In The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac–who led negotiations for the United Nations during the historic Paris Agreement of 2015–have written a cautionary but optimistic book about the world’s changing climate and the fate of humanity.
The authors outline two possible scenarios for our planet. In one, they describe what life on Earth will be like by 2050 if we fail to meet the Paris climate targets. In the other, they lay out what it will be like to live in a carbon neutral, regenerative world. They argue for confronting the climate crisis head-on, with determination and optimism. The Future We Choose presents our options and tells us what governments, corporations, and each of us can and must do to fend off disaster.
The Critical Decade
The world is on fire, from the Amazon to California, from Australia to the Siberian Arctic. The hour is late, and the moment of consequence, so long delayed, is now upon us. Do we watch the world burn, or do we choose to do what is necessary to achieve a different future?
Who we understand ourselves to be determines the choice we will make. That choice determines what will become of us. The choice is both simple and complex, but above all it is urgent.
In Washington, D.C., at ten a.m. on a Friday, a twelve-year-old girl marches with her friends, holding up a hand-painted sign of the Earth enveloped by red flames. In London, grown-up demonstrators dressed in black, wearing riot police headgear, form a human chain blocking traffic at Piccadilly Circus, as others glue themselves to the pavement in front of the headquarters of BP. In Seoul, South Korea, the streets teem with elementary schoolchildren sporting multicolored backpacks and carrying banners that say CLIMATE STRIKE—in English, for the benefit of the media. In Bangkok, hundreds of teenage students take to the streets. With firm resolve and heavy hearts, they walk behind their defiant leader, an eleven-year-old girl carrying a sign: THE OCEANS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE.
All over the world, millions of young people—inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage girl who began a lone protest in front of the Swedish parliament—are engaging in civil disobedience to draw attention to climate change. Students understand the scientific projections and are terrified about the diminished quality of life on their horizon. They demand decisive action now. They are helping to raise the level of outrage about the insufficiency of our efforts to address the crisis, and they have been joined by scientists, parents, and teachers. From the quest for independence in India to the civil rights movement in the United States, civil disobedience has erupted when a reigning injustice became intolerable, as we are now seeing with climate change. Unacceptable generational injustice and a deplorable lack of solidarity with the vulnerable have opened the floodgates of protest. Those who will be most affected have taken to the streets. Their anger is energy that we desperately need. It can propel a wave of defiance against the status quo and catalyze the ingenuity needed to realize new possibilities.
These protests should come as no surprise. We have known about the possibility of climate change since at least the 1930s and have been certain since 1960, when geochemist Charles Keeling measured CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and detected an annual rise.
Since then we have done little to counter climate change, the result being that greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change, are increasing. We continue to pursue economic growth through the unbridled extraction and burning of fossil fuels, with a fatal impact on our forests, oceans and rivers, soil, and air. We have failed to manage wisely the very ecosystems that sustain us. We have wreaked havoc on them, unintentionally perhaps, but relentlessly and decisively.
Our negligence has catapulted climate change from an existential challenge to the dire crisis it is now, as we rapidly approach limits beyond which Earth as we know it will cease to be. And yet for many, these depredations are invisible. Despite the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, we have still not connected the dots between the ongoing destruction of our natural habitat and our future ability to ensure our children’s safety, feed ourselves, inhabit coastlines, and uphold the integrity of our homes.
Governments have taken incremental steps to address the issue. The farthest-reaching effort is the Paris Agreement, which delineates a unified strategy for combating climate change. All governments of the world unanimously adopted it in December 2015, and most ratified it into law in record time. Since then many corporations, large and small, have set laudable emissions-reduction goals for themselves; many local governments have enacted effective policies; and numerous financial institutions have shifted significant capital from fossil fuels to alternative clean technologies. However, some governments have started to declare a climate emergency because as essential as the current corrective actions are, taken together they still fall far short of what is necessary to stop the rise—and start the reduction—of emissions worldwide. Every day that passes is one day less that we have to stabilize our increasingly fragile planet, by now on its way to becoming uninhabitable for humans. We are running out of time. Once we hit critical thresholds, the damage to the environment, and consequently to our future on this planet, will be irreparable.
Over the years, public reactions to climate change have run the gamut. At one extreme are the climate deniers who say they don’t “believe” in climate change. President Donald Trump is the most prominent example. Denying climate change is tantamount to saying you don’t believe in gravity. The science of climate change is not a belief, a religion, or a political ideology. It presents facts that are measurable and verifiable. Just as gravity exerts its force on all of us whether we believe in it or not, climate change is already affecting us all no matter where we were born or where we live. The irresponsibility of not “believing in climate change” is becoming more apparent with every new catastrophic event. Climate deniers are shamelessly protecting the short-term financial interests of the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of the long-term interests of their own descendants.
At the other extreme are those who acknowledge the validity of the science but are beginning to lose confidence that we can do anything to address climate change. People feel real grief over the unspeakable loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, over how much more we are about to lose, including the future of human life as we know it. Those who are enveloped by this grief may have lost all faith in our collective capacity to challenge the course of human history. Every new documentary, every new scientific study, every report of disaster deepens the pain. Grief can be a powerful, transformative experience for some, and arguably a major reason climate change has continued largely unchecked for so long is that we have failed to truly feel what it will mean. It is important that we all allow ourselves adequate time and space to deeply feel our grief and to openly express it. As we tune in to the raw emotion, many of us will undergo a dark, unsettling period of despair, but we cannot allow it to erode our capacity to courageously mobilize for transformation.
Anger that sinks into despair is powerless to make a change. Anger that evolves into conviction is unstoppable.
A larger group of people, between these two extremes, understand the science and acknowledge the evidence but take no action because they don’t know what to do, or because it is far easier not to think about climate change. It’s scary and overwhelming. To a large extent, many of us stick our heads in the sand. Every time we see a report on extreme weather—hurricanes that used to occur once every five hundred years in a region now occur twice in a month, droughts that shrivel entire villages off the face of the Earth, heat waves that break record upon record, disasters that illustrate what is really going on—we feel a knot in our stomach. But then we turn off the news and distract ourselves with something likely to make us feel less hypocritical. Better to act as if nothing were happening, or as if there were no way to stop it. That way we can delude ourselves that life will continue unimpeded. While this reaction is understandable, it is also a colossal mistake. Complacency now will lock us into a future of guaranteed scarcity, instability, and strife.
We are already too far down the road of destruction to be able to “solve” climate change. The atmosphere is by now too loaded with greenhouse gases and the biosphere too altered for us to be able to turn the clock back on global warming and its effects. We, and all our descendants, will live in a world with environmental conditions that are permanently altered. We cannot bring back the extinct species, the melted glaciers, the dead coral reefs, or the destroyed primary forests. The best we can do is keep the changes within a manageable range, staving off total calamity, preventing the disaster that will result from the unchecked rise of emissions. This, at least, might usher us out of the crisis mode. It is the bare minimum that we must do.
But we can also do much more.
By addressing the causes of climate change now, we can at once minimize risks and emerge stronger. Today we have the unique chance to create a future where things not only stabilize but actually get better. We can have more efficient and cheaper transportation resulting in less traffic; we can have cleaner air, supporting better health and enhancing the enjoyment of city life; and we can practice smarter use of natural resources, resulting in less pollution of land and water. Achieving the mindset needed to attain this improved environment would signal a maturation of humanity.
Without diminishing the enormity of what we are facing with climate change, we are capable of changing course, and no objective evidence says otherwise. Our societies have faced daunting challenges before—institutionalized slavery and racism, the oppression and exclusion of women, the rise of fascism. To be sure, none of these challenges have been definitively solved, but addressed collectively, we know they are surmountable. Climate change is even more complex because of the finality it portends for the human species, but we are well prepared to deal with it. We have already achieved a host of social and political successes; we have most, if not all, of the technologies we will need; we have the necessary capital, and we know which policies are most effective. We can do this.
But we are far from doing what is needed.
Whether you are complacent about climate change, or in pain, or angry, this book is an invitation for you to take part in creating the future of humanity, confident that despite the seemingly daunting nature of the challenge, collectively we have what it takes to address climate change now.
This invitation requires your immediate response.
Two dates should now be seared in everyone’s mind: 2030 and 2050.
By 2050 at the latest, and ideally by 2040, we must have stopped emitting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than Earth can naturally absorb through its ecosystems (a balance known as net-zero emissions or carbon neutrality). In order to get to this scientifically established goal, our global greenhouse gas emissions must be clearly on the decline by the early 2020s and reduced by at least 50 percent by 2030.
The goal of halving global emissions by 2030 represents the absolute minimum we must achieve if we are to have at least a 50 percent chance of safeguarding humanity from the worst impacts. We are in the critical decade. It is no exaggeration to say that what we do regarding emissions reductions between now and 2030 will determine the quality of human life on this planet for hundreds of years to come, if not more. If we do not halve our emissions by 2030, we are highly unlikely to be able to halve emissions every decade until we reach net zero by 2050.
That is our final limit. We cannot exceed it.
The effects of climate change do not proceed along a straight line. A bit more doesn’t equate to a bit worse. Several parts of our planet are critically sensitive, such as the Arctic summer sea ice, the ice cover of Greenland, the boreal forests of Canada and Russia, and the tropical forest cover of the Amazon. They have been maintaining a stable temperature on Earth for millennia. If those ecosystems were to go up in flames or be otherwise compromised, global temperature would rise precipitously, leading to irreparable worldwide damage. Think of this as an uncontrollable dom-ino effect of devastation.
Today’s decisions on energy, transportation, and land use will all have direct and long- term effects on climate change because they lock in their respective emissions levels for decades, and cumulative emissions could push us over tipping points permanently and catastrophically. There will be no putting the genie back into the bottle. The milestones of 2030 and 2050 are rooted in the latest science that tells us just how long we can go on doing little or nothing before disaster sets in.
Here’s the good news.
We are still just barely inside a zone where we can stave off the worst and manage the remaining long- term effects. But only if we do what is required of us in the short term. This is the last time in history when we will be able to do this.
Soon it will be too late.
We know what to do, and we have everything we need. Concern about climate change varies by country, but an increasing majority of people want their governments to address the issue. So as not to put our children’s future in jeopardy, we must connect the urgency of now to the reality of that future.
We tend to think of “saving the planet” as salvaging certain iconic ecological features: polar bears, humpback whales, or mountain glaciers. The prevailing logic is that nature is suffering, and humans are complicit, therefore we should act. While that sentiment is worthy in many ways, it can also leave us feeling that the problem is “out there” unrelated to our daily life.
Climate change has long been misunderstood as an environmental issue affecting the survival of the planet. The truth is, the planet will continue to evolve. It has done so for 4.5 billion years, going through dramatic transformations that for the most part did not support the existence of humankind. We currently enjoy unique environmental conditions that do support human life, but we forget that modern civilization as we know it is only about six thousand years old.
The planet will survive, in changed form no doubt, but it will survive.
The question is whether we will be here to witness it.
That’s why climate change is the mother of all issues.
This crisis both dwarfs and encompasses any other issue we may care about. Climate change should be of concern to all who care about social justice. It affects the poor in every country disproportionately—not only because they are often more exposed and invariably more vulnerable to climate-related shocks, but also because they have fewer resources with which to respond to disaster.
Climate change should be of concern to all who care about health. The burning of fossil fuels releases the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change. But the burning of the very same fossil fuels (coal for industrial heat or electricity generation and diesel or gasoline for transportation) also pollutes the local ambient air with particulate matter. Microscopic pollutants in the air slip past our body’s defenses, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging our lungs, hearts, and brains. They are so pernicious to human health that more than 7 million people die from air pollution each year.
Climate change should be of concern to all who care about economic stability and investment value. It is no secret that coal has lost its financial viability in most parts of the world because it can no longer compete with cheaper and cleaner renewable energy options such as solar. Coal mines and coal plants are closing, and there is increasing momentum in the coal divestment movement, likely to be followed by divestment from other fossil fuels. Central banks around the world are assessing the macroeconomic risk of trillions of dollars invested in those high-carbon assets. The consensus is growing that we need to shift smoothly but decisively into clean energy assets that will more safely keep their value over the long term.
Finally, and fundamentally, climate change should be of concern to all who care about intergenerational justice—which should be every one of us. If we fail to act as we should, future generations will be powerless to undo the inexorable consequences of our failure. Hence our profound moral responsibility to them. Failure to make hard choices now will rob our children and grandchildren of their rightful future.
Some believe we are hardwired to react to threats only if they are immediate. The threats from climate change are now immediate. Superstorms, cyclones, wildfires, droughts, and floods everywhere give us ample evidence of climate change, and those disasters will increase in frequency, scale, and location. We cannot deny or ignore climate change any longer. We now need to let go of half-hearted attempts and instead act in proportion to the magnitude of the challenge.
Excerpted from The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. Copyright © 2020 by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.