AIF Blog

To Be (Optimistic) or Not to Be: A Recipe for Beating Climate Change

Nov 07, 2018
CATEGORY: Environment
Christiana Figueres is the former Executive Secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change at the United Nations, overseeing the delivery of the Paris Climate Agreement. She is also the convenor for Mission 2020. Figueres spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival. 
When Jeff Goodell and Christiana Figueres sat down to discuss climate change at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, Goodell told the audience about a trip to the Great Barrier Reef with his teenage daughter. A consummate and self proclaimed “climate pessimist," Goodell described how important it was to show his daughter the reef before it disappeared completely. Bleaching events caused by rising water temperatures have killed half the coral on the reef. On their return trip, Goodell says they encountered a disheartening juxtaposition: barge after barge carried coal out to sea, and a mining was proposing to create the largest coal mine in Australia.
When talking about climate change, it's easy to feel discouraged or pessimistic. However, advocates like the UN’s Christiana Figueres are working to change that negative perspective. 
She is an avowed “stubborn optimist” in her approach to solving this overwhelming challenge. The friendly tension on stage between the pessimist and the optimist made for a lively hour-long conversation.
Figueres is, by no means, a blind optimist. She has been on the front lines of almost every global initiative on climate change; she knows better than most what exactly is at stake. 
How can she have such an optimistic “spin” on climate science after having a front-row seat to its destruction? “It’s not a spin, it’s a decision," she says, "And one that everyone needs to make."
“Before I get to the decision, you’re absolutely right in being concerned. The negative impacts [of climate change] are only accelerating.” She acknowledges why it’s okay to be concerned. Much of the damage that has been done to the climate is irreversible, and if we were somehow able to halt emissions tomorrow, residual effects of what we’ve already put into the atmosphere would continue to change our planet for decades.
But she asked the audience to try to think of any human achievement that started out with defeatism; any insurmountable challenge that mankind overcame, that began with pessimism. 
“It is a choice. If we decide that it’s too difficult, than we won’t do it. If however, we decide that we don’t have not choice: that it is our moral, economic, political, and technical responsibility to address climate change in a timely fashion…then we begin to unleash enormous amount of human potential.”
Goodell asked Figueres about the fine line between mitigation and adaptation, and which of the two is going to be more critical moving forward. “At some point,” she responded, “the adaptation conversation is pointless because unless we mitigate, and mitigate dramatically, there is no level of adaptation that we will be able to do to address the problem.”
But she is optimistic that we can figure it out. “It’s not mitigation versus adaptation. It’s both at the same time. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Despite her professed hopefulness, Figueres acknowledges how hard it is to remain optimistic in the US, especially now as progress seems to “limp” along. But, she's insistent. "There is a heck of a lot going on in the rest of the world.” If you look elsewhere in the world, she added, if you looked at the incredible progress countries like China and India are making and the sheer number of countries that have met or passed their 2015 pledges, you wouldn’t feel discouraged at all. In fact, she goes as far as saying that this is the most “exciting energy revolution in the history of the world.”
Figueres says there's a point of distinction between federal politics and the ‘real US economy, moving forward.” The global economy is moving towards a coal-free future, and there is very little the coal industry, or the EPA, can do to change that. 
Little by little, Figueres, the devoted optimist, chipped away at Goodell’s sturdy pessimism. “It’s now gentle pessimism,” Goodell admitted, after Figuere’s particularly rousing and hopeful call to optimism. “You’re convincing me here on the stage.” 
“I have decided that we are going to go at this with a positive outlook and put forward the future that we want to create, the future that I want to give to my children and your children,” Figueres said with a smile. 
The views and opinions expressed in the blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
Written by Hadley Stack, Public Programs intern at the Aspen Institute