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The Architect of the Paris Agreement Wants Us to Forgive… Oil Executives?

Christiana Figueres' new book, 'The Future We Choose,' showcases the kind of climate activism rich people love.

by Geoff Dembicki
Feb 27 2020, 3:27pm

Stock photo via Getty

Two people who were central to creating the 2015 Paris agreement have written a step-by-step guide for what you can personally do to fix the climate emergency. It includes such tips as setting aside time each day to do a "breathing exercise of gratitude," cultivating an optimistic mindset by "focussing on all the good news regarding climate change," becoming a better consumer who makes "informed and enlightened" purchases, joining protests like the climate strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg and seeking out "a local group doing tree planting."

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, the new book by Christiana Figueres, the lead United Nations climate change official in Paris, and her then-senior adviser Tom Rivett-Carnac, argues that as do you these things you should not dwell on the oil, coal and gas executives who created and funded the climate science denial movement and continue to lobby aggressively against policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It instead advises readers to take a cue from Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. "We too must let go of the fossil-fuel-dominated past without recrimination," it reads.

To which a reasonably well-informed person might respond: Wait, what?

Rich people are raving about ' The Future We Choose'

"There could not be a more important book," gushes billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Klaus Schwab, the CEO of the World Economic Forum, which each year hosts a gathering of billionaires and other global elites in Davos, Switzerland, writes of The Future We Choose that "this could be the most important wake-up call of our times." Jane Goodall, Yuval Harari and Naomi Klein also contributed blurbs.

With an acknowledgements list that in addition to climate activists and scientists includes Thomas Friedman, Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg, the book gives insight into the types of climate solutions that rich and powerful people are comfortable endorsing: changing your attitude, planting trees, buying electric vehicles and protesting a general lack of action by global leaders rather than the specific business model of an industry or corporation.

When I met up with Figueres and Rivett-Carnac at a café near Wall Street during their book promotion visit to New York, the authors were adamant that you and I be more considerate of polluting corporations. "It does no good to criticize companies when you haven't really gotten under the hood and understood what they're doing. So we have to hold companies and ourselves to account," said Figueres, who serves on the advisory board of the Italian oil and gas giant Eni. "This has to be medicine for everyone. Same standards for everyone."

As you let that sink in, let's look closer at some of the book's wilder arguments.

Billionaire-friendly climate solution number one: be optimistic

Even though climate change is the mother of all collective action problems, you should use the emergency as an opportunity for self-reflection. "Paradoxically, systemic change is a deeply personal endeavor," The Future We Choose reads. The idea is to acknowledge the horrors of our degrading planet, but also do your best to cultivate positivity.

This is what Figueres did when she was tasked with getting 195 nations to sign onto the Paris agreement. "The impossible had to be made possible," the book explains. "The very first step was to change her own attitude." Being as stubbornly optimistic as she could despite the high odds of failure ended up being essential for the Paris agreement. "Everyone who was there at the adoption, and millions of people following online, felt optimistic about the future, but in fact optimism had been the starting point of the journey. It had to be, or else we would never have reached any agreement," The Future We Choose argues.

A few years after the agreement, optimism seems like a trickier proposition. Many countries are set to miss the targets laid out by the Paris agreement, Donald Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from it, and the agreement's initial targets were never going to push global warming below the 2 degrees Celsius threshold experts have set as a goal. Still, the book not only preaches optimism in your day-to-day life, it cautions you to resist the urge for "blame and exclusion."

"Blame is already a powerful current in our relationship to climate change—it is directed toward the developed world, the oil industry, capitalism and corporations, particular countries and the older generation," the book says. Figueres and Rivett-Carnac think it's OK to be outraged that oil companies lied to us about climate science and delayed political action. But we shouldn't stew about that for long.

Be like Mandela and forgive

The book hammers home this point with several questionable analogies. "History shows very clearly that once humans start pointing the finger of blame at each other, it can be hard to stop. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Allied powers humiliated Germany, forced her to accept full blame for the war, and imposed crippling reparations payments," the book points out. "Historians agree that that paved the way for the rise of fascism and a second massive global conflict twenty years later."

Without explaining how or why that is applicable to climate change, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac then argue that we have to be like Nelson Mandela, who forgave his captors after being locked up in South African prisons for 27 years. "The process of letting go is essential, and it must be intentional," the book seems to argue of forgiving fossil fuel industry misdeeds.

"Blame is really our enemy here," Rivett-Carnac told me. "If we now try to go through this transition and try to pinpoint blame as to people who slowed it down, people who caused problems, we're going to end up in an incredibly messy and complicated place."

Stop being so consumerist but also 'vote with your money'

Removing blame from the conversation means that we're all basically equally responsible for climate change—no matter if you're a low-income single mother or the CEO of one of the 90 companies that together have released two-thirds of humankind's industrial greenhouse gas emissions. "This is an everyone-everywhere mission in which we all must individually and collectively assume responsibility," the book reads. "You may have great means or none at all. You may sit on the board of a corporation or lead a city, province, or country."

Key to becoming more empowered is to "see yourself as a citizen—not as a consumer." Stop buying so much fast fashion. Don't support single-use plastics. Refrain from equating happiness with consumption.

Yet Figueres and Rivett-Carnac don't want you to actually withdraw from a capitalist consumer economy. They just think you should purchase nicer, pricier things. "Buying high-quality clothes made from organic cotton that will last and be handed down is different from buying cheap, disposable items that will end up in a landfill after a few weeks of wear," the book argues. It describes this ethos several times as "voting with your money."

Worried about emissions from your house? Buy a more efficient boiler. Concerned about the heavy climate impact of beef? Buy plant-based meal replacements. Think burning gas is terrible for the environment? No prob, just buy an electric car.

The authors believe this is one of the most vital acts of protest you can undertake. "Corporations and trade associations fund and engage in political lobbying against citizen action on climate change," they write. "We need to remove our consent from these corporations. The simplest way is to vote with your money: stop buying their stocks, and stop buying their products and services where alternatives exist."

Be radical in your politics! But not, like, actually radical!

Figueres finds Greta Thunberg and young climate activists absolutely inspiring. She and Rivett-Carnac were at the massive New York school strike last September and thought it was great to see so many teens demanding Wall Street be shut down and capitalism dismantled.

"That's the role of young people. If you're not radical when you're young, there's something wrong with your brain," Figueres told me. "If you don't plant a flag in a radical flag position, it's very difficult to move everybody else who is putting the brakes on, so radicalism actually has a very important political balancing effect."

But she sounded a bit less keen about the politicians currently promising to turn the demands of young people—Youth Climate Strike US is calling for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, a federal jobs guarantee and shifting into a "regenerative, socialist economy"—into actual policy. These politicians include Bernie Sanders, the Democratic frontrunner embraced by the youth climate vote who has proposing a $16.3 trillion Green New Deal to completely transform the U.S. economy.

"The only way forward here in the United States is to find a plan that can get bipartisan support, that is the clearly important priority," Figueres said. She cited as an example the Bipartisan Climate Roadmap, a national carbon pricing plan recently released by the Climate Leadership Council whose corporate founders include BP, Exxon, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total and Goldman Sachs. Figueres is one of the council's "Individual Founding Members."

The Future We Choose ends with a solemn yet rousing call to arms:

"When the eyes of our children, and their children, look straight into ours, and they ask us 'What did you do?' our answer cannot be that we did everything we could. It has to be more than that. There is really only one answer. We did everything that was necessary."

But apparently not anything that would be too inconvenient for fossil fuel companies, large corporations or billionaires.

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.

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