Gritty Optimism is Key to Overcoming Climate Change

This article is based on a conversation that occurred at the YPO Hub in Davos during the January 2020 World Economic Forum.

The news reports on the environment and climate change are grim. Greenland and Antarctica are melting six times faster than they did in the 1990s, contributing to the rapid rise of sea levels and endangering delicate ecosystems. The year 2016 was the warmest on record, with 17 of the 18 warmest years occurring since 2000. Eleven percent of the world’s population, 800 million people, are at risk because of these, and related, extreme weather events.

There is no doubt that climate change is rapidly altering our world and putting the lives of all living things in danger. But according to Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Tom Rivett-Carnac, former political lobbyist for the Convention, hope is not lost. They believe that there is still time to stem the tide of global warming and create a new future for all of us, and they are leading the charge to get everyone, around the world, on board.

An optimistic view of climate change   

Though Figueres and Rivett-Carmac have very different skillsets and ways of expressing themselves, Figueres says that they are united by a shared commitment to improving the world for future generations.

Via their partnership, Figueres and Rivett-Carmac founded Global Optimism, an organization that helps other institutions launch initiatives that seek to transform the response to climate change far and wide. Through Global Optimism, the pair co-hosts the Outrage & Optimism podcast, and their book, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, was published in February.

Most significant, perhaps, is their work on the 2015 UN Climate Change Convention. It was there that Figueres and Rivett-Carmac lead the negotiations that culminated the Paris Agreement, an historic pact adopted by 196 nations that each agreed to take aggressive steps to curb the climate crisis.

Before 2015, climate negotiations between countries were hamstrung by what is referred to in the UN as “common but differentiated responsibility.” The foundation of this belief is that, while all nations have a duty to address climate change, every nation’s duty is different; countries with greater levels of emissions would be expected to adopt more stringent reform and vice versa. Naturally, this thinking lead to a lot of blaming and finger pointing. Not only did some nations accuse others of being more at fault for the current problem, but they also viewed them as competitors in a clash for dwindling resources.

“It’s the first time in human history that we’re holding the pen on the future.”

“What Cristiana was able to do throughout this process and many others was to flip it around and say, actually, this isn’t about a shared risk,” Tom explains. “This is about your future and investing in your future, and it’s about abundance. If you embrace this future, you can have a future with more green; you can have a future that is better for health; you can have a future that still has good economics [and] that supports the well-being and the livelihood of people.”

As evidenced by the names of their organization and podcast, and even the title of their book, Figueres and Rivett-Carmac are approaching the climate crisis from a place of empowerment and, most importantly, optimism. But theirs isn’t a traditional optimism. They harbor no delusions that our climate issues will be magically resolved without our strategic involvement, and they also know that, even if we do all the right things now, our future success is far from guaranteed. Nonetheless, they believe that optimism is absolutely necessary if we hope to have even a slim chance of brushing back devastating climate change.

“We have to be able to honor the fear, to honor the despair, to get in touch with it, but also move beyond it into gritty determination, into the conviction that we, as humans, are smart enough, and we are developed enough as a species, to actually be able to engage in this,” Figueres said.

“That’s what we mean by optimism.”

The time to act is now

Wars are never won by positive thoughts alone, and even a healthy dose of optimism won’t solve our climate issues if we don’t partner them with swift, decisive action. And even as young climate activists, including Greta Thunberg and Mari Copeny, lend their voices to the cause, Figueres believes that it’s not their responsibility to do so.

“Those of us who are adults right now have the responsibility to bend the curve and put us back on the right track,” she says. “It is not for the children to do, but they will suffer the consequences.”

To bend that curve, Rivett-Carmac notes that we must reduce global emissions by half over the next 10 years. “If we don’t do that,” he says, “then we are the generation that failed when it mattered and we are the generation that got to this point, knew what we were facing and didn’t prioritize it.”

The good news is that, regarding the actual work that must be done, neither Figueres nor Rivett-Carmac recommend anything that we don’t already know. Limiting meat consumption, planting trees, walking or using public transportation—these steps, while seemingly small, can create a wave of positive change if everyone around the globe were to participate.

Indeed, the biggest concern of both Figueres and Rivett-Carmac is whether humans will act with enough urgency to make a difference.

“It’s the first time in human history that we’re holding the pen on the future,” Figueres said. “We are writing, right now, what the future is going to look like. And it’s the only 10 years in the history of humankind—in fact, in the entire lifetime of us humans—that we can. Because after 2030, we no longer hold the pen.”

Watch the full discussion here:


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