The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis
by Christiana Figueres and Rom Rivett-Carnac
Manilla Press, London, 2020, 224pp
by Christina De La Rocha
Here is our current conundrum: the closer we run out the clock on the changes we need to make to avoid catastrophic climate change and a total collapse of ecosystems, the greater our climate anxiety spikes, paralyzing us into not taking action. You could call it a death spiral. If we let it occur, that is. Here then perhaps is the book to kick us in the kiester with enough positive thinking to get us moving: The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac.
The authors are international climate treaty negotiations royalty. Figueres, the daughter of a three-time president of Costa Rica (which is one of the world’s sustainable development success stories), has served as the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was largely through her efforts, and those of her protégé and right-hand man, Rivett-Carnac, that the Paris Climate Accords were agreed in 2015. This Paris Agreement is the one whose aim is to limit global warming to 2°C (or, preferably 1.5°C).
In The Future We Choose, published in 2020 and released as a paperback in 2021, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac lay out their vision for the future we could create for ourselves if we would just start working on it already. Recognizing that the revolution needs to roll on every level of society (from multinational corporations and international consortia of nations down to individuals), they attempt to rally us into doing our bit.
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac begin the book by pointing out that while catastrophic climate change and environmental disaster due to excessive global warming are an increasingly likely outcome, given the trajectory we are on, it is not quite yet too late for us to curb net greenhouse gas emissions to avoid an extremely devastating outcome.
They then paint a picture of the world in 2050 as it might be if we take no further action to control our greenhouse gas emissions. Reader, it is not pretty. Never mind the horrific air pollution, heat waves, droughts, storms, and flooding, people are starving, countries are collapsing, climate refugees are streaming, and communities are waging war against each other over water. Some of this sounded over-the-top to me‒it’s a lot of serious collapse for just 30 years from now‒and yet, the stable situation that we have is eroding. We’re already seeing the first stirrings of all of the above. Figueres and Rivett-Carnac may well be right that the situation could be this dire by the time I’ll be too old to fight effectively for my own survival. As troubling thoughts go, that might be enough to spur me into action. I’d definitely be one of the first to be eaten in the potentially coming waves of starvation.
But the authors aren’t doom and gloomers. They counter this brief glimpse of a savage hell with a vision of a 2050 that we get right. A wonderful 2050 that we bring about by halving our current greenhouse gas emissions before 2030, halving them again before 2040, and hitting net zero before 2050. A splendid 2050 that we usher in by planting trees, shifting over to regenerative and sustainable forms of agriculture, and eradicating egregious inequality A fabulous 2050 that we make possible by ceasing new coal production by 2020. (Whoops!)
It’s striking how solarpunk their positive vision of 2050 looks. Their good-looking 2050 is full of fresh air because we planted so many damned millions of trees, especially in cities, in all those spaces where we used to use to park all those cars we no longer own because public transportation is now so excellent and affordable only the monstrously selfish continue to own their own vehicles. In this 2050, we don’t rely on fossil fuels at all, not even for what few passenger jets are still flying. Every community has a communal garden churning out heart-breakingly beautiful fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, our homes have become self-sustaining, generating their own electricity (via solar panels), heating and cooling themselves via heat pumps, collecting and purifying their own rainwater, and, yes, at least in part growing food for their inhabitants. And in this 2050 we’re all really nice to each other.
Yes, this 2050 of our dreams also struck me as over-the-top. I know the human race! There is no way we’re going to so profoundly get our shit together like that ever, much less within the next 30 years. But what Figueres and Rivett-Carnac are laying out is a vision and why bother with a vision that doesn’t aim high? Honestly, who is inspired by a mediocre vision? Technically, is a vision even a vision if it doesn’t see beyond what is obviously attainable? So, I’m game. I’ll run with their beautiful 2050 and see what it inspires me to get off my butt and do to achieve in terms of a future that isn’t totally sucky (my phrasing, not theirs). I’m betting you’d be swept up with enthusiasm, too.
The authors intend to put that enthusiasm to use. After exhorting us not to despair but be jazzed about the coming total overhaul of the way we do everything, the authors give us a list of actions we can take to move the revolution forward.
Some actions are psychological or philosophical. Don’t give in to the populist temptation of nostalgia, for instance. It would just hold you back and then fail to deliver what you wanted (the world as you remember it). Climate is changing, no matter what. There is no hanging onto the status quo, much less retreating into the world of our childhood.
Other actions are more practical. You should, for instance, figure out what you need to do to personally decrease your greenhouse gas emissions by 60% (if you live in one of the countries with high per capita emissions) before 2030. For my household, that will take (over the course of the next eight years) setting solar panels on the roof, switching to a heat pump for heating, Spouse eating more legumes, nuts, and vegetables in lieu of some of his beloved meat and dairy, me either importing my parents or having them die of old age so I don’t keep flying from Germany to California, and us sticking with an electric car (we’re too out in the boonies to rely on buses). For what energy the solar panels can’t supply, we would need to keep purchasing electricity from the lady with the wind turbines near Hamburg (or from other company offering renewables-based power). Other things people might need to do are ditch fast fashion and, in general, stop buying so much stupid crap.
My favorite action suggested by Figueres and Rivett-Carnac is rewilding the Earth. This means letting the forests be forests again, the bogs be bogs, and the grasslands grasslands. This means giving back a lot of cropland and pasture, factories, warehouses, strip malls, exurbs and suburbs, and all sorts of other horrors we’ve committed to the land. We would then either replant these areas with native plant species or just let nature take the areas back over.
Figueres and Rivett-Carnac also suggest we spend and/or invest our money greenly, supporting companies that produce food and goods sustainably. We should also work toward gender equality, vote, vote, vote, and pester our Congressperson a lot.
And that’s just what we have to achieve between now and 2030. Then we will need to take it up a notch (although as we progress through the transition to our new world, making the necessary changes should become easier). At any rate, none of us gets a breather until the entire system has been transformed and we’re living in fresh, clean, awesome cities, full of vegetable gardens and trees, surrounded by a rewilded world, and we’ve reached net zero emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
I like the list of actions Figueres and Rivett-Carnac give. I have a goal now for what I must do to accomplish my part of the change that needs to happen. I also have a better idea what to clamor for concerning the larger changes that are beyond my ability as an individual to deliver.
If there was an aspect of the book that I did not like, it was that it sometimes bungled the climate science.
For instance, the authors did not seem to know the difference between just planting trees willy-nilly and bona fide reforestation. Planting trees in what used to be parking lots in cities is not reforestation, for instance. It might not even qualify as afforestation (which is the creation of forests in previously unforested areas). Forests are large and complex ecosystems. A bunch of trees in a small lot between buildings in the middle of a city is not. The authors’ hearts are in the right place with the tree planting, but actual reforesting requires an informed approach to be effective. And when you’re fighting against disinformation and the insidious idea that facts are endlessly interpretable‒weapons that are being used against the environmental and social justice movements‒it’s important to use words correctly.
Along these lines, as an Earth scientist, I howled when the authors confused ice sheets (which are miles-high piles of ice, such as currently on Antarctica and Greenland, that are formed by the accumulation of snow on continents over thousands to millions of years) with sea ice (which is formed when the sea surface cools to its freezing point, is never more than a few meters (yards) thick, and represents an accumulation of at most a handful of years). And I briefly threw the book into the recycling bin when, on about page 3, the authors stated that the “last ice age” lasted 2.6 million years, ending at the start of the Holocene interglacial. Argh! Only someone who knows just enough to get it all wrong could say these things.
Long story, short on that last howler, Earth’s continental ice waxes and wanes over simultaneous cycles of different duration. Because of this, there are different ways to define the “last” (meaning latest) ice age. If you’re going to pick the 2.6 million years that the waxing and waning of the great continental ice sheets have really dominated the rhythms of climate, then that ice age hasn’t ended yet (the last time I checked, the Antarctic Ice Sheet and last remnant of the Northern Hemisphere Ice Sheet were both still there). The Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets’ days may be numbered thanks to human-driven global warming, they most certainly did not completely disappear at the start of the Holocene, 11,650 years ago. What the Holocene interglacial actually marks is the slightly warmer but still glaciated episode that would have occurred between roughly 100,000-year-long surges of the Northern Hemisphere Ice Sheet (now licking its wounds in that small corner known as Greenland), except it got interrupted by anthropogenic global warming.
These errors made me wonder. UNFCC royalty must surely know several climate scientists. Did they not ask even one of them to read through a draft of the book to catch these rookie mistakes?
The stupid thing about these mistakes is that the climate science is the least important part of The Future We Choose. That they detract from the main message is a shame when the authors are absolutely right about what they’re right about. We do need to be excited about the future and the massive overhaul that we get to make to society, our cities, and the way we live, eat, travel, and work and everything else. We ought to be enthusiastically seizing the day, making plans, and taking action to turn our world into a brilliant place for all of us. We should be clamoring for politicians and business leaders to take action as well.
Because imagine if, fired up by our dreams of what a wonderful world this could be, we all got our butts in gear and started working on it, each and every one of us on every organizational level of society. Then we’d definitely change the world.
Christina De La Rocha (she/her), formerly a professor of biogeochemistry and marine sciences, is the co-editor for Solarpunk Magazine‘s nonfiction department. She loves reading and writing science fiction that explores what people do with the spaces opened up by science and technology and non-fiction related to how stuff works, from the origin of the Universe and then, later, life, to the complexities of the climate system, to whether or not fueling the electricity grid through fusion is an impossible long shot. Her (non-academic) writing has appeared in Analog, Toasted Cheese, and Unsustainable Magazine and in the book Silica Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @xtinadlr.