The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Climate science may change minds. Climate sadness can change hearts.

Children join a climate protest in St. Ives, Britain, on June 10, during the Group of Seven summit. Daniel Sherrell writes that he feels guilty that younger generations will inherit an environmental and social disaster. (Photo by Guy Martin/Panos/ For The Washington Post)

The other night I made my 4-year-old son cry. That’s not all that uncommon, as most parents know. I routinely bring out the tears by telling him that we won’t buy Hot Wheels cars every day or that he can’t have ice cream for breakfast. But this time was different. This time, the emotions swelled because I served him dinner on disposable dishware. “Mom, we can’t reuse or recycle this plate!” His disgust, fear and sadness were real and raw.

In “Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World,” Daniel Sherrell recounts his emotional journey as he thinks about generational differences in the attitudes toward and reactions to climate change, and the role each group has played in the collective ruin of our planet. Sherrell is the son of a climate scientist and himself an accidental climate activist who fell into organizing as an extracurricular collegiate activity. While his career path may seem haphazardly chosen, his momentum has been forward-moving. Before the age of 30, Sherrell led the campaign to pass landmark climate justice legislation in New York, pushing for renewable energy with protections for low-income communities.

“Warmth” is not written scientifically. Sherrell does not offer statistics to support his assertions about the environmental impact of industrialism, colonialism and capitalism. His writing is not scholarly, nor is it journalistic. He doesn’t reference historical texts or interview notable figures in the field. Instead, he borrows an established but little-used rhetorical style of letter writing. He places his unborn — in fact, unconceived — child as the audience for his cathartic thoughts. “Warmth” is written in the style of a curated and cohesive set of journal entries aimed at a future generation.

These letters have a point. And it is to engage our hearts and maybe our minds. Take this example. Sherrell recalls an experience with an eccentric college professor at an elite New England university who, some might think, would have been most sympathetic to Sherrell’s concerns. Her bespoke clothing, including a large clock dangling around her neck, among other factors, aligned with the stereotype of a raging environmentalist. But she was not. In fact, Sherrell remembers her saying, “I’ve never understood why I should care about one species of owl versus the next.”

If you share in that professor’s confusion, Sherrell won’t offer you an answer. Because the book is not about that. He does not aim to convince you of the value of bats to our ecosystem. He does not try to explain why the number of icebergs floating in the Arctic Ocean is scary rather than beautiful. Instead, his goal, I think, is to get us to cry or maybe just to care. Sherrell has extensive experience working to persuade crowds that may not know about or appreciate diversity in owl species. And this experience has led him to be certain about a few things: Climate trends are too boring to write about. Events are too artless to describe. But emotions have real gravitas.

“Warmth” fluctuates in its emotional tone. Sherrell’s reactions to melting ice caps, rising tides and violent storms are mixed. He describes his guilt for considering bringing a child into a physical environment that is quickly dying. He writes about his anger at being a generational recipient of climate problems he has little ability to control. But he also says he’s generally a happy guy, before reflecting on bouts of “commensurate sadness” as he considers the death of our planet. He remembers sneaking off from a friend’s late-night party to cry alone in the bathroom because his ruminative thoughts about the destruction of the ecosystem were overwhelming. I first found his emotional flipflopping to be jarring and challenging to interpret. But later, I came to think that Sherrell’s diverse emotional palate may in fact reflect the ambivalence most of us feel when it comes to issues of climate change. We generally don’t think about the Problem, as Sherrell calls it, until our thoughts about it are too much to bear.

The Problem is also more expansive than just environmental concerns. With anger and annoyance, Sherrell ties deforestation, hurricane destruction and pollution to racism, classism, the oppression of developing countries and the undervaluation of society’s youth. His angst over his university’s failure to financially divest from oil companies spreads far beyond money and coal, because he sees the connections between this form of investment and the dehumanization of forgotten groups of people.

For those readers who already know the difference between hoot owls and barn owls, and for those who never knew of their existence, Sherrell awakens a new urgency for reform. Our choices today have an impact on the environment in years to come, we know. But in “Warmth,” Sherrell makes concrete what is generally too abstract or distant for us to really feel. Look at what other generations left for us: Hurricane Maria, one of the deadliest American natural disasters in more than 100 years, which killed thousands in Puerto Rico and left survivors without water and electricity for months. Would you do that to the next generation? Would you do that to your own child? Sherrell can’t live with that guilt, and he hopes you can’t either.


Coming of Age at the End of Our World

By Daniel Sherrell

260 pp. $17 paperback