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Christiana Figueres: How Can We Choose Optimism — Even In The Darkest Times?

May 22, 2020
Originally published on May 22, 2020 8:32 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Climate Mindset

In 2015, Christiana Figueres helped pave the path to the historic Paris Agreement. She says more than ever we need stubborn optimism — a gritty, determined choice to make change because we have to.

About Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres is a Costa Rican diplomat who was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-2016. During her tenure at the UNFCCC, she brought together national and sub-national governments, corporations and activists, financial institutions and NGOs to jointly deliver the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, in which 195 sovereign nations agreed on a collaborative path forward to limit future global warming.

Figueres is also a founding partner of Global Optimism, a group focused on social and environmental change. She recently co-authored The Future We Choose and cohosts the weekly podcast Outrage and Optimism with Tom Rivett-Carnac.

She also currently serves as Convenor of Mission 2020, Vice-Chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, World Bank Climate Leader, ACCIONA Board Member, WRI Board Member, Fellow of Conservation International, and Advisory Board member of Formula E, Unilever and ENI.

Previously, Figueres served as Director of Renewable Energy in the Americas (REIA), and in 1995 founded the non-profit Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas (CSDA), which she directed for eight years.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: And when I say stubborn optimism, what I mean is relentless, right? It's a relentless choice.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

This is Christiana Figueres. Tom worked with her on U.N. efforts to curb climate change, and she says that to keep making progress, we need stubborn optimism.

FIGUERES: It's a relentless commitment. It's a gritty determination to move forward no matter what. Now, Manoush, I am a woman, and I'm a Latin American woman. And Latin American women are known for being exaggerated and very happy with the use of hyperbole. This is no hyperbole. We are now at the most critical crossroads in the history of humanity. Now, you may say, oh, my God. That paralyzes me with fear.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

FIGUERES: Well, OK. Wonderful. I'm glad that you're paralyzed with fear. But here's the thing. It is always at the moments of greatest darkness that we actually need the brightest light.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: When we come back, Christiana describes how she realized that she had no choice but to be optimistic. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today - can we make the psychological shift we need to fight climate change? Before the break, Tom Rivett-Carnac and Christiana Figueres told us that optimism - stubborn optimism - is the key to how we approach global warming.

FIGUERES: It is always at the moments of greatest darkness that we actually need the brightest light.

ZOMORODI: But Christiana didn't always feel this way. Back in 2010, she was appointed as the executive secretary...

FIGUERES: Executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is quite a mouthful. Basically, what that means is that...

ZOMORODI: Basically, what that means is that she had to bring 195 countries to a consensus on how to manage climate change.

FIGUERES: It was actually an impossible task. It was a very doom and gloom mood, a sense of overwhelm, a sense of helplessness.

ZOMORODI: That's because just six months earlier, the negotiations for a global climate agreement had totally broken down.

FIGUERES: People had tried to come to an agreement in Copenhagen and failed. And they had concluded it's too late anyway to address climate change. We're just going to have to accept the ravages that it's going to bring.

ZOMORODI: And so this was the mood when you gave what I think was your first press conference on the job.

FIGUERES: Yeah, the press conference that I remember best (laughter). I've done many press conferences. But this is the one that I remember best because it was just very painful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FIGUERES: On my first press conference, a journalist asked...

ZOMORODI: Christiana Figueres picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FIGUERES: ...Ms. Figueres, do you think that a global agreement is ever going to be possible? And without engaging brain, I heard me utter, not in my lifetime. Well, you can imagine the faces of my press team, who were horrified at this crazy Costa Rican woman who was their new boss. And I was horrified, too. Now, I wasn't horrified at me because I'm kind of used to myself.

(LAUGHTER)

FIGUERES: I was actually horrified at the consequences of what I had just said.

Horrified because I thought, OK, well, that expresses the mood. But is that what we really want for our future generations? Are we going to give up now just because this was an incredible attempt and we failed? Is that a reason to give up, and then to condemn future generations to the ravages that will be brought upon them? And I, you know, very quickly I said no, you know, I can't do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIGUERES: There's no way that I could live with myself knowing that I had just been given responsibility, and what was I supposed to do? Just hold failure in my hands for several years, and just admire the failure, admire the problem? It was just not something that I could do. It was just not morally responsible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FIGUERES: It was, frankly, a horrible moment for me. And I thought, well, no, hang on, hang on. Impossible is not a fact. It's an attitude. It's only an attitude. And I decided right then and there that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.

ZOMORODI: So it kind of sounds like you walk off the stage, and you're thinking to yourself, like, you know, we don't have a choice here. We have to keep going no matter what happens. Children are depending on us.

FIGUERES: Exactly. Exactly. And so it was definitely, I think, my maternal instincts, thinking certainly of my two little daughters, but frankly, of your daughters, as well. Right? And of everybody's children. Because climate change is something that affects everyone, and it especially affects people who we don't know, either in the present or in the future. And I just felt this huge moral responsibility, fully realizing that I did not have a blessed idea...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

FIGUERES: ...Of what we could do to change it.

ZOMORODI: So you have this epiphany, this moment. And then, what exactly were you committing yourself to?

FIGUERES: Yeah. I actually call it stubborn optimism. And for me, optimism is actually more of a choice. It's a moral choice. So then, you know, I have to change my attitude first. And then, I have to figure out how to be contagious about that. I didn't have a blessed idea of how we were going to get that. But if I could harness collective wisdom, we would be able to figure that out.

ZOMORODI: But as you say, for you, like, it wasn't enough that you felt this (laughter).

FIGUERES: No, no, no, no.

ZOMORODI: You had to corral everyone.

FIGUERES: I mean, what's one person going to do? If it comes to something as global as addressing climate change...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIGUERES: ...Obviously, it's never one individual. Far from it. It has to be a critical mass of people who bring their ingenuity, their innovation, their creative thinking and their solution development together. If we're going to do this, it has to be an everyone-in effort. So we went from something that was impossible in 2009 to something that was, OK, maybe possible. Over the years, we moved from possible to likely. And then, eventually, in 2015, to unstoppable. So that arc of possibility is what eventually led to the Paris Agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

FIGUERES: There is no way you can deliver victory without optimism. And here, I use optimism as a very simple word. But let's understand it in its broader sense. Let's understand it as courage, hope, trust, solidarity, the fundamental belief that we humans can come together and can help each other to better the fate of mankind. Then you see that governments were able to go to Paris and adopt the Paris Agreement.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: OK. So optimism clearly played a pretty big part in reaching an agreement in Paris. But, you know, let's fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump is elected president. And he announced that the U.S. was leaving the Paris Agreement, rolling back regulations. It's hard to figure this out because, I mean, I know reducing emissions is possible. The science says so. And we have even seen it since the pandemic began. But it also feels like, so often, politics is the reason that optimism can be so hard to muster, right?

FIGUERES: Well, but then we haven't understood my definition of optimism, because optimism is not the result of the reality. It's a choice. It is an intentional choice. We have to be able to say, OK. There are going to be barriers - in this case, the U.S. White House. OK. But that's not going to be a permanent event in our life. That is an event. And at some point, that is going to change. Don't confuse the waves with the current.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIGUERES: If you live on the ocean, you see tides. There's a low tide and there's a high tide. And those are constant, in constant following of each other. So we have a low tide in the White House right now. We also have a high tide in many other places of the world. But let's not confuse that with the current. The current that we have, which is the underlying trajectory of the global economy, independent of the political tides, is definitely toward decarbonization.

It's not just possible. You said that it's possible. Honestly, it's necessary. It's the only thing that we can actually accept. Neither our parents nor our children have the capacity. Our parents did not have it. And for our children, it will be too late. So if today, collectively, we stay in the grief and the despair and the helplessness, we will never get out of this black box. That's the point. We are at the moment in which we need the brightest light.

ZOMORODI: Something very powerful happened to me when I read your book called "The Future We Choose." And, I mean, I hear all the doomsday scenarios. And it completely freaks me out. But what you did in the book that was different to me was you laid out what it would be like to actually live in a carbon-neutral, regenerative world. And so I wonder if you could do that. What does it look like when we see companies and governments and investors and citizens coming together in a way we've never seen before beyond nation states, but as a species?

FIGUERES: Well, yes. We actually set out those two futures that we're choosing between. And it's important to understand that under a business-as-usual scenario, if we continue to do what we're doing, we are passively choosing the world of doom and gloom which we describe in the book. Instead of passively choosing, if we actively, intentionally choose to do differently, then we create a future that is very different from the doom and gloom.

So both are possible right now. But none of them is currently a destiny, neither of them. We have to choose which destiny do we want. The other world that, honestly, was a little bit more difficult to write because there's more information about the doom and gloom than there is about the new and much better world. And we wanted to write a scenario that is actually science-based. But picture this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIGUERES: ...Picture that you live in a city...

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS HONKING)

FIGUERES: ...That you walk out of your house and, actually, the air is fresh and moist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FIGUERES: Why? - because humanity has actually done a mega-planting of trees across the entire world. And we have replenished the forest cover that had been lost. And that forest cover is actually helping us to clean the air and to bring temperatures down. We will have regenerated soils. And we will have regenerated the oceans. Now you have oceans that are plentiful. And you have soils that are fertile and producing - on less land, they're producing much more.

Imagine that you walk out of your home. And instead of getting into your singly owned, gas-guzzling vehicle, you actually have a smart vehicle that comes around. It picks you up. And of course, it's an electric, clean vehicle. And it takes you to wherever you want to go. No parking. And all of that area that used to be for parking of all of these stupid vehicles is actually now transformed into gardens.

Imagine that all of the buildings will have - on the roof, they will either have solar panels for electricity or they will have food gardens. Imagine that every single surface is actually going to be capturing sunlight to produce the energy for that building or it's going to be contributing to cleaning the air and bringing down the temperature.

ZOMORODI: This sounds wonderful. It sounds like Utopia, Christiana.

FIGUERES: Well, I mean, maybe, you know? Maybe it sounds like Utopia. But the fact is, we're on the way toward many of those things. We're totally on the way toward an electric, smart transportation. We are totally on the way of smart design of cities. It is not science fiction. If you look for examples of any of this, it's all already underway.

ZOMORODI: Listening to you, you are full of energy and conviction and, yes, optimism. But, surely, there must have been moments in the last couple years, especially since Paris, where you have had to collect yourself and check your doubts and really recommit to this climate optimism.

FIGUERES: Absolutely. I've had moments of deep anger and frustration and, you know, used very strong language, cussing language at points...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

FIGUERES: ...Because it makes me so angry that we are so stuck in a reality of the past, and we see ourselves as being victims of the past, as though we could do nothing about it. And that is totally untrue. We're not victims of the past; we are creators and creators of the future. So yes, I do get angry. And yes, I do get upset. And I use the energy of that anger to actually move forward because if I stay in that hole of anger and despair and grief, then I don't do anything.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

FIGUERES: If you're angry, if you're despairing of whatever - what that is is energy. The only thing you have to do is harvest that energy and change the characteristic of it, and then you're contributing to the solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: That's Christiana Figueres. She and Tom Rivett-Carnac are co-authors of the book "The Future We Choose: Surviving The Climate Crisis." They also host a podcast together called "Outrage And Optimism." You can see both of their talks at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.