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Christiana Figueres: why I chose optimism over climate doom

The leading climate change diplomat called for “stubborn optimism”.

The summer of 2017 saw climate change shake the globe: stronger monsoons, scorching heatwaves, hurricanes which smashed records for strength and duration. Surely, now governments will step up their act on emissions reduction?

So environmentalists thought. But as autumn arrived - and politicians like Donald Trump played down the unusual weather patterns - despondency crept in with the cold.

In the Guardian, Ellie Mae O’Hagan has raised concern that climate activism’s emphasis on optimism is no longer working, and that an “optimistic message has led to complacency”. Maybe a language of “emergency” would work better instead, she suggests.

Yet doom and gloom is not the method counselled by Christiana Figueres. The Costa Rican diplomat has won global acclaim for her leadership of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

As its executive secretary of the organisation, she was responsible for steering the world towards the epic success of the 2015 Paris Agreement – an accord which has so far seen 167 countries ratify their pledges to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Speaking to a group of young environmentalists at a PeaceBoat event last weekend, Figueres explained that she achieved this feat by refusing to give up on a message of hope:

“Name one battle that has been won with pessimism: None!" she told the assembled room. "You do not go at a battle or a challenge with pessimism, because by definition you will not win. So that is why I bring [a] tsunami of optimism to this whole darn thing - because we have to.”

“I call myself a stubborn optimist. And I invite you all to be stubborn optimists.” Then she added: “But you also have to be stubborn and don’t give up.” 

If someone says they’re going to build a wall in your path, then "go around" it, "fly over" it, or "dig under" it, she counselled the audience. "Whatever barrier is put in front of you, if you know that you want to obtain something, do not give that barrier the power of paralysing you.”

It’s a message Figueres herself has come to live by. Six years ago, when she first took over the secretariat, the prospect of a reaching a global agreement on climate change seemed impossible.

Negotiations at a recent meeting in Copenhagen had broken down in dramatic style: “All of us who were working on climate change, we thought the world was coming to an end. It was just the most horrible thing that had ever happened to all of us.” Then a journalist asked Figueres whether she thought an agreement would be ever reached – and Figueres automatically replied with: “No – not in my lifetime.”

But her own response shook her: “I heard what I said and went ‘Whoa!’ [...] And I went, ok, that’s it: I’m going to change my attitude. I’m going to change everybody’s attitude. We are going to do this, no matter how impossible it seems!”

This optimistic resolve eventually helped pull off an international agreement on climate change, in the form of the 2015 Paris Agreement. According to the event’s chair, Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, it was an essential change of approach: “This whole thing was revived in Cancun, really, by you and Patricia Espinosa. And it was a very different dynamic - it was very consensual, very bridge building.”

So how can the world add to these achievements and prevent the climate from breaching the all-important 1.5 degrees celcius rise? And how can individuals replace feelings of despair with a sense of empowerment and hope? Here are eight thoughts from Figueres’s talk:

1. Don’t worry about climate change deniers:

"Those people who say "I’m a climate denier” – fine. I say: “Do you believe in gravity?

"The point is that if I don't believe in gravity it doesn't really matter - because the gravitational pull is still holding me down. And if I don’t believe in climate change it doesn't really matter because I'm still [being] affected by climate change."

2. Find a way to include everyone:

“I devote my life to this, but I cannot have climate change tattooed on my forehead. I encourage people to do the right thing for whatever reason they choose. I don’t care if it’s not about climate change.

"[...] The Chinese have invested more into renewable energy than any other country in the world [But…] they have invested into renewable energy for two reasons: one, they want to create more jobs. And two, they'd like to be able to see their hands from under all the pollution."

3. Look forward, not back:

“There is no doubt that today's industrialised countries have the historical responsibility of having put up in the atmosphere the greenhouse concentrations that we're seeing today - that’s physics. And a very important principle of the Convention is to recognise historical responsibility on the part of the industrialised countries.

"[...] However, it is also important to realise that not just on climate change but also on every aspect of life, to point a blaming finger to someone, or to a group of countries, that have done something in the past, doesn't usually get you very far.

"[...] The future frankly is a shared responsibility, because every country, no matter how small or how large can reduce their emissions and should.”

4. Support the right kinds of growth:

“Industrialised countries must stop growing - that's fine. But developing countries must continue to grow their economy in order to bring their people out of poverty.

"[But] they can and must continue to grow, in a clean way. Nobody has done that before. So we're putting a huge challenge in front of developing countries, we're saying: “Ok you guys, you can continue to grow, you can bring your people out of poverty - but you can't do it with disgusting fossil fuels that those guys use'.

"[...] Fortunately, renewable energy, has tumbled down in price, particularly solar and wind, and now we have renewable energy that is actually cost-competitive with coal in many different countries."

5. Change the system – not just individual behaviour:

"We have to get to a point where I am able to come home, flip the switch and know, (without any doubt!), that the electricity in getting is 100 percent clean. And it should be able to get to the point where is don’t even have to think about it anymore."

6. Get the corporations on board:

"I think [businesses] are beginning to understand that any corporation that wants to remain profitable over the next fifty or one-hundred years, has to be responsible on all the issues: has to be a social, environmental as well as profit-creating enterprise."

7. Start reducing emissions now, not tomorrow:

"If we continue to spew up the same amount [of greenhouse gas emissions] over the next 50 years we will use up our entire carbon budget. And that means we'd have to go from 40 gigatons of annual emissions, to zero overnight. That is impossible: the economy would not survive that. We would have a financial and economic crisis around the world in which the 2008 economic crisis would be peanuts compared to that."

8. Vote for parties that look further than the next election:

"Everybody asks me, what is the biggest threat to climate change? Short termism. That’s the biggest threat."

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.