Introduction to the Vintage Books Edition (2021)
The Critical Decade
We wrote this book before COVID-19 crashed into our world. In fact, we managed only the first three stops on a planned yearlong book tour before we rushed to our respective homes and into a global lockdown that has changed everything. Since then we have been shocked at how many aspects of both the dystopian and the desirable futures we describe in this book suddenly came into relief and stark contrast with each other.
More than ever, we are determined to play our part in ensuring our future is one that we deliberately choose, rather than one we stumble into blindly.
We have seen the world on fire, from the Amazon rain forest to California and from Australia to the Arctic. The hour is late, and the moment of consequence, so long delayed, is now upon us. Do we watch the world burn, or do we choose to do what is necessary to achieve a different future?
Who we understand ourselves to be determines the choice we will make. That choice determines what will become of us. The choice is both simple and complex, but above all it is urgent. The next decade will be the most consequential in human history. We are choosing between two utterly contrasting futures, one to be feared and the other to be proud of. This book presents three mindsets that are essential for making the wiser choice. We can do this.
We remember a twelve-year-old girl marching with her friends down Sixteenth Street in Washington, D.C., at ten a.m. on a Friday, holding up a hand-painted sign of the Earth enveloped in red flames. In London, grown-up demonstrators dressed in black and wearing riot-police headgear form a human chain blocking traffic at Piccadilly Circus, as others glue themselves to the pavement in front of the headquarters of BP. In Seoul, South Korea, the streets teem with elementary schoolchildren sporting multicolored backpacks and carrying banners that say CLIMATE STRIKE—in English, for the benefit of the media. In Bangkok, hundreds of teenage students take to the streets. With firm resolve and heavy hearts, they walk behind their defiant leader, an eleven-year- old girl carrying a sign: THE OCEANS ARE RISING AND SO ARE WE.
All over the world, millions of young people—inspired by Greta Thunberg, the teenage girl who began a lone protest in front of the Swedish parliament—are engaging in civil disobedience to draw attention to climate change. Students understand the scientific projections and are terrified about the diminished quality of life on their horizon. They demand decisive action now. They are helping to raise the level of outrage about the insufficiency of our efforts to address the crisis, and they have been joined by scientists, parents, and teachers. From the quest for independence in India to the civil rights movement in the United States, civil disobedience erupts when reigning injustice becomes intolerable, as we are now seeing with climate change. Unacceptable generational injustice and a deplorable lack of solidarity with the vulnerable have opened the floodgates of protest. Those who will be most affected have taken to the streets. Their anger is energy that we desperately need. It can propel a wave of defiance against the status quo and catalyze the ingenuity needed to realize new possibilities.
To protect what we love from danger is a natural human instinct that, when we feel a lack of agency, can easily transform into anger. Anger that sinks into despair is powerless to make change. Anger that evolves into conviction is unstoppable.
These protests should come as no surprise. We have known about the possibility of climate change since at least the 1930s and have been certain since 1960, when geochemist Charles Keeling measured CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere and detected an annual rise.
Since then we have done little to counter climate change, the result being that greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change, are increasing. We continue to pursue economic growth through the unbridled extraction and burning of fossil fuels, with a fatal impact on our forests, oceans and rivers, soil, and air. We have failed to manage wisely the very ecosystems that sustain us. We have wreaked havoc on them, unintentionally perhaps, but relentlessly and decisively.
Our negligence has catapulted climate change from an existential challenge to the dire crisis it is now, as we rapidly approach limits beyond which Earth as we know it will cease to be. And yet for many, these depredations are invisible. Despite the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, we still have not connected the dots between the ongoing destruction of our natural habitats and our future ability to ensure our children’s safety, feed ourselves, inhabit coastlines, and uphold the integrity of our homes. If nothing else, the human tragedies of 2020 have shown us that our lives and livelihoods are entirely dependent on respecting nature. Moving beyond injustice, restoring nature, eliminating racism, and solving the climate crisis can only be achieved if we recognize that they are all fundamentally the same challenge of how humans live well together on this Earth.
Governments have taken incremental steps to address climate change, treating it as a singular issue when, in fact, it cuts across all the issues we need to tackle. The furthest-reaching eff ort is the Paris Agreement, which delineates a unified strategy for combating climate change. All governments of the world unanimously adopted it in December 2015, and most ratified it into law in record time. Since then many corporations, large and small, have set laudable emissions- reduction goals for themselves, many local governments have enacted effective policies, and numerous financial institutions have shifted significant capital from fossil fuels to alternative clean technologies. However, some governments have started to declare a climate emergency because, as essential as the current corrective actions are, taken together they still fall far short of what is necessary to stop the rise— and start the reduction— of emissions worldwide. Every day that passes is one day less that we have to stabilize our increasingly fragile planet, by now on its way to becoming uninhabitable for humans. We are running out of time. Once we hit critical thresholds, the damage to the environment, and consequently to our future on this planet, will be irreparable.
Over the years, public reactions to climate change have run the gamut. At one extreme are the climate deniers who say they don’t “believe” in climate change. Denying climate change is tantamount to saying you don’t believe in gravity. The science of climate change is not a belief, a religion, or a political ideology. It presents facts that are measurable and verifiable. Just as gravity exerts its force on all of us, whether we believe in it or not, climate change is already affecting us all no matter where we were born or where we live. The irresponsibility of not “believing” in climate change is becoming more apparent with every new catastrophic event. Climate deniers are shamelessly protecting the short-term financial interests of the fossil fuel industry to the detriment of the long- term interests of their own descendants.
At the other extreme are those who acknowledge the validity of the science but are beginning to lose confidence that we can do anything to address climate change. People feel real grief over the unspeakable loss of ecosystems and biodiversity and over how much more we are about to lose, including the future of human life as we know it. Those who are enveloped in this grief may have lost all faith in our collective capacity to challenge the course of human history. Every new documentary, every new scientific study, every report of disaster deepens the pain. Grief can be a powerful, transformative experience for some, and arguably a major reason climate change has continued largely unchecked for so long is that we have failed to truly feel what it will mean. It is important that we all allow ourselves adequate time and space to deeply feel our grief and to openly express it. As we tune in to the raw emotion, many of us will undergo a dark, unsettling period of despair, but we cannot allow it to erode our capacity to courageously mobilize for transformation.
A larger group of people, between these two extremes, understands the science and acknowledges the evidence but takes no action because they don’t know what to do or because it is far easier not to think about climate change. It’s scary and overwhelming. To a large extent, many of us stick our heads in the sand. Every time we see a report on extreme weather—hurricanes that used to occur once every five hundred years in a region now occur twice in a month, droughts that shrivel entire villages off the face of the Earth, heat waves that break record upon record, disasters that illustrate what is really going on—we feel a knot in our stomach. But then we turn off the news and distract ourselves with something likely to make us feel less hypocritical. Better to act as if nothing were happening or as if there were no way to stop it. That way we can delude ourselves that life will continue unimpeded. While this reaction is understandable, it is also a colossal mistake. Complacency now will lock us into a future of guaranteed scarcity, instability, and strife.
We are already too far down the road of destruction to be able to “solve” climate change. The atmosphere is by now too loaded with greenhouse gases and the biosphere too altered for us to be able to turn back the clock on global warming and its effects. We, and all our descendants, will live in a world with environmental conditions that are permanently altered. We cannot bring back the extinct species, the melted glaciers, the dead coral reefs, or the destroyed primary forests. The best we can do is keep the changes within a manageable range, staving off total calamity, preventing disaster that will result from the unchecked rise of emissions. Thtis, at least, might usher us out of crisis mode. It is the bare minimum that we must do.
But we can also do much more.
Copyright © 2020 by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.