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GOOD10 // The Earth Issue // The Leader: Christiana Figueres

GOOD10 // The Earth Issue // The Leader: Christiana Figueres
Christiana Figueres | null

Christiana Figueres is a world renowned leader on climate change policy and action. She served as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016. During her tenure, she directed six successful Conferences of the Parties culminating in the historic Paris Agreement of 2015 in which she brought 195 countries together in commitment to international decarbonization and sustainability. Ms. Figueres continues to dedicate her life to climate change action and solutions, recently publishing "The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis" with co-author Tom Rivett-Carnac. It is a "cautionary but optimistic" book about our planet's changing climate and our humanity's options to address the challenge and protect our future. She and Rivett-Carnac are also hosts of the podcast, Outrage and Optimism.

GOOD: In your book you describe two different types of futures that we have an option to choose between by the year 2050. Can you dive into a bit about what those two futures are and how they might come to pass?

Christiana Figueres: Whether we know it or not, consciously or unconsciously, we are every day of our life right now choosing one of two futures that have a very stark contrast between them. One future, is the result of not being able or not willing to do what we have to do on climate change. It is actually a very dystopian future. It's a future in which we don't walk out without putting on a mask because all city air is so polluted. It's a future in which if we walk out with a mask, assuming we can buy the mask, then it's so hot outside that you would very quickly get to your destination and go back inside. You would not be able to work, play or exercise outside because it is so hot in most places around the earth.

In fact, it is so hot, and the drought is so intense, that there would be large swaths of almost every continent that have become practically uninhabitable, forcing the people who used to live there to migrate either north or south, looking for better temperatures, causing a cascade of social pressures, political pressures, economic pressures as all of these people pile on to other areas where people are already living. And you can imagine the pressure on borders. And it's also, you know now that we're all living with pandemic reality, it's also a world in which we would be suffering under many known diseases such as dengue and malaria and chikungunya that are carried by tropical mosquitoes. But these tropical mosquitoes would actually have a much broader range than just the range that they have now. So you would have many new geographical areas with those diseases and we would very likely have new diseases that popped up because of the thawing of the Tundra.

So it's not a world that we would want to live in. A world of very expensive food production, of growing and absolutely terrible inequality, not the world that we want. And a world, I must say, for which we're getting just a tiny, tiny little foretaste right now with the coronavirus. Conversely, and this is the good news, that dystopian world is not one that we're condemned to. Far from it. We actually still have the opportunity to build a much better world. A world in which we have regenerated forests and parks and we have so much more green cover than we have now and we have animals returning to our neighborhoods. A world in which there is abundant food that is easily produced because the climate has stabilized.

It's a world in which most people can stay and live in the areas where they are because they are not forced to move to other areas. One has to remember most people want to stay where they are. There is of course some voluntary migration, but most of the migration that we know is forced migration. And most people would rather stay on their islands or wherever their family is and their ancestors are. And that world would allow that. It would also be a world of less inequality because we have been able to take advantage of the very unique characteristics of renewable energy technologies. We would be able to bring energy and electricity to every corner of the Earth. Women can have little cottage industries at home if they wish. All clinics, no matter how far away they are from the grid, would have electricity and medicines and people could have healthcare that is affordable.

These are two very, very different worlds. And the good news is that we still have time to choose the world that we all would prefer to live in and certainly like our descendants to inherit.

Christiana Figueres | What I Really Care About | GOOD

GOOD: You talk about the time we have left to make the choice. Exactly how much time do we have?

Christiana Figueres: By 2050 we have to be at net zero emissions, which means we have to have a decarbonized society that relies on renewable energy and other types of non-emitting industries and services in order to be able to stabilize our climate. In order to be there by 2050, we would have to be able to reduce our current emissions by 50% by 2030. So over the next 10 years, we have to reduce our emissions by 50% in order to get us on track. Now everybody's thinking of curves, right? We have to get on to that curve of reduction, to be at one half of current emissions by 2030 in order to be able to hit net zero by 2050.

Now, coronavirus has changed all realities. It is now pretty evident that being at one half global emissions by 2030 is going to be largely dependent on the financial recovery packages that are put in place for coronavirus. That doesn't mean that governments have to assign extra funding to deal with climate as they deal with kick-starting the economy. What is the challenge and the opportunity here is that after health has been stabilized and after social protection measures, which are absolutely key, the third really important wave of funding that is going to come from governments and to which they're already committed, is funding for recovery of the economy. And that's going to be anywhere between $10 trillion and $20 trillion.

If those trillions of dollars are invested in business as usual technologies, business as usual corporations, business as usual services, we would basically take off the table any opportunity to be at one half emissions by 2030. While we actually now have compress time – it's almost like climate change on a time warp. That's what coronavirus has done. We are basically building the future world over the next 18 months. Over the next 18 months, all of those financial decisions will be made and if they're made in the wrong direction, we probably will be heading for the dystopian world.

It's not that we have to add extra money for renewable energy, for example. No. What it means is that the financial packages that will be assigned to corporations and to sectors need to do so in abidance with the decarbonization of the economy. So yes, let's bail out airlines and let's remind them that they have already committed to decarbonizing because otherwise we stand no chance. So it's a huge opportunity to use the very same funds that will be directed at jump-starting the economy. Use them both for jump-starting the economy after coronavirus as well as decarbonizing the economy.

GOOD: You said that the "coronavirus is climate change on a time warp." Exactly how do you mean that?

Christiana Figueres: Coronavirus is climate change on a time warp because coronavirus is an acute threat that came basically out of nowhere, was pretty well recognized for being an imminent global threat and governments have reacted accordingly. Well, most governments have reacted accordingly. Conversely, climate is not an acute threat. It's a chronic threat. It doesn't move in days and weeks. It moves in years and decades. The awareness of the threat is not an imminent threat. It is a mid and long-term threat. And because the damages from climate change don't seem to be as imminent as coronavirus, that's why governments have had a very hard time reacting to the risk. But both of them have the same characteristic of risk. Both coronavirus and climate, both are high probability risks and high-impact risks. That is what makes them very similar.

Although the timing is very different as I said, right? With coronavirus things are changing day by day, week by week, and with climate it's on a longer timeline. So, i climate change in a time warp. And from my perspective, I do not want to underestimate the deaths that we've already had, the absolutely horrendous loss of livelihoods and jobs for millions of people. And at the same time, can we please learn the lesson now because it would only get so much worse with climate change. And if we do not learn the lesson of how to deal with high probability, high-impact risks, we would get out of the coronavirus over the next two years, but we would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire because we then still have to deal with climate change. So we have to learn the lesson, we have to learn it quickly and we have to apply it to climate change in a timely fashion.

GOOD: There's an underlying thread of optimism and hope which stems from your belief that we have the ability to tackle this. Why do you feel hopeful that we can address such a fundamental challenge that seems to have been put off so far?

Christiana Figueres: For us, optimism is the input to a challenge, not the output of an achievement. And if you understand that that way you understand the importance of optimism because if any of us undertake some challenge, whether it be at the personal level or the family or community level or nations at a national or global level, if we undertake any challenges such as the ones that we have on our plate right now, if we undertake it with a sense of fatalism, of helplessness and hopelessness, well then it's very likely that we won't succeed because the way that we think very much determines the probability of success and how we experience the outside world.

So if we walk into a challenge and say, I don't think I'm going to do this. Well, then very possibly you won't be able to. But if we face a challenge we really need to understand what is at stake. So in this case, if we really understand the coronavirus, if we understand the climate crisis, if we understand what the science is telling us, not be blind to it, really fully study it and understand it and at the same time say, huh, okay, that is definitely a challenge but we can muster everything that it is going to take to be able to address this. Whether it's your personal challenge of running a marathon or whether it's a global challenge of addressing coronavirus or climate change. The same principle operates.

If you think you can succeed or you think you don't, you're probably right both times and both ways.

GOOD: What are some of the actions that individuals can take in order to be part of the solution?

Christiana Figueres: Now that we're all sitting behind the screens for way too many hours during the day and sometimes in the evening, I do have a very concrete suggestion to what everyone can do. We all know what our financial budget is. We know how our bank accounts stands, but we don't know what our carbon budget is. None of us, or very few of us, have a good sense of what our personal carbon footprint is. And so one very concrete suggestion that every individual can do as you sit in front of your screens, take five minutes and type into Google "carbon calculator." And up will pop a long list of institutions that have carbon calculators. So just pick anyone that you like and it'll ask you several questions and then at the end it will give you a number. And that number represents your carbon footprint, how many tons you personally emit per year.

Those who live in the United States will average about 20 tons per year. Those who live in India will average about 0.5. Those of us who live in Costa Rica, 0.1 or sometimes even .001. So you know the range is pretty large depending on the economy that you're embedded in, depending on your personal habits, etc. My point is don't condemn yourself for being 20 times as worse as anybody else. It's not your personal blame. Just take note of it and say, wow, okay. It doesn't matter where you start. That's your baseline. Just take the number as your baseline and then commit to being at one half of that over the next 10 years.

You can look at your transport, you can look at the food that you buy and consume. You can look at the different devices that you have at home. You can look at your washing machine, your boiler or your heater, all of that. You can look at the energy efficiency of your home. You can look at whether you're recycling or not. There are so many different things that each one of us does, perhaps even without thinking about it, but they're all contributing to our carbon footprint. And whether or not you'll be at 50% of what we're doing now within the next 10 years. Honestly, easy peasy. No excuse.

GOOD: How do you look at where responsibility for change lies?

Christiana Figueres: I would say governments, corporations and individuals and everyone has a role to play and the roles are quite different, right? Governments obviously have to set the incentives and the regulations that only they can set. It's very much a top-down activity. Corporations have a huge responsibility to reduce the impact of their own operations as well as of their supply chain, which is usually where most of their carbon footprint lies. And individuals have a responsibility to change our behavior. In fact, really take a look at how we are interacting with the above mentioned corporations and the above mentioned governments.

The fact is, when you say 20 corporations do most of the emissions – well, aren't we customers of those corporations? And if we are, then we have a shared responsibility. So it's not like we have a very clear line in the sand where individual responsibility ends and corporate or government responsibility starts or ends. And vice versa. The fact is that all of this is part of a very intricately connected economy and we all are playing our roles in that economy. So it's not about exporting responsibility to others, it's about recognizing that we also have responsibility while we recognize that each of the actors in the economy have their responsibility as well. And individuals have a huge opportunity to put pressure on corporations and on governments, as we've seen from the young people on the streets, to do a better job at guiding us through this.

GOOD: And what about the people who deny the science or the fundamentals here? What do you say to them? I mean, considering this isn't necessarily just individuals, it's some leaders of government who deny the fundamentals. Is there anything to say? Or, are they lost causes?

Christiana Figueres: Yeah, I think they are lost causes. I mean, I do think it is individuals. I'm going to push back on that because although President Trump sits in the White House and is the leader of that government, it is his personal opinion that he's expressing. It is not the opinion of the entire US government, fortunately, because there are a preponderance of people who really understand science and who did go to basic science class when they were young. And so to climate deniers, honestly at this point, they only amuse me. That's what my reaction these days is because it's the same amusement that I get from people who continue to insist that the Earth is flat and that are concerned about getting on a boat because they could fall off the edge of the Earth.

Well, I mean, if you live in fear of that, then you know, God bless you. Or people who don't believe in gravity. I mean, it's actually quite amusing, isn't it? That there's basic science that operates on this planet and that there is a willingness to deny that very, basic science. It's a little bit like saying, well, "I don't believe in photosynthesis" or anything like that. I mean, come on, you can live in Harry Potter land if you wish, but it doesn't really matter. Because if you don't believe in gravity, gravity is still affecting you. I guarantee you that if you get on any boat and you go as long as you wish, you're not going to fall off the edge. And I guarantee that if you don't believe in climate change, it is still affecting you.

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