May 30, 2024


“Hopeless and broken”: this is how a top scientist interviewed by the Guardian described feeling shared by her and hundreds of other climate experts disturbing predictions of the future of the planet this week.

I resonate with her feelings of despair. Even as the former head of the UN Convention on Climate Change which the Paris Agreement in 2015, like many, I may succumb to believing in the worst possible outcome. Just after assuming the role of UN climate chief in 2010, I told a room full of reporters that I did not believe a global agreement on climate would be possible in my lifetime.

Now, say scientists we are on track to shoot through the 1.5C temperature ceiling contained in the Paris Agreement, leading to a dystopian world plagued with famine, conflict and unbearable heat. Climate impacts have hit so fast that the worst-case scenarios predicted by scientists are already coming true in some cases.

This is not scaremongering: these climate scientists are doing their jobs. They tell us where we are, but now it is up to the rest of us to decide what this moment requires of us and to radically change the direction of travel.

Collective doubts about our ability to respond to the climate crisis are now dangerously pervasive. Besides climate scientists, it is shared by politicians and some young people. This is also shared by some philanthropists who fund climate NGOs, and by many who work in those NGOs. This is shared by some financiers, and some of those working in companies struggling to reduce their emissions.

Christiana Figueres, left, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Secretary Laurent Fabius and French President Francois Hollande celebrate during the Paris UN Climate Conference in 2015. Photo: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters

A sense of despair is understandable, but it robs us of our agency, makes us vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation, and prevents the radical collaboration we need. Doubt keeps us from acting boldly, so it is strategically seized upon by incumbents, who have invested millions of dollars (probably much more) in it. sow uncertainty around the climate crisis and its solutions among the general public.

We all have the right to mourn the loss of a future free from the climate crisis. This is a deep, hard loss. And it is particularly painful because those of us who read these reports bear a great responsibility to pass on an unsafe planet to our children and future generations. But grief that stops at despair is an ending that I and many others, especially those on the front lines, are unwilling to accept.

We also have the responsibility – and the opportunity – to shape the future differently. We must absorb the science, triple our efforts and deploy the perspective of possibility.

For example, what has been achieved to transform the energy system to this point, against a fossil fuel industry that is deliberately bent on slowing progress, and within a flawed policy environment, is extraordinary.

We also learned this week that we fit a decisive turning point to power our world with clean energy. Last year saw a record absolute increase in solar power generation. With renewable energy in the energy mix now at 30%, fossil fuel generation is expected to decline this year and then decline rapidly in the near future. Solar power in particular is accelerating faster than anyone thought possible: last year it was the fastest growing source of electricity generation for the 19th year in a row. It really is the beginning of a different kind of future. Not enough, in itself, of course, but it shows a reality that changes exponentially from day to day.

As we grapple with the current lack of political will, and the hideous inequalities of the climate crisis, we can take comfort that so many of those who are key to designing our future has have heard climate scientists’ urgent warnings and are channeling their spirit by taking positive action in response: think of the engineers reshaping our networks, the architects, the social entrepreneurs, the regenerative farmers restoring our land, the legal advocates and the millions of people everywhere who promote new systems of care, recovery and regeneration.

It will take much more courageous collective action to turn the seemingly impossible into the new normal. But we stand on the brink of positive social tipping points. I believe that the children of children born this year will be the first fossil fuel free generation in modern history. Their generation, just a few years from now, will benefit from development and smart climate adaptation based on the certainty of abundant, home-grown and distributed clean energy. This does not mean they will live in a utopian future – we know too much climate change is already baked into the system – but enormous positive change is coming.

I mentioned earlier that I told the press that I did not believe that a global agreement on climate was possible in 2010. What I didn’t share is that I had to change my attitude immediately afterwards. And it made all the difference. It was a candle in the dark that I used to light a spark in many others. I still use the candle of stubborn optimism today – and I’m not the only one.

A world in which we surpass 1.5C is not set in stone.

  • Christiana Figueres was the head of the UN Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, and is the co-host of the climate podcast Outrage + Optimism



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