The Future We Are Choosing: Surviving the Climate Crisis
January 30, 2020 | Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and founding partner of Global Optimism, inspires action to cut our carbon emissions in half this decade.
[UPBEAT ROCK MUSIC]
And welcome, everyone. Thanks so much for coming. It's a great privilege for me to be able to introduce Christiana Figueres. Climate change is one of the most pressing issues on the international agenda, if not the most pressing issue. And I can't think of anyone who's been more central in the fight against climate change internationally than Christiana.
She's been involved practically from the beginning, first as a negotiator for Costa Rica, then running an NGO, then as executive secretary of the UN climate change secretariat, where she was instrumental in crafting the Paris Agreement and now is the founder of Global Optimism.
I've been involved myself in the climate change negotiations for quite some time, and I know firsthand how easy it is to succumb to pessimism, or even worse, cynicism. The UN Climate Change regime often seems disconnected from the real world. It moves frustratingly slowly. People talk on and on as the world gets ever warmer.
So it takes a lot of strength to keep a sense of optimism and purpose throughout this process. But that's exactly what we need if we're to address climate change successfully. And I think no one understands this better and exemplifies it better in their work than Christiana Figueres.
As Christiana once observed, "There's not a single achievement in the history of humankind that's been won if it has started with defeatism, with pessimism. It is only if we start with optimism and we inject the entire process with that confidence and with that trust and with the radical collaboration that comes with it that we can move forward," unquote.
I've known Christiana now for many years in her various roles as negotiator, as an NGO, as head of the secretariat. And through thick and thin, I've very rarely seen Christiana lose her sense of optimism or her positive spirit. I remember bumping into Christiana in 2010 at the climate conference in Cancún, shortly after she'd taken over as head of the climate change secretariat.
At that time, the climate change process was in the doldrums or really one of its lowest point. The previous year, the Copenhagen conference had ended in disarray, and many people were thinking that the process could completely unravel. So seeing Christiana was like a breath of fresh air. I don't know if you remember, but I bumped into you at Cancún.
She was realistic about the challenges, but she was undaunted, either by the state of the negotiations or by her new role as a secretary of the process, a job that Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker once described as having "the very highest ratio of responsibility to authority." And that was the job Christiana had.
Her attitude was, how do we move on and make progress? As she once said, "No matter what the challenge ahead of us, when we hit a barrier, that's the moment when we have to become very stubborn and understand, here's a challenge. Here's a problem. Here's a barrier. That's not going to stop us. We're going to figure out a way around it."
I want to emphasize the word stubborn, which Christiana frequently uses, because Christiana's optimism, in my view, it's not naive. It's an optimism born out of necessity. It's a stubborn optimism. So I think it's very fitting that the name of her new NGO is called Global Optimism.
As Christiana's introducer, let me just say a few words about her background, which is very interesting. Her father was three-time President of Costa Rica and was the leader of Costa Rica who abolished its army. Her brother also served as President of Costa Rica, and her mother, originally from the US, was the Costa Rican ambassador to Israel and later a member of the Costa Rican legislature.
Christiana attended college in the US at Swarthmore and earned a master's degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics. Before entering the world of climate change, where she's been such a huge star over the last 20 years, she served in the Costa Rican Ministries of Planning and Agriculture and worked on renewable energy in the Americas.
In closing, let me just say that what makes Christiana so effective, I think, is not only her optimism, but also her toughness, her sincerity, and her incredible warmth, and, I think, as well, her ability to listen and understand other people's perspectives, an ability that, I think, maybe comes out of her background and training as an anthropologist. Christiana will be speaking this evening about her new book, The Future We Are Choosing-- Surviving in the Climate Crisis. Please join me in welcoming Christiana Figueres .
Christiana Figueres: Thanks, Dan.
Daniel Bodansky: Thank you.
Christiana Figueres: I think these are Dan's notes.
Daniel Bodansky: That's yours.
Christiana Figueres: So good evening, everyone. Is the microphone functioning OK? There's a horrible echo here. Am I echoing over there? No? OK, good. I'll put up with the echo. Well, Dan, thanks very much for that lovely invitation. And as you were reminding me that I self-call myself a stubborn optimist, I thought maybe I have to tell you why.
And that's because when I was three years old, my father, then president of the country, was out doing something quite unusual for him. He was out playing croquet, which is the only game he ever did. And I thought, you know, he hasn't really paid attention to me in, like, a whole year. So maybe I have to do something to get his attention.
So I watched very carefully to see which ball he was playing. He was playing the red ball, which was actually very good, because you can see very clearly where the red ball is. So I just watched to see. You know, he played the red ball, and then I saw who else is in the row. And just before it was his turn to play the red ball, I marched over and planted myself right in front of the red ball.
When my father, who was an incredibly patient person, came up to me and said, "Pelotita," which was his nickname for me, because I was as broad as I was tall, and this was when I was three years old, and which means little ball, and he said, "Little ball, please move." And I pretended like I hadn't heard a thing. And he said it several times. And I just, you know, stood there, stood my ground.
And he finally lost his patience, which I saw my father do very, very infrequently. And he just picked me up from the scuff of my neck and threw me across the croquet field. And I landed way over there, picked myself up, decided I am not going to shed a tear. I'm going to clean myself off, figure out where he's next playing, and march myself straight over to the red ball again.
Well, you can imagine, right? So my family, since the time of three, have determined that I am the most stubborn of the family. And the fun thing is that, 60 years later, because I'm now 63, I have actually concluded that it's a good thing to be stubborn if it's for the common good. I'm not quite sure I would have known that when I was three.
But today, we really have to know that, no matter what happens, no matter if we feel that we're being thrown around or, you know, whatever comes at us, we have to be stubborn. Because there is no other option but to address climate change in a timely way. And it's not easy. It's never been done before. So we have to invent it as we go. And we're under time pressure. But it's got to be done. So just because of that, we have to be stubborn, determined to actually get it done.
So let me start by asking a question that is not very often asked but that is important just to understand where we are in the history of humanity. How many of us here tonight were born in the '50s or before? Oh my gosh! Wow, that's, like, almost half. OK, I didn't expect that. I thought there would be much fewer of us. But I have to say, congratulations.
Because we belong to a very particular set of human beings of which there are, every day, fewer. And those are the human beings who have actually lived through two geological periods. So I know, when we think about geological periods, we go to the dinosaurs. Doesn't mean that we're dinosaurs, at least not yet.
But can you imagine that geological periods used to move slowly? Well, they don't anymore, because we, those of us who were born in the '50s or before, were born in the geological period that was called the Holocene, which was a geological period that lasted, more or less, 12,000 years, during which, in her infinite wisdom, nature came to have what I would call a sweet spot, a sweet spot of precipitation, of temperature, of ocean, ocean variations, ocean movements.
Everything just came together to give humanity the capacity and the ability to develop from basically a couple of thousand humans who, during the Ice Age before the Holocene, were spread out mostly in the southern part of the planet and only a couple of thousand of them. But then, in the Holocene, we had such perfect conditions that we went from a couple of thousand to the 7 billion that we are today.
That is completely unprecedented in the history of the planet, and the planet is 4.5 billion years old. And that condition that was basically-- it's been described as the condition of life that engenders life, because so much life-- certainly human life, but many other forms of life-- developed very quickly in those 12,000 years.
Now we all could have continued in the Holocene, because it was so perfect for human development. But we didn't, because more or less in the '50s-- and scientists have decided it's in the '50s. It's the first time scientists can say, when does a geological period start and end? But in the '50s, and they're now about to decide, if they can, which year in the '50s. And I'm so praying that it's going to be after 1956, 'cause otherwise, so boring. All these young people, raise your hand, all of you who have only experienced one geological period.
OK, well, I'm thrilled that you're so young. But I'm sorry, because you have only lived on this planet during the new geological period that is called the Anthropocene. And in this Anthropocene, we actually, we humans, for the first time, we created the change of one geological period into the other. Previous to that, over 4.5 billion years, it was the planet herself who had actually moved us from one geological period to the other.
But now, we humans have the power to determine geological periods. And that's why it's called the Anthropocene, anthropos being human, because during the Anthropocene, not only have we caused a change from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, but actually, we have decimated the planet. And everything that you will read about the Anthropocene is about the story of the decimation that we have wrought upon the planet.
So we have, in these few decades since the '50s, we have decimated 60% of the species that used to exist. We have cut down at least one third of the trees that used to be here. We have endangered 1 million additional species in addition to the 60% that we have already made extinct. And we have caused such levels of CO2 emissions that we today have concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere that go way beyond anything that ever has been measured.
In fact, just in the last 10 years, just in the last decade, we put out the equivalent of greenhouse gases that we had put out over the last two centuries, just to get the sense of, you know, how the destruction capacity of humans has actually just gone so, so exponential.
And this was unintentional, I would say, certainly unintentional on the part of most, but decisive, very decisive. And it has slowly risen up to our attention, to the point that now, it really is being recognized not just by governments-- sorry, some governments-- as the greatest threat that we have ever faced, but actually, now, by industry.
I was just last week in Davos at the World Economic Forum. And most people arrived in Davos, Switzerland thinking they were going to the World Economic Forum. They found themselves in the World Climate Change Forum, because there was no other discussion about anything else except climate change.
In fact, the survey that the World Economic Forum does every year before the Davos conference, which is a survey of at least 1,000 industry leaders and some public sector leaders, and they always ask, what are the top risks to economic growth, to economic stability, and to business?
And this year, for the first time-- and Davos has now been going 50 years, because this is their 50th anniversary-- for the first time, the top five risks were not trade wars, was not cybersecurity. It was not economic recession. The first top risks were all environmental.
Top number one, climate change. Top number two, climate change. Top number three, climate change and biodiversity. And then four and five, local environmental issues. But all five top were environmental issues. That tells you that, for the first time, it's not because this is the first time that those are the greatest threats. It's because it's the first time that they're being recognized as such.
And of course, that comes from several places. It comes from the fact that science is much more granular and detailed now. But it also comes from the very painful, increasing evidence that we have before our eyes, the fact that, over the past 12 months, we had fires in the Amazon, in California, in the Siberian Arctic, and in Australia. Should be a very clear signal to us that things are really very wrong.
The fires in Australia burnt down the equivalent of one half the area of Germany, two times the area of Belgium. At least 1 billion animals were burned to death. And the economic cost is more or less being estimated at this point as 100 billion Australian dollars, 80 US dollars to the economy, which is about 5% of the Australian economy.
Those are disasters that, A, could have been avoided, but, B, are situations that are actually quite foretelling of things to come if we do not change our ways. So let me walk you through a possible, possible-- just remember that, I think that's an adjective, right, yes-- a possible scenario that we could find ourselves in if we continue to sleepwalk our way into the future.
Imagine that we are now in the year 2050, and we have done nothing more on climate change than what we have done up until today. Let's say we take what we've done now, and we just go flat and no further effort. Here's the world that those of you who will be there-- and many of us Holocene people will be in wheelchairs, but we might still be there.
You will not be able to breathe the air when you go out of your house without a mask. You will have to wear a mask every single time that you go out. There will be vast swaths of North Africa, of Australia, of course, of western the United States, that will be rendered practically uninhabitable because of temperature and absence of water. In fact, it will be impossible to either work or play outside.
The forces of nature will be such that there will be constant and increasing levels and depths of infrastructure destruction. And that will lead-- between the heat, the lack of water and food, and massive infrastructure destruction-- that will lead to massive forced migration for survival reasons, merely survival reasons.
And now just imagine the political and social pressure that those massive migrations will have from, for example, the tropical parts of Americas up into the United States, the tropical parts of Africa up into Europe. This is something that we have never experienced before. The migration that we are experiencing now is nothing compared to the pressure that we will have, let alone the new diseases that are going to be unleashed, coronavirus being a small example.
So the reason why I walk you through this is because we have to understand the consequences of continuing under business as usual-- not a world that I want to give to my children, my grandchildren, or their descendants, not a world that you want to bequeath to any of your descendants.
Here's the good news. That world is possible if we're so irresponsible and continue what we're doing. But it is not inevitable. And that's the point that we really have to understand. It is absolutely not inevitable.
This decade-- Happy New Year, 2020-- this decade, not just this year, but this is the decade-- the decade of the '20s is the decade during which we collectively, all of us, in particular, the adults, because this is not the responsibility of young people, especially if they're under 18, but those adults that are sitting at the different decision tables, this is the decade during which we will decide whether we go to that world that I have just described or whether we go to a radically different world.
And now let me invite you into that radically different world, a much better world that we can choose to create. But we have to choose it intentionally. In this other world, you go out, and actually, the air is fresh, and it's moist. Why? Because we have regreened the planet. We started a massive tree planting campaign. Either way, it just started last week in Davos, 1 Trillion Trees campaign. We have regenerated our soils. We have regenerated our oceans.
We have transport-- public transport. I know that's heresy in the United States, but it's going to happen. We have public transport. We have shared transport. Transport is clean. It's efficient. It's interconnected. It has intermodal capacities. And it is smart.
And energy-- energy is now not only clean, but it's actually cheap, getting close to zero cost, and ubiquitous, which means there is energy certainly in Arizona, but there is also energy in every single little hut in Africa. And what that means is that all of those people-- 800 million people today without energy-- can actually improve their economic level, because now they can have different activities during the day, and children can study at night. Makes a world of difference for those people who are currently unelectrified.
So there you have it, two different worlds. Both are entirely possible, entirely possible. Now this second world that I've just described for you, which is clearly the world that we want, the world that we want to bequeath to our descendants, it is possible. But it is not yet probable, because we haven't taken the decisions that are necessary to create that world.
In the Anthropocene, for the first time in the history of humanity, we are holding the pen on the future. It never used to be like that. It was always nature that decided what would come and what would happen. And now, in the Anthropocene, we hold the pen, and we decide what the future is.
And our task, our collective task, is to make that second world that we really want, to take it from being not yet probable to it being likely and then completely unstoppable. Because that is what we human beings want to do with our lives. And that is the only way that we're going to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we're doing the right thing.
And, you know, it may seem like it's impossible. But the fact is, change always takes longer than you think, and then it happens faster than you ever thought. And we are just on the verge of that. We're just on the verge of being able to choose the right path.
But it's got to be chosen in this decade, and let me tell you why. Because if, by the end of this decade, if, by 2030, we have not halved-- that is H-A-L-F-E-D-- if we have not cut to one half the global emissions that we have today, then there's no way that we can get to world number two, because we will already be down that path.
Think about this either as an elastic band that we're pulling and pulling and pulling, and by 2030, it will snap, and we can't go back, or think about it, if you will, as a highway in which we're going down a certain highway. We know we have to take the exit, because the business as usual direction doesn't work.
But then we daydream, and we go past the exit, and we continue down the highway. And we know that that was the right exit to get us to our destination, but we continued down the highway. And you know what happens, right? You miss the exit, and you go down miles and miles and miles on the highway, fully well knowing that you wanted to go in the other direction. But then it's too late.
And the fantastic and scary fact about the next decade is that it is the only time in human history that we have the possibility of that choice, because my parents and their generation never had the technologies to be able to address climate change. They never had the accumulated capital in the financial markets. And they certainly never developed the policies.
We have that. We have the technologies. We have the accumulated capital. We know the policies. So we actually have all the levers in our hand to actually make that choice. However, if we don't by 2030, it'll be too late to make that choice, because we will already have loaded the atmosphere to such an extent that there is no way that we can actually put the genie back in the bottle. So no pressure, no pressure.
This is the decade. And I actually think that we're incredibly privileged to be alive and, in particular, to be adults during this time in which we are witnessing and contributing to the major transformation of humanity ever. It is a huge responsibility. It is a privilege. It is an opportunity not given to any humans before us or after us.
So here we are. Why do I think that this is entirely possible? Let me give you a couple of factors that are already happening that are helping to accelerate the transformation that we need to go from gradual and linear to exponential. Because at this point, gradual and linear ain't going to cut it. We have to go exponential.
So a couple of factors. I already mentioned the fact that science has become much more certain, much more granular, much more detailed, and much more predictive. That wasn't so even five years ago. But since, especially since October of 2018, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists, climate scientists of the world, published the groundbreaking report in which they explained the difference that we will have if we go to 1.5 degrees centigrade as global warming or two degrees.
And you will think, well, you know, actually, half a degree, what's the big deal? Honestly, what's been the temperature change between this morning, today at noon, and right now, right? Much more than that. So what's the big deal? Well, the big deal is-- the big deal is that, first of all, that temperature is an average temperature around the world. So it's not, you know, variations during the day.
But here's the difference. If we go to two degrees versus 1.5, which are the two destinations in the Paris Agreement, we will have caused two to three times as much biodiversity loss. We will have caused two to three times as much physical destruction of infrastructure-- have to build it up again, or you leave for some other country. And we will have condemned two to three times as many people to water and food conditions that do not support life.
So science is lucidly clear. There is no way that we can let global warming go to two degrees. And we thought that two degrees was ambitious enough. Now we know. Reset the GPS. Reset the navigation system. We are going for 1.5, because anything other than that is immoral. So science has been a very important factor of accelerating change. Second factor that I wanted to share with you-- more pounding evidence, as I mentioned, Australia, floods in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. You know, those people, they don't even have a river, OK? They don't have rivers. They have to desalinate every single drop. Well, those cities were flooded. That is unheard of. It is completely unheard of.
And any child who was born in 2012 or any year thereafter has not lived a single day without some kind of a climate change disaster hitting the planet somewhere, not a single day in the past 12 years. That is unheard of. We are already in a completely changed environment. The pounding evidence that is in front of us has also led to the acceleration of change.
The third-- and this is so cool-- young people on the streets. Please raise your hand if you are an activist, and you've been on the street at least once. Doesn't matter how old or young you are. All right. All right, fantastic. Honestly, the fact that young people have decided-- finally, in my book-- finally to go to the streets is fantastic. Because as we're understanding, the worst impacts of climate change if we don't do our homework are going to be wrought on young people.
And they should be on the streets, out in front of parliaments, in front of city halls, everywhere, in front of companies, really demanding their right. This is a human right. This is a human right. The right to clean air and the right to life, the right to home, to land, to water, to education, those are all human rights. We are taking away those human rights from young people. Of course they should be on the streets. There are not enough of them yet.
There are millions of young people, and they're being supported by their teachers, professors, scientists, their grandparents, their parents. Sometimes the parents complain. Other times, they're on the streets, too. We should all be there. We should all be there, shoulder to shoulder with our young people. And that's a good thing. It's a very good thing that we are being reminded constantly of our accountability. For God's sakes, let adults act like adults and do what we have to do.
The interesting thing about that civil disobedience that the young people are doing is that there is abundant literature that shows two things. Number one, civil disobedience is successful when it is those who are most affected that go to the streets. That's very interesting, right?
So you can think about the civil rights movement in some countries, the right of women to vote. In South Africa, you can think about all of those huge movements of social and political change. They actually got accelerated when those who were most affected went to the streets. It is our young people who are most affected. Of course they have to be on the streets.
The second thing that the literature shows is that social and political/economic change actually is successful when you have 3.5% of the population behind it. That's doable. We don't need 100% of people in this country or in any other country out in the streets. We need 3.5%. And that has been shown to be the tipping point when, finally, major decisions are taken.
That's doable. We can definitely do that. So I'm expecting more millions of young people and not-so-young people out on the street this year so that we finally get it, that this is it. We are facing that exit on the highway, and we have to take it.
The fourth thing that is already accelerating change is courts are beginning to weigh in. Did you know that there already are more than 1,300 litigation cases around the world around climate change, most of them because of the impingement on human rights? That's good news. And those litigation cases are spread across 28 countries. 3/4 of those litigation cases are in which country?
Yes. That's no coincidence. Hello, right? That's no coincidence.
3/4, OK, 3/4 of those litigation cases are in the United States. Are they being successful? There's a fantastic word in German that I wish existed in every other language, but it doesn't, which is jein, which is both yes and no. Now Latin Americans, we always say yes and no to every question. But we still don't have a word for it.
But are litigation cases being successful? Well, no, they're not yet being successful, certainly the ones in the United States, because they're not reaching the legal decision of whatever the level of court is. But they are being successful, because the entire legal force is now really focusing on the nexus between human rights and climate change. That is a good thing. And we have a couple of cases that have been successful.
And here, I want to point out the most recent case that, you know, all of us who are in this really celebrated, which was in the Netherlands, a case that started three or four years ago. Small NGO that actually wanted to take its government to court, because they said, whoa, whoa, the Netherlands is not doing enough to protect us citizens, and they're not reducing their emissions enough.
So three to four years, and the litigation went every time to a higher court, higher court. And finally, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands came out, I think, just two weeks ago to say, yes, we agree with Urgenda, which is the NGO, and we force the government to reduce its emissions by 25% by the end of 2020. Woo! All right!
So, I mean, Dan is the lawyer here, and I'm sure there are many others, and will know the implications of that. But as far as I'm concerned, this begins to have a ripple effect, right? And supreme courts throughout the world are probably looking around their shoulder going, oh my God, what should we be doing?
I come from Costa Rica, and on Monday, I'm going to be at the newly elected judges of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which is the highest court in the whole of Latin America on human rights. All of their new judges are going to be sworn in on Monday.
And what do they want to pick up on their day that they are newly enrobed, invested? I'm not sure what verb to use. They've asked me to come and talk to them about the nexus between human rights and climate change. This is the Inter-American Court of 21 countries in Latin America.
So you can see that this is taking over. It doesn't mean that this is going to be solved by the courts. But it does mean that there is yet another push. Just like the activists are pushing from one side, the courts are beginning to push from another side. The pounding evidence, the science-- you can see how this puzzle is beginning to build up. Call it a tsunami wave that is actually taking place here.
The fifth piece that is actually accelerating change here is corporate behavior. Yes, it doesn't mean all corporates, right? There is no monolithic understanding of a corporation or all corporations. But it is definitely changing, because they're beginning to understand that there is a business case for acting on climate change.
There is a business case for reducing their carbon, whether it's in their operations, in their products, or their services. Because having high-carbon operations, products, or services actually is becoming a liability and a huge risk. And they're beginning to understand that, and they're beginning to shift over.
So today, we already have 800 of the largest corporations of the world that have adopted something called science-based targets. And science-based targets means they have internalized what science says, what the reduction of emissions has to be, and they're going, OK, we're in. We're going to do it. How are we going to do it? We don't know, because honestly, none of them know. How are they going to get to net zero emissions by 2050 and to half of their emissions by 2030? They don't know.
But they are challenging their employees, their customers, their clients, their shareholders to come with innovative and with ingenuity ideas that are going to help them to reduce. And they have that commitment. If you don't have a commitment down the line, there's no way that you're going to reach it. You have to have a commitment. You have to have clarity of your destination. And you have to be optimistic about it.
You have to say, I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I'm going to have-- everything that is within my power, I'm going to throw at this problem. And we're going to collective solve it. If you don't have that attitude, you do not change anything. And that is true about climate change, but it's also true about anything in our personal life.
If you want to run a marathon-- just to take an example-- if you want to run a marathon, and you say, well, I'm going to run a marathon, but actually, I don't really think I can, I can't take the time out to train, I don't really want to do, you know, the high-protein diet, [MUMBLES], what do you think? You won't run a marathon.
If you say, I'm going to run the marathon, this is the date, and this is my schedule, and I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to get to the end of the finishing line, but I'm going to throw everything that I have at this, you will have at least a fighting chance of running that marathon. You may not be the winner. But you have a fighting chance of running the marathon.
And same thing for everything in life. Same thing for climate change. If we don't have a clear destination and throw everything that we have at it, we're not going to do it. And as we've already established-- we, the royal we-- there is no other option but to address climate change.
So why is this happening? Why are corporates actually taking these very clear destinations? Well, because they have understood that cutting carbon out of their operations and their products and services increases their efficiency. It motivates their employees and their clients, because all of a sudden, they get a much better reputation. It is giving them increasing access to finance, because capital markets are shifting over.
And perhaps the most important thing, the one thing that corporate leaders always tell me why they're doing this, because they want to be able to hire the best and the brightest, and because bright young people do not want to sell their brains to corporations that are irresponsible and are robbing them of their future. And well done. Well done.
The last piece that I wanted to share with you that is pushing this transformation is, as I quickly mentioned, the capital markets. They are also beginning to shift, because they have understood that it's risky, that continuing to be invested in high-carbon assets, in coal, in oil, in gas, is actually very risky, because those sectors are losing their value in the market.
And so we have quite a shift. We have already $12 trillion in capital markets that are shifting away from high carbon into low carbon. We have a new alliance of asset owners that are up to 5 trillion now, which are-- top of the financial food chain is asset owners, because they instruct the asset managers what to do, how to invest the money. They also instruct the companies that they partially own. And they have actually decided they're going for 1.5 and no more.
How are they going to do it? They don't know. But are they going to do it? Hell yes. Because as they say, there are no jobs and no clients on a dead planet. So they got it, OK? The penny has fallen, and they are doing it.
And our dear and beloved Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, manages $7 trillion, has been a renegade on climate for years, finally, last week, wrote a letter to all of the companies-- and he owns a piece of every company in the world-- saying, "OK, OK, OK, I get it." This is my interpretation of the letter. It was a little bit more polite. "OK, OK, OK, I get it. I get it, OK, you know? High-carbon assets are actually pretty risky. So everybody, please start to reduce the carbon in your portfolios and in your products and services. And by the way, BlackRock is no longer going to finance any coal. We're out of coal." That begins the process.
So none of these pieces of the puzzle that I have laid out for you individually is actually going to get us to where we need to go. But together, what they're doing is they're beginning to construct an upward spiral that is getting, every day, quicker and quicker and getting us closer, but not yet to where we need to go.
So that's the good news. And each one of us can actually imitate to a certain extent that positive upward spiral and contribute to it. Because we are now so backed up against the wall. If we had 30 years to do this, we could say, fine. Let all of those big picture, right-- because all of that is big picture-- let all of that, let the governments, let the corporates, let the finance people sort this out, and eventually, I'll do my thing.
Well, maybe that could have been a good excuse 20 years ago. But we have now backed ourselves up the wall so badly that now we need both systemic changes, which I've just mentioned, but we also need bottom up. Every single one of us has to contribute to this.
So how can you contribute? Couple of levers that you have at your hand. First, political pressure, very important. That includes going to the streets. Not enough people in the streets in the United States, OK? You're totally outnumbered in Europe. We've got to get more people out in the streets in the United States. So go to the streets. The ballot box-- not that it's an issue this year in this country.
It's very important to really understand. And let's not take voting for granted, OK? It's not every human being that has the privilege to live in a democracy. So take that privilege very seriously. And this year, the election of this year in this country is fundamental to deciding the future of this planet. And that is no exaggeration. So exercise your right to vote at all levels. And stand for office, particularly the young people, particularly the young women. Stand for office and change it.
Parentheses-- there is a very courageous young woman who's standing for office here for city council of Phoenix. Yassamin, do you want to stand up? Stand up.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]
That's the kind of leadership. That's the kind of courage that we need. So, you know, get with it, because-- don't sit back, right? This is the moment to go all in. It's an all-person, all-sector, all-in effort.
Second lever that you have on your hands in addition to political pressure-- economic signals. What you eat and what you buy as your food sends signals to those companies that produce that food. There are now at least two, but maybe more, alternatives to cow hamburger-- plant-based hamburgers. Why? Because people are asking for it, that's why. It's not because they invented it. It's because they can tell that there is a demand in the market. So what you eat is actually important, because it sends the signals.
What you buy, whatever you buy, all the stuff that we buy-- first of all, do we really need all the stuff that we buy? Number one, you know, let's look at our consumerism, because we don't need everything that we buy. How much junk do we have in our closets that we bought, we used two times, and then we put it in the closet?
We say kids, you know, don't have the attention span, because you give them a toy, they use it for six months, and then they forget about it. We adults do the same thing. So, you know, how many of our toys do we really need? Let's look at that.
But if you really need it, really, you have to start demanding low-carbon products and services constantly. Transport. This is the country-- I'm very sorry-- but this is the country of most irresponsible transport, because the system hasn't responded differently and because they haven't felt the pressure from consumers to give them something different. So consumers have to send the signals of what you need.
And savings. All of you who are in a position-- and by the time you're my age, hopefully, you're in the privileged position of having some savings-- do you know where those savings are? Because if they're invested in coal, you're in big trouble, big trouble, because coal is losing its license to operate and its value in the market. And if you're invested in oil and gas, you have a few more years. But that will also go.
So find out where your savings are. Find out. Because if you are still propping up industries that belong in the museum, you're not doing anyone a favor. And you're certainly not doing your children a favor.
And the third thing that is in your hands is this amazing-- I don't know if this now exists, but we're just going to create it right now-- massification. Does that exist in English, massification? Anyway, what I mean, the potential to massify any movement.
Given the social media that we have now and that some of you understand, and I only understand partially, but, you know, look at the Arab Spring. Look at Hong Kong. Look at all of these amazing, dramatic changes that are taking place, just because it's facilitated through social media. And that means that you can exponentially grow your voice and the number of bodies on the street, the number of bodies doing the right kind of purchases or not purchasing. But the massification potential that is in your hands is something that you should really take very seriously.
So let me conclude by saying, how lucky are we? We are up against the most amazing challenge that humanity has ever faced. And yet, we hold the pen. We can write what we're going to do over the next 10 years, because each one of us does have the decisive capacity to change what we're doing and do something very different about our own lives, certainly, but also, the signals that it sends to the system change.
It is an incredible opportunity. We should actually hold ourselves as very lucky, as very privileged. Can you imagine the stories that you will be able to tell your grandchildren and those after, that you contributed to the most important change of humanity? We're holding the pen. Don't drop it.
Daniel Bodansky: Well, thanks, Christiana, for that amazing talk, really inspirational talk. I hate to raise this, given how inspirational that was, but given that we both worked on the Paris Agreement--
Christiana Figueres: It was inspirational, but--
Daniel Bodansky: But I was intrigued by the fact that, in listing all the different pieces of the puzzle that you mentioned for solving the climate change problem, all of which I agree are incredibly important, you didn't mention the Paris Agreement among the pieces of the puzzle.
And I was just wondering, this is supposed to be the year, under the Paris Agreement on climate change, the year of ambition, when countries can come forward with new pledges about what they're going to do to try to raise their ambition, to try to close the gap between the emissions and what we need to-- the pathway we need to be on to get to 1.5 degrees.
And I'm just wondering, what's your assessment as to where the Paris Agreement stands, and how can it contribute? Do you think it's on track to trying to deliver change, or do you think these other levers that really are less dependent on the Paris Agreement are really where we should be focusing?
Christiana Figueres: I don't see what the difference is. The Paris Agreement, what it does is basically it marks, if you will, the highway that we have to follow. And everything else is just contributing to that, whether it's the finance, or whether it's the corporates, or whether it's the courts, or whatever. It's just contributing to following the path of decarbonization that is set out in the Paris Agreement, which is not invented by the Paris Agreement, or by countries. It's actually determined by science. So all of this is only contributing to that.
And we have to understand that the Paris Agreement, contrary to the previous legal instrument, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement was always set out to be a multi-decadal legal instrument where, every five years, countries come together to take a look at their admittedly already-insufficient efforts, and then increase their efforts. So that's the question, actually, that is the question.
The question is, what is going to happen this year? Because the Paris Agreement is set up on these five-year cycles. And the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015. So 2015, in Costa Rica, at least, plus 5 is 2020. I hope it's the same math in Arizona. And so now this year is the most important international negotiation since Paris, where countries are expected to come to the table and increase their ambition.
Well, there is one country, shall not be named--
--who we know is not going to increase its ambition. We already know that that country will exit the Paris Agreement the day after the national election. The universe has a funny way of doing things. And then it's really going to depend, obviously, on the results of the election whether the United States can duck back in. Because they would be able to do so immediately on the first day of enlightened leadership in the White House, or whether they stay out.
The problem with them staying out is-- well, the problem with the United States staying out for yet another five years is that it gives cover to some countries that came into the Paris Agreement under unanimity, but came in just a little bit dragging their feet. But they came in, and if the United States stays out for another four years, it gives them the excuse to drag their feet.
On the other hand, one can say, well, the list of countries that have exited the Paris Agreement is a long list of one. There is not any other country that has followed suit. It doesn't mean that they will increase their ambition. So jury is still out as to what's going to happen at the end of this year.
Daniel Bodansky: Thanks. So one of the question I think that's in the political debate here in the US as to how to address climate change, is whether it can be dealt with through sort of incremental changes to the existing economic system. Things like, changes in the price signals through carbon taxes, or whether it needs some more fundamental changes to the whole economy, and our relationship with nature. And I was wondering whether you could comment about the degree to which we really require radical changes to the economy versus the kind of more--
Christiana Figueres: Define-- give me an example of a radical change to the economy.
Daniel Bodansky: Well, something that really attack-- is something fundamentally different than relying on capitalism and the price signals and things like that. Because we can't rely on companies and capitalism to be able to address the problem.
Christiana Figueres: I don't think capitalism is the answer to everything that we have. Definitely not. But I am convinced that we don't have the time to radically change capitalism before we cut our emissions in half. So it's a question of timing.
I mean, if we haven't even agreed on a price on carbon, are we going to agree on the alternative to capitalism? I just don't think that's gonna happen in the next 10 years. And so, you know, all things are important, but some are more urgent than others. And cutting our emissions really does determine the quality of life on this planet for hundreds of years. I can't emphasize that enough.
And so my sense is, why don't we-- why don't we-- "tinker" is perhaps not the word. But why don't we adapt the capitalistic system that we have now to a system that is-- and I think we're already in the process of this-- capitalism, if it's understood and is way, way outmoded in a traditional way of generating profit for the benefit of shareholders only. Let's say that's an irresponsible definition of capitalism.
Well, what if we have a capitalism that generates profit for the benefit of all stakeholders? Shareholders, clients, citizens, employees. That-- maybe you call it a socialist capitalism. I'm sorry about that weird term, but I think that's entirely possible. And those companies that have really engaged seriously with climate change, as well as with all of the other ESG, environmental, social, and governance issues, are beginning to move toward that. Toward, let's say, an enlightened capitalism in which they understand that of course they have to have a profit, but it's not just for shareholders.
They have to have a benefit for the planet, for people, including their customers, and their employees, as well as for profit. So people, planet, profit, is basically the triple bottom line that most enlightened companies are following now. And I think that gets us pretty well at least to the end of this decade. And then, you know, all of-- everyone who wants to reinvent or substitute capitalism, please be my guest. But not before 2030.
Daniel Bodansky: Thank you. And I should have said at the outset, by the way, that we invited questions beforehand from the AUDIENCE. And thank you all for the questions you've submitted in writing. And the questions I'm asking are based on questions we received from you all.
So my next question is that the UNFCCC has a big initiative called Action for Climate Empowerment, or ACE, which is focusing on public education, training public awareness, public participation. What do you see as the potential for ACE to contribute to substantial change on climate change? And since we're here at a university, what in particular do you think the role of the university should be? What more can we be doing as teachers, educators, students, to try to address the climate change problem?
Christiana Figueres: Well, I think the role of academia is absolutely critical in this. Because academia is on the cutting edge of the development of many of these concepts, and, very often, in fact, even in the development of technologies. So the role is a very clear role.
Where I get concerned, and it's not the case here, but I get concerned in some dearly beloved academic institutions where there is a lot of teaching and there is a lot of research, but we don't walk the talk. And our campuses are not sustainable, and we have a very high, very high carbon footprint, on and on and on. We've got to be consistent.
And we can't just teach sustainability. We actually have to live sustainability. Because it gets into our DNA and it becomes our personal culture. So it's got to be consistent all the way through. And if it is consistent, that is the most powerful message. Then you can really use that solid basis to push the envelope and be able to understand what I think is beginning to be understood in the policy field, but that is very well understood in the academic field, which is the interrelationship between all of these issues.
In the policy field, we have this stupid silo thinking that biodiversity is over here and oceans are over here and climate is over here, and on and on and on. And that's not the way nature works, and it's certainly not the way we should go at this, because all of it is interlinked. So the fact that here, for example, you do understand that all of this is interlinked, and that moving one piece in one actually positively affects everything else, that concept is still in its infancy, and really needs much more honing.
As well as the concept-- and I was just talking to Peter about our capacity to create the future. This book that we are bringing out on February 25th is called "The Future We Choose," because it is a choice. We have to wake up to the fact that we either sleepwalk our way into something that we don't want, or we choose to do differently. But it's got to be an intentional choice.
And that has got to be ingrained into young people's psyche from the moment that they enter college, if not before. We've got to understand that we have the power of choice, that we are not the victims of the past. We are the creators and co-creators of the future.
Daniel Bodansky: So I wanted to ask you, how worried are you about the problem of potential tipping points where something happens and the climate system goes in a non-linear direction and just goes off the cliff? For example, melting of the permafrost leading to emissions of methane. It seems to me that's something that doesn't get maybe enough attention in thinking about the response, that it may be that we don't have the luxury of just sort of slowly reducing our emissions and trying to keep the temperature down, that we might go over some cliff where there's a dramatic change.
Christiana Figueres: Yeah--
Daniel Bodansky: I was just wondering how worried you are about that--
Christiana Figueres: --no, that's very, very concerning. And that's the reason why we have to cap our emissions by 2030. Because if we don't, we will go over some of those tipping points, and then we've totally lost control. Because if you have, for example, a rapid conversion of the Amazon, if that moves over, which it's very close to doing, from being a carbon-absorbing ecosystem to actually being a carbon-emitting ecosystem, then that takes us way beyond the carbon budget. If we have a certain degree of permafrost thawing, and methane release, 20 times as potent as CO2, then that takes us way beyond the carbon budget. And there are so many of these systems that can tip very, very quickly.
Australia, to come back to that example, we don't know yet, but there are many biologists that are actually quite concerned that not only will we not recuperate those billion animals that burned to death, but that we may not recuperate the ecosystems that are so unique in Australia. If that is the case, that would be the first tipping point that is caused by irresponsible management of burning of fossil fuels. And that's-- it's, you know, it's just-- it's very visceral, because we all saw that. We all saw it, so it's happening right now, right in front of our face. And we are much closer than we think.
Daniel Bodansky: So we're here in the US, and I think it's entirely appropriate for us to be focusing on the US and what the US should be doing more to address climate change, and the effect of the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement. But I think the fact of the matter is even if the US were able to get its house in order-- which is a big if-- most of the emissions growth in the future is going to be coming from countries like China, India, East Asia.
And I'm just wondering-- you travel around the world all the time. And I'm wondering, these different pieces of the puzzle that you were mentioning in solving the problem, what hopeful signs do you see in countries like China that they're going to turn things around? Because if they don't turn things around, it really doesn't matter what the rest of the world does. We're still going to be in trouble.
Christiana Figueres: Yes, correct. So China and Southeast Asia are currently the largest burners of coal. They always were. What they're doing now is they're burning-- the increase of coal is a lower rate. Did I explain that correctly? Yeah. The increase of coal is at a lower rate. So that doesn't solve the problem, and that needs to be accelerated.
Perhaps the greatest threat to us not being able to address climate in a timely fashion is the fact that since the United States started-- since the Rose Garden speech-- who remembers that Rose Garden speech, when he announced that he was leaving the Paris Agreement? Poor roses, did you notice they all went [CHOKING]?
Since that announcement two years ago, or a year and a half ago, China has begun to somewhat pull down its coal plants, which it was aggressively doing before. But more concerning, it has begun to finance a lot of coal in other Southeast Asian countries. So has Japan, and so has Korea.
That is relatively new. That is one of the things that I point to as hiding under the skirts of the United States, because the United States leadership is gone, and the United States had been so effective in pulling all of these players down the right path. And so that is very concerning.
Because it's not just China and India per se. India-- China is actually investing domestically more into solar, wind, electric vehicles, and battery storage capacity, more than any other country in the world. Why? Because they want to be competitive. And they know that we're going into a decarbonized economy, and so they want to be competitive, and they're investing a heck of a lot domestically.
But they are financing a lot of coal outside. India is also decarbonizing, very interestingly, mostly because of air pollution. And where they're decarbonizing most is actually in transport. So 80% of the vehicles in India are actually two-wheelers, motorcycles. If you've ever been in India, you know-- [MIMICS TRAFFIC SOUNDS].
You know, don't cross the street because you'll be out flat on the street. So all of those-- not all of them, but there's already quite a few states in India that are beginning to move all of those bicycles over to electric bicycles with a very interesting business model of battery exchange. So instead of going and filling in a gasoline station with gasoline, you actually go into the former gasoline station, you pull out your battery, stick it in, and take out a full battery and go.
So it's a very interesting model that they're using. And they're doing it because of health reasons, because of the pollution. If you live in New Delhi, statistically you live six years less than in any other city in the world because of air pollution. So they're doing it for different reasons. But financing of coal in other countries is absolutely inexcusable. And the United States used to put pressure on that, and they don't now.
Daniel Bodansky: So we're almost out of time, but I just wanted to ask you one last question. I think I know the answer--
Christiana Figueres: Can I just say something. Thank you for calling your country "the United States." I really appreciate that, and let me say why. Because there is a long tradition, a long habit, to call this country "America." "America" is a continent. It goes all the way from Alaska, all the way to Chile and Argentina.
There are more than 40 countries that are included in the continent of America. So when somebody says "the president of America" x-whatever, I go, excuse me? Which president are you talking about? Because my president, that is also a president of America, my president is actually impeccable on climate change. So I don't think we're talking about the same president.
But thank you for calling it the United States. And I would ask you all to-- because honestly, all of us Latin Americans, we take exception to that. What do you mean, the president of "America"? Is he the president of the whole content? I sure as hell hope not!
[AUDIENCE LAUGHING, APPLAUDING]
Daniel Bodansky: Well, thank you. So I just wanted to ask you one final question. I think I know what your answer is going to be. But before the Paris conference, you were quoted as saying, "it's so cool to be alive right now." And I'm just wondering, is that still the way you feel?
Christiana Figueres: Totally! Totally, totally! Because now we've really-- I mean, honestly, before Paris, I didn't understand this whole thing of the Holocene and the Anthropocene and these 10 years and all of this is completely new to me. So I just think, how cool is it? How cool is it, the fact, as I said before, that we are holding the pen on the future? Never before and never after. It is only us, and only for the next 10 years. If that is not a privilege, I don't know what is.
Daniel Bodansky: Thank you so much.
Daniel Bodansky: As a small token of our appreciation--
This presentation is brought to you by Arizona State University's Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. For educational and noncommercial use only.