The current global health crisis offers lessons that can be applied in how we emerge from and approach the other crisis—the climate crisis.
In 2015, Christiana Figueres, then-UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change, led a historic multilateral effort to unify 195 countries in the Paris Climate Agreement—the world’s most far reaching global climate accord. With the support of political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, Figueres successfully orchestrated a long-term agreement to limit global warming to well below 3.6° F/ 2°C.
Taking this challenge a step further, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac’s organization Global Optimism teamed up with Amazon to co-found The Climate Pledge in 2019. Amazon became the first to sign the pledge, which calls on signatories to be net zero carbon across their businesses by 2040—a decade ahead of the Paris Agreement.
“We’re done being in the middle of the herd on this issue—we’ve decided to use our size and scale to make a difference,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, after signing the Climate Pledge in September 2019. “If a company with as much physical infrastructure as Amazon—which delivers more than 10 billion items a year—can meet the Paris Agreement 10 years early, then any company can.”
Figueres believes businesses will play a leading role in the next ten years. Discussing The Climate Pledge, she said she was "thrilled to be approached by Jeff Bezos. When he announced his intention to accelerate the timeline of the Paris Agreement, it was music to my ears. By setting a more ambitious target, we set a higher expectation for businesses around the world and puncture the myth of impossibility. He understands that it’s important to set a bold target in order to achieve transformational change."
"The impact from business cannot be understated. Sometimes it’s difficult for politicians to progress ideas at speed," said Rivett-Carnac. "But businesses can be innovative, they can invest, they can plant trees, and they can change the normative ideas that define our world and our economy."
"You can see climate change as the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Or we can see it as our greatest opportunity. We cannot afford to waste that opportunity.
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac have written a new book, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, with an optimistic message of how we can create a thriving future for all by working quickly, collaboratively, and by adopting a positive mindset.
Inspired to act
Growing up in Costa Rica inspired Figueres to act on climate change. "In the national parks of my home country as a child, I witnessed the beautiful golden toad. But by the time my daughters were that age, this fantastic species had disappeared. It had become extinct due to man-made changes in the landscape and a rise in global temperatures," she said. "That moment of realization impacted me greatly. I realized that I was handing on to my children a world impoverished compared to the one that I had inherited. From that point on, I devoted my life to working on the challenge of climate change."
In the 2000s, Christiana started looking for "a provocative, different sense of thinking." She was introduced to Rivett-Carnac in New York, and they quickly started working together. "I realized that he had none of the skills or the experience for the job," Figueres joked. "But he had something much more important. Tom has courage, clarity of thought, and a whole-hearted commitment to collective action.”
Rivett-Carnac's own inspiration came when traveling the world as a child with his father, a petroleum geologist, looking for oil. "I was aware of the intersection between energy, society, and environment," he said. "I witnessed some of these changes firsthand, and I learned about the underlying political and economic processes that have resulted in climate change, and which will inform our response to it."
The future we choose
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac wrote The Future We Choose because they know we have entered the most consequential decade in human history. "That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not," said Rivett-Carnac. "By 2030, we need to have reduced our current emissions by half in order to stay on track with limiting climate change to reasonably safe levels."
The book outlines three key areas. First, what is at stake over the next decade and what kind of future we will face, depending on which path we choose. Secondly, how we can all adapt our attitudes to help us play a more optimistic, positive role in this great transformation. Finally, the practical steps we can all enact to ensure we participate in this change.
"We are facing two possible worlds. One of breakdown and conflict, of floods and disasters that will be closer to home than we could have imagined, a world where hope slips away," said Figueres. "Or a world that is renewed and regenerated, where forests have regrown and cities are remade, where your children are not afraid to have children of their own."
The co-authors do not deny that the challenge may be daunting, but they also do not agree with the idea that we are already doomed, or that humanity is incapable of responding. "Quite the opposite, in fact," said Figueres. "We’re fully convinced that we can not only avert the worst of the climate crisis through a change of mindset and ten actions outlined in the book, but actually create a world that is better than the one we have now."
Reasons to be optimistic
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac were both inspired by their own children to act, and they see the new movement of young people demanding action on climate change as a powerful tool for change.
"It’s brilliant to see the younger generations hold us, the older generation, accountable," said Figueres. "They bring a different energy to the issue—not least because those young people are future customers, employees, voters, and inventors. We can all vote with our money via the products and services we choose to buy, and increasingly we see younger generations demand a higher standard from businesses and governments. Sustainability commitments are becoming non-negotiable for many citizens. That’s a powerful force for change."
Rivett-Carnac's advice for those anxious about climate change:
- Take action and begin with your own life, by adapting your diet, checking your emissions at home, and maybe adapting your transport. By taking action, we feel a sense of empowerment.
- Embrace a renewed sense of how meaningful life can be, how valuable the natural world is, and that we can have a real impact right now. Stepping out into nature is a great way to reconnect with the world around us.
Figueres' message to readers is urgent and pragmatic: “Future generations will look back at this moment in history and realize that we lived at a crossroads between two possible worlds. We can no longer afford the luxury of feeling powerless in the face of this challenge. We all have more power than we realize. Now is the time to choose our future.”
Earth Day is celebrated every year on April 22. 2020 marks 50 years of Earth Day, with this year’s theme focused on climate action.
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