In an extract from their urgent new book, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac illustrate how to combat despair and build a future where things not only stabilise, but actually get better
Over the years, public reactions to climate change have run the gamut. At one extreme are the climate deniers who say they don’t ‘believe’ in climate change. President Donald Trump is the most prominent example. Denying climate change is tantamount to saying you don’t believe in gravity. The science of climate change is not a belief, a religion, or a political ideology. It presents facts that are measurable and verifiable. Just as gravity exerts its force on all of us whether we believe in it or not, climate change is already affecting us all no matter where we were born or where we live. The irresponsibility of not ‘believing in climate change’ is becoming more apparent with every new catastrophic event. Climate deniers are shamelessly protecting the short- term financial interests of the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of the long-term interests of their own descendants.
At the other extreme are those who acknowledge the validity of the science but are beginning to lose confidence that we can do anything to address climate change. People feel real grief over the unspeakable loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, over how much more we are about to lose, including the future of human life as we know it. Those who are enveloped by this grief may have lost all faith in our collective capacity to challenge the course of human history. Every new documentary, every new scientific study, every report of disaster deepens the pain. Grief can be a powerful, transformative experience for some, and arguably a major reason climate change has continued largely unchecked for so long is that we have failed to truly feel what it will mean. It is important that we all allow ourselves adequate time and space to deeply feel our grief and to openly express it. 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 mobilise for transformation.
Anger that sinks into despair is powerless to make a change. Anger that evolves into conviction is unstoppable. A larger group of people, between these two extremes, understand the science and acknowledge the evidence but take no action because they don’t know what to do, or because it is far easier not to think about climate change. It’s scary and overwhelming. To a large extent, many of us stick our heads in the sand. Every time we see a report on extreme weather – hurricanes that used to occur once every 500 years in a region now occur twice in a month, droughts that shrivel entire villages off the face of the Earth, heatwaves that break record upon record, disasters that illustrate what is really going on – we feel a knot in our stomach. But then we turn off the news and distract ourselves with something likely to make us feel less hypocritical. Better to act as if nothing were happening, or as if there were no way to stop it. That way we can delude ourselves that life will continue unimpeded. While this reaction is understandable, it is also a colossal mistake. Complacency now will lock us into a future of guaranteed scarcity, instability, and strife.
We are already too far down the road of destruction to be able to ‘solve’ climate change. The atmosphere is by now too loaded with greenhouse gases and the biosphere too altered for us to be able to turn the clock back on global warming and its effects. We, and all our descendants, will live in a world with environmental conditions that are permanently altered. We cannot bring back the extinct species, the melted glaciers, the dead coral reefs, or the destroyed primary forests. The best we can do is keep the changes within a manageable range, staving off total calamity, preventing the disaster that will result from the unchecked rise of emissions. This, at least, might usher us out of the crisis mode. It is the bare minimum that we must do.
But we can also do much more.
By addressing the causes of climate change now, we can at once minimise risks and emerge stronger. Today we have the unique chance to create a future where things not only stabilise but actually get better.
We can have more efficient and cheaper transportation resulting in less traffic; we can have cleaner air, supporting better health and enhancing the enjoyment of city life; and we can practise smarter use of natural resources, resulting in less pollution of land and water. Achieving the mindset needed to attain this improved environment would signal a maturation of humanity. Without diminishing the enormity of what we are facing with climate change, we are capable of changing course, and no objective evidence says otherwise. Our societies have faced daunting challenges before – institutionalised slavery and racism, the oppression and exclusion of women, the rise of fascism.
To be sure, none of these challenges have been definitively solved, but addressed collectively, we know they are surmountable. Climate change is even more complex because of the finality it portends for the human species, but we are well prepared to deal with it. We have already achieved a host of social and political successes; we have most, if not all, of the technologies we will need; we have the necessary capital, and we know which policies are most effective. We can do this.
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac is out now (Manilla Press)