2020 Could Be ‘Humanity’s Finest Hour’: Why a Former Climate Leader Is Hopeful Despite Everything
A Q&A with Christiana Figueres, climate champion and architect of the Paris accord
Christiana Figueres became perhaps the world’s most influential shaper of global climate policy when she was appointed executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 2010. The timing couldn’t have been worse — that was just six months after the colossal failure of the world’s governments to reach an agreement on a treaty in Copenhagen. “The global mood on climate was really in the trash can,” she told OneZero.
Not long after, when Figueres was asked if it would ever be possible to reach a global agreement, she retorted, “Not in my lifetime.” But as the words came out of her mouth, Figueres realized that if she didn’t change her approach, her attitude would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and “we would never be able to get to any global framework.” She quickly shifted her tactics and worked to help change the attitudes of governments, investors, and other stakeholders. “Everyone who could actually contribute to the solution,” she told OneZero.
Figueres led a series of six annual global negotiations that eventually resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement in 2016 — a nonbinding global framework signed by 195 countries to work together to stop global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. (In 2017, Donald Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the accord.) The Paris Agreement includes pledges and emission updates from each country up to 2030, and while more work is needed, it is seen as a critical step toward reducing global emissions.
In a rousing and timely new book, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, which Figueres co-wrote with Tom Rivett-Carnac, her partner in helping marshal support for the Paris Agreement and co-founder of Global Optimism, the authors present a roadmap for the future — mapping two potential outcomes, depending on how we choose to respond to the crisis at hand.
OneZero met with Figueres to discuss the new kinds of transportation infrastructure and energy technology we’ll need to embrace, how A.I. can be used to combat global emissions, and why strengthening physical communities is a critical step toward fighting the climate crisis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
OneZero: The United States backed out of the Paris Agreement, which you helped forge, in 2017. What impact did that have on global climate progress and on you personally?
Christiana Figueres: We know that the issue of climate change has been politicized in the United States and elsewhere. But floods don’t care what political party you are in, forest fires don’t care what country you are from, and your grandchildren won’t care what ideology you were a part of — but they will care if you took positive action on this.
This is the most consequential decade in human history. The destruction of the past is already written, but we still hold the pen and can write the future, starting now. The U.S. is an important leader, and we hope they will stand alongside the international community with respect to tackling the climate crisis, of course. As former Secretary of State John Kerry said this week on our podcast, Outrage and Optimism, American companies, regions, financiers, and mayors are already making fantastic strides in taking considerable action.
I was away from home on work travel, and as everyone knew Donald Trump would give his speech from the Rose Garden the next day, I sat in front of the TV in my hotel with a sheet of paper and a pen in my hand, ready to write down every sentence that was correct. The speech finished, and my paper was untouched. Not one sentence had been correct. The whole speech was based on incorrect information and a thorough misunderstanding of the Paris Agreement. I was aghast.
You’ve argued that contrary to many popular lines of argument, fighting climate change should be good for our economies. Specifically, you talk about the importance of “circular economies.” Can you explain?
Well, the circular economy is also going to be part and parcel of the answer to climate change, because it is the next step in the development of our understanding of the use of resources. Up until now, we have used resources — the fossil fields, the minerals, metals, wood, anything that we have actually extracted — with a very clear “extract, use, and discard” model, because we thought there was an unbounded quantity of these resources available to us and an unbounded capacity for us to deal with the waste. Neither of those is true. We already know that we have already used up more fossil fuels than we can possibly hold in our atmosphere. We have already polluted the ocean beyond anything that is healthy for the oceans or for humans.
We cannot continue to extract in an unlimited way. It’s also not true that we can just throw away, discard waste in an unlimited way. For many years, China was accepting much of the waste of the West, but China doesn’t accept that anymore. Now we have to exercise much more discipline about that. That “extract, use, and discard” model has to be changed into a circular economy in which we increase the use rate of all resources. We’re used to hearing the term “single-use plastic,” and we’re becoming familiar with the concept that a resource should not be used only once. It should be used two times, three times, four times, five times. Increasing the use rate of a resource is absolutely what we have to do, and that is the basis of the circular economy.
We can get on track, and history will look back at 2020 as humanity’s finest hour.
You write that strengthening communities is critical to combating climate change. How does communication technology play into this goal?
We can now connect instantaneously with literally hundreds, thousands, millions of people anywhere in the world. And that’s a good thing, because we are learning much more from each other, and we’re [challenging] our prejudices against other nations or against other cultures, other practices. At the same time, it is evident that for a world to move toward regeneration and self-sufficiency, we are going to have to develop communities — not in a sense of virtual communities, but by complementing virtual communities with real, physically located communities. Because that is going to allow us to localize our food production much better — hence, bringing down emissions. And it’s going to allow us to interact with each other in a more human way than we do right now, which is only through our devices.
By addressing climate change, we will regenerate not only nature — we will regenerate our own humanity. Because it goes hand in hand. We will be much more aware of our own impact. We will be much more aware of our interrelationship with others. All of that is the basis of a society that is successful in addressing climate change. It’s not just the technological fixes — it’s what happens to us as humanity. How do we continue to evolve the human species?
One section of your book looks at the potential for A.I. to be used as a tool to fight climate change, in terms of harnessing its power to make predictions. What are the benefits you see and the potential drawbacks?
The very evident beneficial effect of A.I. is what it could do on optimizing energy generation and energy use. A.I. is already starting to predict energy demand geographically, as well as throughout the day. When you can accurately predict and optimize that demand, then the supply of energy also is capable of being optimized. You can produce and consume energy at its most efficient level. An interesting possibility that will emerge, and is already being tested, is using the batteries in electric cars to back up the grid — so that when you have a fully charged battery in your car and you’re not going to use it immediately, that battery could be intelligently interconnected and could help you, for example, power your home, etc.
So, all of that—the optimization of energy generation and use through A.I. and smart grids, smart thermostats, and energy measures in your home—is quite helpful. Obviously, that technology is based on huge data collection. When you get into the space of megadata, there is also the possibility of an ill-intentioned use of that data — because we’re getting to the point in which data is the most valuable thing we have in our society. It used to be information; now it’s quantifiable data. We have seen the misuse of that data in political processes, for example. It’s something we must be vigilant about.
What must we do today to curb climate change?
Climate change affects all of us, and we are witnessing wildfires, storms, and floods all around us and in unprecedented intensities. Our home is literally on fire. That may sound like hyperbole, but it is not. The burning has extended from the Amazon to California, from Australia to Siberia and into the Arctic itself. These are phenomena no one would have believed possible just a few years ago, yet they have become our reality. From our streets, where children are protesting, to governments, companies, and cities around the world, people are beginning to recognize that human survival is at risk. Companies that resist change are losing their license to operate. The world has moved way too slowly. Had we started reducing our emissions years ago, we would not have had such pressure. Now we face an emergency and a hard deadline: halve emissions by 2030.
We must limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The choice starts with a decision today to halve our emissions in the next 10 years. If we can make this decision and map a pathway where emissions peak and then continually decline, by 2050—and even earlier—human existence will be characterized by renewal, clean air, green spaces, bees and other pollinators, forests thriving, ocean and seas fishable and teeming with life, vibrant cities. The world we can choose is one of hope, with a sense that we are able to turn things around.
Starting in 2020, everything matters. There is a tiny sliver of time we can use to change the future of all humanity. The scientific assessment of climate change suggests this can either be our final hour or our finest.
It has been five years since the Paris Agreement was signed, and the trajectory it outlines is in serious danger of not being followed. We must act now to get on track and stay the course. All of the scenarios set out by governments to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius show a global peak in emissions this year and halving emissions in the next 10 years. We have never had the solutions and technologies so easily at hand and the financing as available as we do now. We could not have done this before, and by 2030, it will be too late.
We can get on track, and history will look back at 2020 as humanity’s finest hour. Every day is a chance that will not come again.