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Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac: 'Every day is a chance that will not come again'

As the U.N. negotiators behind the Paris Agreement, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac have done a lot of work together. We caught up with them about their latest collaboration, a book called "The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis."

Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac are best known for their work together at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. Together, they negotiated the historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which was signed by 195 countries. 

They both played important roles in the negotiations, with Figueres starting to build toward that goal after she assumed the responsibility of leading the process to develop a universally agreed-upon regulatory framework that would outline and strengthen countries’ commitments to address climate change. Rivett-Carnac was responsible for developing the political strategy that would break the political deadlock on climate policy and finance.

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis book cover
But their work together didn't stop there. Figueres, who was on GreenBiz’s Badass Women list last year, and Rivett-Carnac are founding partners of Global Optimism, a purpose-driven enterprise focused on social and environmental change. They also host "Outrage and Optimism," a weekly podcast about tackling the climate crisis. Most recently, they wrote a book together, "The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis."

While on book tour, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac answered some questions via email about their book and their hopes for climate action in the next decade. 

Deonna Anderson: How do you think the role of youth in the climate movement has — and will continue to impact — how companies and governments take action to alleviate the impacts of the climate crisis?

Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac: Our youth have significantly changed the politics of climate change in less than two years. They have been instrumental in prioritizing climate change in boardrooms and parliaments. Beyond all else, they have recognized that climate change is an existential crisis — it threatens us all. We are in awe of their achievement and the clarity they express. But we must be clear on the role of our youth: It is not their job to fix the problem. They have raised the alarm to a higher level and now it is our generation’s job to take leadership and undertake the actions to avert a catastrophic future within the next 10 years, during which scientific consensus says it is necessary to halve our emissions. Young people are rightly demanding we — especially the investors, governments and corporations — hear their calls and make the right choice.

Acts of nonviolent civil disobedience are necessary. Yes, they may inconvenience commuters and city governments. But the rapidly spreading fires, increasing floods and disruptive weather that plagues global transport, international trade, manufacturing and economic activities in rural and urban environments are more costly than the protests of youth, topped by the humanitarian disasters, from which many communities simply cannot recover.

We have just published a book in which we outline the two possible futures today’s young people will inhabit. On the one hand is the world of breakdown, conflict, floods and disasters that are already close to home for people living in rich countries and poor and will only escalate if we fail to take the actions needed to halve emissions by 2030. On the other hand, we talk about surviving the climate crisis by choosing a regenerative future, where forests are regrown, cities are remade to be livable and where people are trained and employed in clean, sustainable industries, where extract and burn is replaced by circular economic models of reiterated use.

It’s unprecedented to make this radical a shift in 10 years, but if we stand together from the factory floor to the forests of the world, we can decide to do the right thing.
Our parents’ generation did not have the technology to make the shifts that we can now achieve. By the time the next generation is our age, the locked-in changes will mean they can do nothing to contain the damage — it will simply be too late. Right now, we have the technology required, and it’s affordable to transition the social and economic system. It’s unprecedented to make this radical shift in 10 years, but if we stand together from the factory floor to the forests of the world, we can decide to do the right thing.

Climate change is generationally unfair; it is neither ideological nor political. It is a fact. Regardless of which kind of future we choose to build, our children and grandchildren will be the ones to live in it. In 2050, many of them will be the same age as we are today. They will govern differently and recreate new economic models if we, the business and government leaders, the diplomats and parents, the citizens and consumers who power the economies today make the right choices now. Failure on our part should not even be an option. 

Anderson: What is the most important role that information technology can play in addressing the climate crisis?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: Information technology is absolutely vital to the transformative economy. The challenges ahead are daunting — heating won’t stop even after we halve our emissions; it takes time. Information technology is advancing our ability to measure the changes climate change is causing, which helps us predict resource needs and shortages, to provide for human needs before they reach crisis proportions. These technologies are also vital in addressing and regenerating parts of the world that have been hit the hardest. 

At a micro level, in a regenerative world, information technology should help rural farmers and urban growers to manage their yields and the quality of food needed to meet the growing nutrition crisis. It is already transforming access to markets for agricultural communities, access to finance for small businesses and individuals, supporting community energy generation and local resource efficiency. In fact, many of the needs associated with the transformation to a new, clean economy will rely heavily on information technologies. It is absolutely essential that these technologies and sources of information are accessible to all and do not exacerbate inequality. 

Anderson: What government policies will be most important in accelerating action over the next decade?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: The Paris Agreement was the first global climate pact to be unanimously agreed [upon] by 195 countries in 2015. It was a historical breakthrough in outlining a collective path for all countries and all citizens of the world. But this agreement will have no effect unless it is actualized. We are currently lagging behind the targets set by the Paris Agreement, and our challenge now is to get back on track with its stipulations. All the policy levers governments need are contained within the Paris Agreement, but it’s up to national governments to enhance their commitments to clean air, to incentivize industrial shifts, sustainable energy systems and labor retraining and redeployment, alongside policies that move us away from a reliance on fossil fuels. The latter is vital — we can’t continue to drive our economies on coal, oil and gas as we have for 100 years.

In "The Future We Choose," we talk about the 10 actions that we can all take once we decide that collectively, we can do this; we can halve emissions in a decade, and every decade thereafter, to live in a world characterized by renewal, clean air, green spaces, bees and other pollinators, forests thriving, ocean and seas fishable and teeming with life, vibrant cities by 2050. This world is one of hope, with a sense that we humans are able to act collectively, in our own self-interest, and turn things around. Policymakers need to see this as a golden opportunity to bring people along with them in making climate-resilient regulation and setting the direction of public finance toward emissions reductions at scale.

The destruction of the past is already written, but we still hold the pen and we can write the future, starting now.

Anderson: In the introduction of "The Future We Choose," you describe the grief that people feel with the destruction of the planet and write, "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." Why is it important for people to continue to be optimistic — and avoid complacency — in this time of climate crisis? And what keeps you hopeful?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: The period between now and 2030 is going to have more of an impact on the future of the Earth than any other decade in history, and while that can seem daunting, we truly have everything we need to solve this crisis. The destruction of the past is already written, but we still hold the pen and we can write the future, starting now. As former Secretary of State John Kerry said on our podcast "Outrage and Optimism" recently, American companies, regions, financiers and mayors are already making fantastic strides in taking considerable action against climate change. This gives us hope.

In "The Future We Choose," we outline a global plan for governments, corporations and individuals to organize collectively. The book is the antidote to the fear and the disillusionment that currently exists. Fear paralyzes. Optimism gives us a choice to act; it’s not a laissez-faire attitude that we are proposing. We see optimism as a deliberate and courageous choice to play your part, opening the pathway to individual and collective actions that are transformative in the face of humanity’s greatest challenge.

What makes us hopeful is seeing the enormous shifts investors are making, more than 200 city leaders shifting the energy and building sectors in their local environments, greater awareness of plant-based diets and availability of more sustainable food. These are all taking us in the right direction, but we need much more and faster.

Anderson: What role could the growing circular economy across industries play in lessening the impacts of climate change?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: Circular economic principles are completely aligned with responding to the climate crisis. Firstly, our consumption patterns have to change — that means our diets, the way we travel to work, using technology more than distance travel as much as possible are all essential pathways we can take in business. 

Circular use of materials and resources is critical to delivering system-wide change, across all sectors and all levels of society. All institutions, industries and individuals would benefit themselves and the environment by using resources in such a way as to extract the maximum value from them. All materials that can be reused or repurposed avoid extracting virgin resources to make more. When resources have truly reached the end of their lives, we need to find ways to regenerate them and dispose of the bare minimum. There is great innovation and value creation to be gained in this kind of thinking about resources.

Individuals, households and communities can take circular economic principles to heart in their lives too. In "The Future We Choose," we recommend replacing single-use with reusable products, supporting local suppliers, buying loose produce and repurposing clothing. These small individual actions can create large ripple effects and reduce the impacts of entire communities. These choices can be made easier by retailers. Instead of promoting that people purchase more than they need, some retailers are seeing real financial returns by providing pathways for reducing the need for packing. For example, supermarkets are making more products available unpackaged, encouraging customers to bring their own reusable containers. 

All industries can find high-value innovations and sources of revenue from thinking in the real terms of circularity, building ecosystems that serve consumption without literally costing the earth. What’s equally important is measuring not only sales but also emissions and potential reductions to focus their priorities on the shared goal of achieving net zero by 2050.   

Anderson: What climate solutions should we prioritize for the most positive impact? How do the priorities for individuals, businesses and governments differ?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: Solving the climate crisis involves many interdependent issues and solutions. All of these must point toward radically cutting emissions in half over the next decade. This involves all institutions. We need governments, investors and companies to shift finance away from dirty fossil fuels and towards clean and renewable energy. We need to change land use by planting millions of trees to absorb carbon, as well as changing our diets to reduce the amount of land dedicated to feeding and growing meat. Corporations and governments need to accelerate investment and measurement tools to ensure we are radically reducing waste and investing in efficient public infrastructure.  

Ultimately, tackling the climate crisis is not about shifting from one administration to another or removing a particular leader. It is about sustained personal action and purposeful engagement. Irrespective of our roles in society, the first step is to decide that we will reduce emissions by 50 percent or more in the next decade and that you will play your part.

Individuals often feel their actions are less important, but that is simply not true. In "The Future We Choose," we outline 10 steps we can all take individually, including a checklist for readers to know what actions to take today, this week, this month, this year and over the next 30 years. One of the actions is to be active in our communities and in local and national politics. We have to shift the way our democracies work and in that regard our youth are exemplary. We need to both make changes in our lives and demand change through our power as citizens. There is simply no more time for incremental actions.

Human health, social equity and a new and regenerative economy are all the ways we can benefit from the decision we make today, as we enter the most consequential decade in history.

Anderson: Climate change is tied to other social issues — equity, health, economics — how can tackling the impacts of climate change improve other parts of our world?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: While we do not deny that daunting challenges are ahead, we are not somehow already doomed to a devastating future. Humanity is not somehow flawed and incapable of responding to big problems. We believe that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis through a change of mindset and the 10 actions outlined in "The Future We Choose."

Climate change affects all of us. Wildfires, storms and floods don’t care about your personal or political beliefs, so we all have an equal responsibility to act. It is up to each and every one of us to make the choice to align with the pathway that limits warming to 1.5 [degrees Celsius]. This is what science is telling us; our choice starts with a decision today by each of us to halve our emissions in the next 10 years. 

When massive ice melts cause sea level rise, the impacts are devastating across the globe, causing disruption to global transport networks alongside humanitarian tragedies. The forests of Indonesia, Africa and Latin America are the lungs of the earth. Cutting down ancient trees in Sumatra to make way for oil palms that provide ingredients used in consumer goods globally is not really providing development for Indonesians. It permanently harms wildlife and destroys forest communities, but it also denies all of us a natural carbon sink that we desperately need now. The health impacts of air pollution directly associated with high emitting industries, high carbon transport and energy is a burden on national health systems and an enormous challenge to productivity in our economies. In a warmer climate, more of the world will be susceptible to diseases associated with warmer regions, like dengue and malaria. And scientists warn us to brace for new diseases in a warmer future. 

There is not one aspect of our current system that isn’t going to be better off if we tackle the climate crisis at the pace and with the ambition that science dictates. Human health, social equity and a new and regenerative economy are all the ways we can benefit from the decision we make today, as we enter the most consequential decade in history.

Anderson: What impact do you hope your book has on those who read it?

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac: We hope that those who read "The Future We Choose" will see that, starting in 2020, everything matters. We are at a critical decision-making moment that will determine the entire future of humanity, and there is a tiny sliver of time we can use to make it a positive future. The scientific assessment of climate change suggests this can either be our final hour, or our finest.

We must act now to get on track and stay the course. All of the scenarios set out by scientists to limit climate change show a global peak in emissions this year. We have never had the solutions and technologies so easily at hand and the financing as available as 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 best hour. Every day is a chance that will not come again.

In case you’re missing our book excerpt this week, here’s one from "The Future We Choose," published on Fast Company.

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