging.

As the transition to clean energy shuttered fossil fuel and nuclear plants, they blamed rolling blackouts on the “Green Bloc” and said the only way to get AC back on was to use America’s most abundant energy resource: coal. This campaign was carried out via mass media, paid social media influencers, and bot accounts “asking the questions no one else will.”

In most democracies in the West (Norway being one of the few holdouts), populists rose to power by promising to end the regulations and international agreements that had constrained the use of fossil fuels. On the first day of her new administration, the US president signed an executive order allowing unrestricted energy development.

Rise

2035

Heat waves and solidarity

On her birthday, Maria and her mother wake up at the public cooling center downtown where they spent the night. It’s clean and welcoming here—they don’t feel any stigma for using this public service. The weather is quite similar to the weather in the other timeline: the climate system takes time to respond to changes in emissions, and even though humanity has ended its reliance on the fossil fuel industry, the physical state of the Earth is much the same. The Western US is burning, air quality is bad, and the sun rises on an orange sky as the temperature hits 100ºF (38ºC) soon after dawn. Maria’s father died fighting wildfires in this timeline as well, but here they have the small comfort of government assistance offered to those who lost someone in the climate crisis.

Though climate disasters in this timeline are still terrifying, there is a palpable feeling of solidarity. There’s a different underlying emotion in this world; there’s hope in the air. Estrella wakes Maria with a smile and an offer of pancakes and ice cream. It’s hot, but it’s going to be a good day.

In the early 2020s, the global climate movement became so strong that political candidates with deep climate credentials started routinely winning office. In the US, conservative farmers were fed up with losing their farms to heat waves and floods, so they sparked a movement that resulted in most Republican climate deniers being voted out within four years. The cultural shift happened more suddenly than the older climate activists had ever dreamt possible. With a Congress largely unified on climate action, the fossil fuel industry was nationalized: its assets were seized on the basis of the decades of lies it had deliberately and systematically told.

Solar and wind power had been cheaper than fossil fuels since 2019, but the transition had been slowed by regulations and policies designed to protect fossil fuel interests, championed by politicians who received Big Oil donations (essentially bribes). With the ousting of these corrupt politicians, market forces were unleashed and the green-power revolution accelerated. The overall result was a societal shift into full climate-emergency mode.

No planes, no billionaires

As they walk to get pancakes, Estrella holds a sun umbrella over Maria’s head and tells her daughter about these fast changes. She asks Maria if she remembers the roar of airplanes overhead—it has been four years since they heard one. For a while, the flight ration was one round trip per person every two years. Eventually, the biofuels were seen as so precious that they were diverted to agriculture and other essential uses instead.

The elite pundits had complained bitterly about the flight rations and predicted all kinds of dire consequences, such as the death of tourism, an end to cosmopolitanism, and even full economic collapse. But in reality, people quickly adapted to traveling by high-speed trains and sailing ships. They planned longer, more immersive trips—and not just the wealthy. Maria can’t wait for her semester-long school sailing voyage that every sixth grader gets to go on. Adults who want to travel are also encouraged to take temporary green jobs overseas.

As they enter the diner, they pass a billboard that reads, KNOW YOUR UNION RIGHTS? By the 2030s there are no more billionaires—people would no longer stand for their massive carbon footprint. In 2026, the new Workers’ Party rose up, cutting across the traditional “left” and “right” as workers realized their real enemy was the 1 percent. Once the party got into power, it enacted wage limits and wealth taxes so that by 2035, wealth inequality is the lowest it’s been in 100 years—and Maria doesn’t have to suffer the way Estrella did. Now, strict new constitutional safeguards ensure that money from special interests stays completely out of politics, so government will continue to serve the people.

By the time Maria and Estrella finish their pancakes and leave the diner, the temperature has risen to 44ºC (111º F). Estrella tells Maria to breathe calmly. They both know too well how this kind of temperature makes you feel compressed, nauseous, like you somehow can’t breathe even though you know you’re breathing. It’s a panicky, out-of-body feeling like you’re no longer connected to the Earth. When they get back to the cooling center, there are smiling but focused Citizens’ Heat Brigade volunteers passing out water to overtaxed emergency workers and shepherding elderly residents into the cooling center. Estrella wipes the sweat from her brow and kisses Maria’s head, reminding her daughter that the scientists say this is as bad as it will get. It’s bad, but it will be better for Maria. Humanity had a very close call.

Collapse

2055

Corporate dystopia

Maria wakes on her thirtieth birthday, alone, in a windowless room. A feeling of emptiness fills her body as soon as her eyes open. She gets a ping on her retinal implant that her employer, Fabnest, has sent her 500 FabCoin for her birthday. Fabnest has grown into one of the largest corporations in the world and was the first to bring Enclaves to market.

An Enclave is a stadium-like structure with a roof that can open and close, based on weather and air quality. The multipurpose interior can be used as a park, sporting arena, concert venue, and event space, and around the perimeter there are high-rise condominiums, offices, retail spaces, and nightclubs. Corporations and developers created Enclaves in response to the deteriorating climate, and they allow the wealthy and ultra-wealthy to live comfortably despite the challenges outside their climate-controlled domes.

The Enclave where Maria works is built onto a leveled Topanga mountain near LA, offering views of the ocean but no risk of rising waters. The trees have been cleared, so there’s no fire risk. Like most workers in an Enclave, Maria lives underground. She is a customer service representative in Tenant Services. Her apartment is small and has mold, the only toilets are crowded and communal, she rarely sees the sun, and her work hours are long—but working in an Enclave means living in an Enclave, and that means cleaner air and consistent access to potable water.

As a corporate employee, Maria is paid in the company’s cryptocurrency, which carries the most value in company stores. In that way, she’s much like Enclave residents, who have to convert a significant portion of their own wealth into blockchain assets in exchange for the privilege of living in an Enclave. This allows corporations to have maximum control—but it’s better than living outside. AI-powered robot police that know “friend” from “foe” protect the perimeter of the Enclave with face-recognition programming.

3ºC (5.4ºF) of heating, and a water crisis

This world is nearly 3ºC (5.4ºF) above pre-industrial levels. Coastal cities all over the world experience frequent floods, and rainfall patterns are more extreme than ever. Cities and towns are battered alternately by severe droughts and then downpours that destroy roads and buildings with flash floods.

Maria’s mother and siblings still live in Los Angeles, and she agonizes over how to help them. They can’t afford to move, but they can barely afford to stay. They live in a state of constant anxiety over whether they will be able to afford water. They can’t budget for it because next year it might go up 20 percent. And even when they do get it, they fear it will be contaminated and make them ill.

As the snowpack vanished alongside Arctic ice, surface and groundwater supplies grew sparse in dry climates. In wet climates, frequent flooding continually flushes municipal sewage systems into drinking water. Droughts, flood erosion, and soil depletion have impacted food production, creating mass migrations. And rich nations, experiencing a shortage of resources for the first time, militarized their borders to keep people out. Ecofascism is spreading across the world.

Toxic air

Then there’s the air quality. As water shortages worsened, rich countries chose to use fossil fuels to power desalination plants. They knew additional pollution would create problems, but a lack of drinking water would be worse. Now, the combination of year-round wildfires and increased fossil fuel consumption has fouled the air all over the world. Maria’s younger brother (along with children everywhere) battles frequent and life-threatening asthma attacks. She sends as much canned air back to her family as she can afford. (Canned air consists of a mildly compressed, cleaner, more oxygenated air, providing 20–30 breaths per can. You take a drag of clean air, hold it in, and forcefully exhale to try to get crud out of your lungs.) But it’s not enough to ease her brother’s suffering. Chronic respiratory conditions have skyrocketed as corporations hike up the prices of filtered respirators and canned air.

Rise

2055

Climate stabilized

There was a heat wave just a week ago, but today is mild enough for Maria to have a birthday breakfast with her wife, Jillian, at a cafe on a tree-lined street. In fact, nearly every street in nearly every city is tree-lined, since trees are an inexpensive way to lower surface temperatures and minimize the impact of urban heat. As a result, there are fewer forests in the world than we have today, but more trees. Aside from trees, the streets are filled with pedestrians, cyclists, and electric trolleys. Few people drive anymore, and streets in the urban cores are closed to cars. Maria has a sense of optimism this morning as she opens a secondhand gift from Jillian: newly refurbished pruning shears, a nice upgrade. They feel perfectly balanced in her hand. Most tools are shared from the local tool library, so it’s a treat to have her own, and she knows she’ll lend these out. Maria smiles and kisses her beloved, who knows her so well.

The massive, global youth movements of the 2020s and 2030s produced meaningful policy change and held the world’s top polluters accountable, meaning that this world has heated 1.7ºC (3.1ºF) above pre-industrial levels, but the temperature rise has stopped.

The seas are still rising and will continue to rise for many centuries due to ice-sheet melt. The weather is a bit more extreme than it was in the 2030s: there are still fires, droughts, and floods, and coastal cities (many of which used to be miles from the coast) are regularly battered by storm surges and tidal flooding. But there is still a little ice left in the Arctic, and ocean acidification has stabilized.

The main climate impacts in Los Angeles are the heat waves and the fires. New water infrastructure has been designed to mitigate more frequent droughts, and the city has already absorbed the loss of Venice and other low-lying areas due to sea level rise. The managed relocation efforts for residents were mostly successful, and the Ruins of Venice have been left standing as a monument to what was lost. Beachgoers feel gratitude and humility as they explore the ruins.

Maria and Jillian leave the cafe arm-in-arm. Fruit and nut trees line the sidewalk, and rows of vegetable beds run along either side of the central bike path. The varieties, many of them newly developed, are chosen for their ability to survive the region’s most extreme heat waves, with shade cloths applied ahead of the forecasted extreme events.

Community resilience

The couple walks past a first-grade class tending a vegetable bed outside the row of shops; the laughter and chatter of the happy, dirty kids reaches them. Almost everyone participates in growing food; most people exchange fruits and vegetables with neighbors as a friendly part of daily life. Gardening is the national obsession, and growing food is a core part of elementary school curricula, along with interconnectedness. Being part of the web of life is no longer a fringe idea—it is now at the center of the collective consciousness.

As they reach the center of the neighborhood, the street widens into a park and festival space. The benches and tables are shaded by fruit trees and filled with people reading books, working on laptops, playing board games, or just sitting and enjoying the beautiful day. The typical workweek is only 21 hours long now, and perfect weather like this is not taken for granted. About once a month, this space hosts seasonal celebrations with music and dancing. Tonight, like every night, neighbors will gather here to share a communal meal—a big potluck that’s open to everyone who wants to join. Maria and Jillian will attend (as they do every Monday and Friday), gathering their closest friends at “their” table. There’s always abundant food, offered freely. There’s no concept of “freeloading.”

These days, single-family homes are rare. Maria and Jillian live in a modest multi-family home and have felt their community grow stronger with this change. New developments are universally medium or high density, and homes in the suburbs have either become multigenerational or had their lots split. Urban planners do everything in their power to prevent sprawl and to undo the planning from the prior era of development centered around personal automobile ownership. Most neighborhoods share energy battery backups and micro-grids.

The two most contentious issues in the country are immigration and national defense. A vocal minority of conservatives feel that the society should be closed off, and worry that other nations will attack. There is still military spending for this reason, but less than during the two-party era. International agreements to absorb climate migrants from the hottest regions of the Global South seem to be more or less working, for now.

Collapse

2075

Government and supply chain breakdown

Though Maria has a window, she seldom looks through it. This morning, though, on her fiftieth birthday, she looks out in the distance and sees a familiar sight: signs of violence erupting outside the Enclave. She sighs and gets out of bed to start her day. Her tireless work has paid off, and she’s the VP of Logistics for Fabnest SoCal, overseeing not just Enclave LA but every Enclave from Ventura down to San Diego. But her bird’s-eye view of supply chains feels more like a curse than a promotion. The world outside is going to hell.

Maria’s thoughts travel to her family living outside the Enclave, in a Hub. Despite her efforts to help, they are suffering. The working and middle classes have been relocated to these Hubs, which are cheap housing attached to factories, warehouses, and the other facilities that supply the Enclaves with essential and luxury goods. Hub locations were chosen with an eye toward defensibility. Their shipping lanes are under constant and coordinated attacks from regional warlords as well as militias from “husks.”

The urban cores of cities have become known as“husks”—blighted areas of extreme poverty with people sleeping in abandoned hotels and buses. Husks are purposefully and continuously destabilized by ill-conceived government programs, which are in turn exploited by cartels.

The US, like most nations, has become nearly ungovernable as poverty and water scarcity create desperation in hundreds of millions of people.

In Los Angeles, and all over the country, heat waves that would once have been called “historic” occur every year. Lands that were once arable are too hot, too dry, or too wet to grow crops in, or have been destroyed by saltwater intrusion from sea level rise. Even in the US, many cities are battered by cycles of climate disasters so often they can barely rebuild. Last month, fires in the Blue Ridge Mountains were quenched by a hurricane that leveled everything from Jacksonville, Florida, to Savannah, Georgia—not that there was much to level.

Enclave residents have gotten used to thinly stocked shelves in their shopping centers, but Maria wonders how much longer they can produce enough air filters. Last year, she put in a transfer request to the Great Lakes region, but the waiting list is so long she wonders if she should try the Greater Alaskan Enclave instead. Alaska is the fastest growing state in the US, but Maria worries about the proximity to Russia, the world’s one true superpower. For Russia, climate change has meant direct ocean access where once there was a frozen coast. They are now a naval and shipping power with more arable land and mining possibilities as their country’s permafrost has melted—plus the political will to do terrible things.

Rise

2075

On the morning of Maria’s fiftieth birthday, Jillian brings her tea in bed, and she reads some great news on the cover of the LA Times: over the last five years, the global average temperature was .1ºC (.2ºF) cooler than the previous five years. It’s the latest in a series of encouraging reports that began in the late 2060s: the climate is stabilizing more quickly than scientists expected, and wildlife populations are improving in the oceans and on the land.

Energy abundance and postcapitalism

Over the last two decades, there have been steady advances in nuclear fusion. In 2065, the first large-scale reactor was turned on in France. In 2075, two new reactors are being built, one in California and one in New Zealand. But there is some controversy: they are expensive, and the world barely needs them because the solar and wind have become so cheap, abundant, and effective. However, proponents have two arguments that are compelling to the public: direct carbon capture and space travel.

Direct carbon capture—pulling carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground—had been a hot topic in the early 2020s, but it quickly became clear that it required far too much energy to be feasible in a world attempting a lightning-fast transition away from fossil fuels. Any energy diverted toward carbon capture would have meant more fossil fuels burned. However, the potential of limitless energy from nuclear fusion puts carbon capture within reach, which could bring the timescale of climate healing down from thousands of years to mere decades.

Space travel had also been put on hold in the late 2020s, with the adoption of climate emergency mode and the end of billionaires. Rocket fuel was fossil fuel, after all. But with hydrogen fuel, produced from clean energy, spaceflight will have absolutely no adverse climate or environmental impacts. Plus, it will allow the breakthrough advances in hydroponics and closed-system living from the 2050s and 2060s to be tested out on the moon and Mars.

The world has also moved beyond capitalism. There’s no more advertising on planet Earth. And corporations are chartered to put humans, communities, the commons, and the planet before profits. Universal basic income is now the norm, and anyone who suggested that clean air and water, health care, healthy food, college, and shelter were not basic human rights, guaranteed for all, would be laughed at. When Maria’s wife got sick last month, she was never worried that she wouldn’t be able to afford health care.

Political commentators largely credit the shift in priorities to three key political advances: getting money out of politics, democratic innovations and safeguards on issues like voting rights and anti-gerrymandering laws, and an end to anti-democratic institutions such as the Electoral College.

Earth spirituality

Tonight, Maria and Jillian attend the third day of the July festival at Neighborhood Center. The local string quartet, Four Trees, is playing.

The predominant religion is now Animism. Everything in the universe is seen as alive and as a relative: trees, animals, rivers, rocks. Death is accepted as part of the cycle of life, not as anything to fear.

There’s no more factory farming of meat. Half of the Earth—land and ocean—is now set aside permanently for other species, for wilderness and wildness. Humans can visit these wild places, but any construction in the areas is strictly limited to traditional Indigenous forms from pre-colonial times. Indigenous water and forest management practices are the norm. Extinction levels are now back to normal, and biodiversity scientists are confident that there is no longer any danger of a sixth mass extinction.

Maria and Jillian remember the frightening times of scarcity and climate chaos in their childhoods and take none of this for granted as they dance the night away, weaving in and around their neighborhood friends.

✍🏻 Cocreated by Mike McHargue and Dr. Peter Kalmus, based on a decade-by-decade review of consensus science facts compiled by Dr. Kalmus.


✍️ Mike McHargue is a world builder, story architect, and science advisor who elevates stories for high-profile media companies and brands. He specializes in transforming complex topics into entertaining stories. Mike lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jenny, and his daughters, Madison and Macey.


Dr. Peter Kalmus

✍️ Dr. Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, speaking and writing on his own behalf. His award-winning book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, provides real-life solutions for responding to climate breakdown and rampant consumerism in a joyful way. He thinks and dreams pretty constantly about the better world we could have on the far side of climate breakdown.


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