Two hundred years ago, the German writer Goethe famously said that the hardest thing is to see that which is in front of your own eyes. This statement has proved entirely true in the context of what we are doing to Earth’s climate. For the last 60 years, we have known that burning fossil fuels and cutting down our primary forests warms the planet and that continuing on that path would lead to disaster. Yet we humans have prevaricated and have done little to actually lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The results of our inaction are showing up everywhere. From fires in California and Australia, floods in Indonesia, England, and Iran, to swarms of locusts across East Africa, the climate crisis is already devastating and gaining momentum.
We must at last choose to respond, and quickly. On this point science is very clear. We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent this decade and get them to net-zero well before 2050. Some doubt this is even possible, but we have evidence to the contrary. When 195 countries unanimously adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015 — something naysayers thought impossible for 20 years — the achievement was not in changing facts but in changing attitudes.
Once we set our minds to halving emissions over the next 10 years and choosing a future defined by clean air, good jobs, improved human health, and sustainable economies, we open the space of possibility for a better future to be realized. In fact, it’s already happening.
The youth movement has changed the conversation in boardrooms and parliaments already. Last year, the head of OPEC declared the mass mobilization of world opinion against oil as the greatest threat its industry faces. BP’s CEO, Bernard Looney, noted earlier this month in a speech before investors, “[W]e are listening. Both as a company — and myself as an individual.” In his speech, Looney announced that the petroleum giant plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. BP’s net-zero pledge is yet to be qualified by actions, but it represents a significant shift in the narrative: Change is coming.
Visible activism is essential, but not all activists march in the streets. An increasingly active investor community is shifting the direction of capital flows. In a letter to CEOs entitled, “A Fundamental Reshaping of Finance,” Larry Fink, head of the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, warned, “Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” and went on to say, “In the near future — and sooner than most anticipate — there will be a significant reallocation of capital.” Boston’s State Street, with a $3.1 trillion investment arm, announced this year it will take voting action against board members of companies that fail to meet environmental standards. And Mad Money’s celebrity stock picker, Jim Cramer, has declared fossil fuel stocks “tobacco,” pointing to the accelerating trend of divestment and the fact that, regardless of short-term performance, a new crop of younger investors just don’t want to own them.
These are a few examples of the many efforts already underway across the globe that will profoundly shape the decade ahead.
Nationally, countries have been too slow to implement policies that would limit the worst impacts of climate change, but many states and cities are way ahead. Massachusetts is one of the leaders; the state Senate passed a wide-ranging energy and climate bill to halve emissions this decade and reach net-zero by 2050. This momentum needs to be accelerated by public awareness and leveraged to ensure that citizens and the private sector play their part, but again it’s clear evidence of a shift in direction.
Waking to the horrifying visions of the climate crisis every day can make it difficult to see opportunities, or the fundamental changes already underway to avert the worst of it. And many of us still struggle to understand what we can do to make a difference. We return to our old friend Goethe, who said “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
The first chapters of human history are already written. But we still hold the pen when it comes to the future. The future we choose today and the actions we take over the coming decade will determine what kind of life our children and grandchildren experience in 30 years’ time. That’s what the science tells us is required.
We are not doomed to a devastating future. Humanity is not incapable of responding to big problems. We are stubbornly optimistic that collectively we will open our eyes to the moment in front of us and make the right choice.
Christiana Figueres was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016. Tom Rivett-Carnac is an author, podcaster, and political strategist who was a senior member of the UN team that created the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. They are the founders of Global Optimism and authors of “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis,” which publishes this week.