Books | Climate change

The new reality

Can the climate crisis still be halted? Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, authors of the Paris Agreement, are determined to keep looking forward.

Parts of a glacier can be seen on a mountain. The larger part of the mountain is free of snow. In the middle are remnants of snow that still reach down into the valley.

The Rótarjökull glacier in 1999

How should we write about climate change? As a reader, we might think that it is a totally normal subject, after all so much has been written on the topic already. But we should pause to ask ourselves: What are the intentions of the book – and the stacks of others on the subject?

The answer is obvious: To prevent the earth from overheating due to the burning of fossil fuels, to prevent glaciers from melting, oceans from rising flooding all low lying coastal areas in the world, forests from burning, hundreds of millions of people from becoming refugees and millions of species from going extinct. The intention of the book is to prevent all these things by educating the public and influencing global policies. For many, this might seem like a completely normal aim for a book. 

The Future We Choose dives into “the mother of all issues”, as they put it in the book. After all, every single issue we are facing will be amplified by climate change. Hunger, human rights, equality, child mortality, the refugee crisis, democracy, wars...  The solution to everything hinges on us living on a stable earth, with predictable cycles of seasons, weather patterns and functioning infrastructure.

You could say that Christiana Figueres became “the mother of the mother of all issues” – working as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate change - she was responsible for important initiatives like the Paris agreement of 2015. This is a book about the future of our planet - the future we choose for our planet and how soon we must stop burning fossil fuels to avert total climate chaos. 

“As if climate change was only a category for ‘climate concerned people’, as if lovers of crime novels would not be affected”

We humans have a problem called “shifting baseline syndrome”, the world changes but we normalise our reality, just like the coronavirus is now for many of us the “new normal”, however absurd and dystopic it might have sounded some years ago. In a review about a climate book in Publishers Weekly recently, I read this sentence: “Climate concerned readers will have much to consider”.

It was phrased as if climate change was only a category for “climate concerned people”, as if lovers of crime novels and vampire golf books would not be affected, safe and sound in their own target group. The Future We Choose is for people who have already read a lot about climate change – and those who haven’t. It is a well-structured accessible book which is often inspiring. It offers the reader a toolkit of guidelines, spanning personal and political choices as well as how to deal with dark predictions. The book opens with two choices, a carbon free world of 2050 versus the world of “business as usual”, where many of the worst predictions have already become full blown problems.

Figueres and Rivett-Carnac introduce ten easy to understand measures that readers can adopt, including: “Let go of the old world”, “see yourself as a citizen, not a consumer” and “engage in politics” phrases which, at times, seem somewhat simplistic. They also present three mindsets: “stubborn optimism”, “endless abundance” and “radical regeneration”. Endless abundance is based on the thought that the challenge must not be approached as a zero-sum game, the perception of scarcity can lead to hoarding, waste and even wars.

Radical regeneration is used to convey the notion that by rewilding and reclaiming wild areas we can heal much of the damage and by shifting to plant-based food and reforesting the earth we can draw down a lot of the carbon we have emitted. Figueres stands on firm ground when it comes to stubborn optimism - her father José Figueres Ferrer was three times president of Costa Rica, he abolished the military and national parks now cover about 25 percent of Costa Rica and forests cover about 50 percent of the land. A similar transition needs to happen in the entire world, and we need our own stubborn optimism to deliver. 

“Never in history have words been so powerful”

Words can literally change the world. After all, words can influence the public and politics, that influence laws, regulations and international agreements that influence or restrict our behavior and therefore prevent glaciers from melting. Never in history have words been so powerful. If we can halt global warming, we have proven that humans are intelligent beings that can “choose a future”. Otherwise, we are like any other algae bloom, doomed to grow into the available natural resource – only to collapse when it is depleted. 

When in the history of humanity did global leaders meet at a conference and discuss how they were melting glaciers and raising sea levels? Not in the times of Napoleon, not in the times of Genghis Khan, Ramses II, Cleopatra, Cesar, Stalin or Moses. Democratically elected presidents, kings, dictators and tribal chiefs are meeting and discussing sea level rise of one meter, two meters, warming of 1.5 or 2C... we must remember that nothing is normal about that.

When could a human write a book with the intention of saving glaciers and calming the oceans? Not until very recently. Wars and pandemics are normal human problems, but this is not.  We are shaking the foundations of our very existence and possibly preventing our children from living on a livable planet. We are living times that are not only a new chapter in history books, but in geology books, the Anthropocene, the era when humans became so powerful that they are a major geological force.

The Future we Choose came out in 2019, just before the Corona virus swept across the continents, imposing extreme restrictions on humans. They have stayed indoors for a year, skipped all social events, all culture, all schools, travels and even avoided hugging grandmothers. But when we think of global warming, what have we done to prevent the world from going off the rails? Have we undergone any real discomfort? Have we done anything like being in quarantine, staying home, have we skipped a single party? In contrast to our response to this virus, it's quite obvious we have done very little for the climate. 

Recently discomfort is commonplace in the form of massive heat waves, forest fires and 1000-year floods. It seems that people are slowly waking up. But do we only understand when a fire or a flood is at our doorstep? Is it possible to react because a book told us to vote wisely, to choose a future before tragic consequences happen? 

We still have the opportunity to choose our future. But not for long.

Translated by Jess Smee