Christiana Figueres: why I chose optimism over climate doom

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

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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.