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The Necessity of Optimism in Fighting Climate Change

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Christiana Figueres was the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning in 2010, when the organization had just failed to deliver any meaningful progress at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen, through 2016, when it had, under her leadership, produced and then seen ratified across the globe the landmark Paris Agreement. In other words, while the Costa Rican diplomat wasn’t the “author” of that incredibly complicated diplomatic agreement, she may be the most well-positioned person in the world to describe the political complications of bringing such an agreement about — and then putting it into action. I spoke to her by phone just before the next wave of U.N. activity on climate.

I want to start by asking how you see things, big picture, because to me an enormous amount depends on one’s perspective. We’re talking on the eve of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, when the countries of the world are expected to arrive in New York with more ambitious pledges to combat emissions. But we’re also talking three years after the signing of the Paris accords, which you helped bring about. And just three years later, of all the nations of the world, only Morocco and Gambia are on track to meet the commitments they made in Paris.
I’ll tell you why I think that that is the case. We have a conceptual lag. There were way too many years where we thought of decarbonization as being a burden to the economy — a moral obligation. As long as we keep on thinking that way, then we will not unleash the drive we need.

Countries need to understand that decarbonizing is the way to enter the 21st century. It is the modernization of their energy systems, the modernization of the transport system, the modernization of their land-use policies, right? It is so ironic that climate change is so urgent and is so threatening and on the other hand, at the same time, it is the best thing that ever happened to us — pressing for climate action is the best thing that we can possibly do.

That calls to mind a second conceptual lag, which is about the fact that we’re in this together. When you look at what happened in the fight between Macron and Bolsonaro over the Amazon, some of that conflict was about the role of borders and national sovereignty in a time of climate change. We’re probably not ready to discard that idea, but we may need something like the framework that evolved after World War II, placing human rights and to a lesser extent markets and free trade as principles to be defended or advanced even against assertions of national sovereignty. In fact, there’s kind of a stronger case for that view when it comes to climate than human rights, because while human-rights violations are a kind of moral crime there is not a material effect on the lives of people living elsewhere on the planet. When you open a coal plant, there is a........

© Daily Intelligencer