There might be no two people better positioned to write about the reasons to hold onto hope in the face of the climate crisis than Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. As the UN’s Executive Secretary and Chief Political Strategist respectively, the two played central roles in the historic Paris Agreement of 2015, widely recognised as the most substantial step towards staving off runaway climate change since talks began. Entering a space of decided hopelessness, they banded together to create what they call a ‘contagious frame of mind that led to collective wisdom’. It is this frame of mind that takes central focus in their new book The Future We Choose.
The Future We Choose a guidebook for climate activism and active participation. It also functions, in a way, as a kind of climate self-help book for the many who feel crushed under the ‘fatal knowledge’ of everything to come. In this way, their book fills a large but closing gap in the climate narrative, where hopelessness and incapacitating nihilism have the monopoly. Yet it is to the authors’ credit that the story of optimism and hope that they tell is not a whitewashed or reductive one. The book does not turn a blind eye to the true, horrifying depths of the crisis. They instead show that a gritty, grounded optimism is always available to us, even as we look at the crisis dead-on.
In one of the best sections of The Future We Choose, the authors present two contrasting narrative styles: one chapter fearful and alarmist, the next hopeful. The friction between these two chapters works well to underline a key point that we are still—though barely—inside the window of time in which we have relative agency over our climate.
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First is a portrait of a 2050 world in which we have failed to halt global emissions. This means that we are on track for 3 or 4 degrees of warming beyond pre-industrial levels. In this world, ‘The first thing that hits you is the air.’ It is hot and heavy, and your ‘cough never seems to disappear.’ With the carbon sinks of the world utterly ravaged, ‘Tipping point after tipping point is being reached.’ Countries the world-over suffer ‘brutal infrastructure destructions.’ Every day, ‘some new part of the world must evacuate to higher ground’ due to rising seas. Some cities are on the verge of desertification. Mass migrations are everywhere to see since the equatorial band became largely uninhabitable. There is, everywhere, ‘a sense of bottomless loss, unbearable guilt and fierce resentment at previous generations who didn’t do what was necessary to ward off this unstoppable calamity.’
This first fearful chapter echoes the zeitgeist of climate storytelling today: stories of doom and portents of a world that science says we are bound for. And, of course, it is a story that bears repeating. But it is at this point that The Future We Choose makes a crucial manoeuvre, taking a speculative glance at a very different 2050. In the next chapter, we find a portrait of a world in which we all did what we had to do in order to stave off catastrophe. Here, the air is very different. It is ‘moist and fresh, even in cities.’ In many places, ‘it feels a lot like walking through a forest.’ This is due to drastic plunges in air pollution, massive rewilding projects and a ‘complete reimagining of cities.’ The chapter documents, in riveting detail, the ‘excitement and innovation of the new climate economy’ in which we no longer recklessly burn fossil fuels, and in which renewable energy has created millions of jobs and an abundance of energy. ‘The wide-ranging transition to renewable energy was at times uncomfortable,’ they say, ‘yet we finally saw that transition for what it was—the tantalising opportunity to reimagine the way we live on and interact with the planet. When alarm bells rang in 2020 … we realised that we suffered from too much consumption. But humanity was only ever as doomed as it believed itself to be. Vanquishing that belief was our true legacy.’
This key early sequence in the book underlines the value of holding both worlds in our hands; alarm and grief in one and hope and forward-thinkingness in the other. Indeed, the friction between these two visions of the future casts as wide a net as possible for readers. The story of alarm and horror reminds us of the urgent need for action, while the story of hope–an uplifting vision which is like a hook in the future–awakens the creativity and energy required for such transformational change. We should, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac say, take adequate time to grieve, but that heartbreak that we feel ‘should spur us onto greater action rather than sink us into a pit of blame [or] despair.’ Gearing our collective mindsets away from climate despair towards a more regenerative point of view will, the authors suggest, be the first crucial step towards meaningful change.
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac dub this philosophy ‘Stubborn Optimism.’ They define it as a gritty, realistic mindset that exists not because success is necessarily likely, but because failure is simply unthinkable. After 30 years of climate reporting, we all have learned responses of hopelessness. Yet it is possible to deliberately reprogramme ourselves.
We might believe, rather gravely, that it is too late to change course. But remember, the authors say, that ‘every fraction of warming makes a difference’ and that ‘any reduction lessens the burden on the future.’ We might feel that it is all just too depressing to look at. The authors say that we should remind ourselves that ‘mobilising for generational change can be thrilling,’ that we have ‘the outrageous fortune to be here on this planet at a moment of profound consequence,’ when we can still change course. Or we might be convinced of the impossibility of lightening society’s dependence on fossil fuels. But keep in mind, they say, that 50% of energy in the UK already comes from power sources other than fossil fuels, that Costa Rica is almost 100% renewable, that companies including Amazon have pledged carbon-neutrality by 2050, and that China, the world’s largest emitter, has pledged the same by before 2060. We might be firm in our belief that it is surely impossible to shift the tide of public indifference. However historically, only as little as 3.5% of a population has ever needed to mobilise non-violently to bring into effect transformative societal change, and polling shows that a majority of people now understand the climate crisis to be among the defining issues of our time.
Such is the exciting, regenerative attitude that Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac provide in The Future We Choose. It is a narrative of hope that is under appreciated in climate storytelling. Yet the book never allows for this optimism to eclipse the real, tragic losses of the Anthropocene, nor does it fail to tell this story without the required urgency. It is a book for anyone who wants to meaningfully engage with the largest crisis of our time without falling into the familiar pits of despair by the time they close the book, awakening instead the intense desire to participate in meaningful action.