books climate change

Book review: The Future We Choose

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis is a big tent climate book – there’s room for everybody here. The inside cover has endorsements from the great and the good, including unlikely contrasts such as the CEO of Greenpeace and the CEO of Shell, Nicholas Stern and Naomi Klein, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill McKibben. The book can unite such diverse perspectives because of its authors.

Christiana Figueres is the former head of the UNFCCC, the UN’s climate change programme. She took over months after the failure at Copenhagen in 2009, and over the next six years she built the consensus that would lead to the Paris Agreement. Alongside her is Tom Rivett-Carnac, her chief political strategist at the UNFCCC. It was their diplomacy that led to the broad coalition of support for the agreement, not just from governments but from industry and civil society. Whatever its shortcomings, the Paris Agreement is still an extraordinary accomplishment. The two authors here were right at the heart of it, and their book commands an unusual level of attention.

The book starts by setting out two worlds – the one we are creating, and the one we must create. The former is a short and pithy summary of current projections and what they mean, the latter a summary of how the world can be transformed in response to the climate crisis. As the title suggests, we and future generations will get one of these two scenarios, and which one we get is down to the decisions we make now.

Having set out the choice, the authors turn to the kind of thinking that will get us to that second future. There are few numbers, policies or technical details in the book. It’s more interested in the practical philosophy of the question. What attitude do we need? What kind of mindset will see us through? “The actions we pursue are largely defined by the mindset we cultivate in advance of the doing”. Indeed, this was the insight that turned things around after Copenhagen, moving from a process of blame and competing national interests to one of cooperation and shared responsibility. “When you spurn regeneration, collaboration, and community, the consequence is impending devastation.”

We get to actions in the second half of the book, and the ten actions here are described in the broadest of categories. Action one is ‘let go of the old world’. Others include ‘defend the truth’, ‘reforest the earth’ and ‘build gender equality’. These chapters cover a lot of ground in a small amount of space, each one a concise overview of big topics – how to move beyond consumerism, create a regenerative economy, or why the climate emergency needs action of equality at the same time.

I know a lot of activists struggle to see the usefulness of the Paris Agreement, but there’s no sense of congratulation or fait accompli from the authors. They’re more aware than anyone that everything depends on what happens next, on whether governments live up to their promises. I imagine that’s a key motivation for the book, and I hope it is as widely read as that range of endorsements suggests.

As Figueres and Rivett-Cornac write, “whether you are complacent about climate change, or in pain, or angry, this book is an invitation for you to take part in creating the future of humanity, confident that despite the seemingly daunting nature of the challenge, collectively we have what it takes to address climate change now.”

29 comments

    1. How about focusing on something that everyone can see, whether or not they can go outside. Maybe our own hands – what we do with them, whether we use them to build up or to tear down?

      Or the sky. Wherever you are, you can look out at the sky. What is it like where you are? Is it blue? Is it polluted? We all share the same sky.

  1. The book displays a remarkably positive vision of how a most serious and worrying problem might be solved. And it doesn’t shy away from just how serious it is: we face, it says, an existential challenge – unless humanity’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced by at least half by 2030, the world will be engulfed by multiple irreparable disasters.

    But – incredibly – the book totally ignores a momentous obstacle to GHG reduction: most countries outside Western Europe, North America and Australasia are either unconcerned about the impact of GHGs on the climate or don’t regard the issue as a priority, focusing instead on economic growth and poverty eradication. Yet these countries, comprising 84 percent of humanity and all the world’s poorest people, are today the source of 75 percent of emissions. Therefore, unless they reverse their policies – and there isn’t any serious evidence of their so doing – there’s no realistic prospect of that 50 percent reduction within 10 years happening. Far from it – China for example (already the source of 30 percent of global emissions) expects to go on increasing its emissions until ‘around 2030’.

    To grasp the weakness of this book I suggest it’s useful to imagine its likely impact on the views of the leaders of some of the world’s biggest emitters. Would for example Part III of the book (‘Ten Actions’) be likely to prompt Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman or Hassan Rouhani to rethink his country’s climate policies? I think not.

      1. I haven’t read Lieven’s book but I understand that, like Figueres, he works from the assumption that man-made climate change is an existential threat – inter alia to the maintenance of nation states’ security and power base. However the problem – as I put it above and in my comment on your Lieven review – is that emission statistics indicate that most major non-Western countries (including Russia) are either unconcerned about AGW or don’t see it as a priority, preferring to focus on economic growth and poverty eradication. In other words, they don’t don’t share Lieven’s view that AGW is an existential threat.

        1. I’m familiar with your views from previous arguments, and as you’ll remember I think they’re ten years out of date. But the last twenty rounds haven’t yielded any useful progress, so you’ll have to forgive me for not bothering this time either.

          More here:

          https://earthbound.report/2019/08/29/why-climate-change-action-still-matters-in-developed-countries/

          https://earthbound.report/2019/10/08/what-is-chinas-ecological-civilization/

          https://earthbound.report/2018/09/11/review-will-china-save-the-planet-by-barbara-finamore/

          1. It’s not so much a question of ‘views’ but of fact. And the indisputable fact is that, whereas the West’s annual GHG emissions have flatlined (at about 10 billion tonnes) since the UNFCCC was signed in 1992, the rest of the world’s have increased massively – from about 12 billion tonnes then to nearly 30 billion today. (These are current statistics – hardly ‘tens years out of date’)

            Now it may be that the RoW is making a terrible mistake and would be wise to take serious action to reduce their emissions. But that’s not what’s happening – China for example is not ‘ending coal dependency‘ as Barbara Finamore said in 2018.

  2. There’s a reason why developing countries are called developing.

    And I don’t dispute your facts, I just think there are lots of additional facts that you don’t take into consideration. I’ve pointed out enough of them before to not list them again.

    1. There’s a reason why developing countries are called developing.

      Many reasons – not least a laudable determination to eradicate poverty. (Although it’s hard to see why countries such as China, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are still so classified.)

      And I completely acknowledge that there are lots of additional facts. But none of them affect the central problem. Christiana Figueres says that we face an ‘existential challenge’ and, if we don’t overcome it, the ‘Earth as we know it will cease to be’. And, to ‘safeguard humanity from the worst impacts’, ‘our global GHG emissions must be reduced by … at least 50% by 2030’; failure to do that means ‘it will be too late’. We face, she says, ‘the greatest challenge of human history’.

      In 2019 humanity emitted about 40 bn. tonnes of GHGs. So, if Figueres is right, we’ve got nine years to bring that down to 20 bn. The West emits about 10 bn. Therefore, even if the West adopts an immediate and aggressive GND policy and cuts its emissions by 6 bn. to 4 bn., the rest of the world would have to cut its emissions from 30 billion to 16 billion.

      But there’s no sign of that happening. On the contrary, two developing countries for example (China and India) that emitted 14 bn. in 2019, indicated in their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat that they expect to increase their emissions between now and 2030.

      Therefore, if Figueres is right, we’re heading for catastrophe.

    1. We had this argument three years ago.

      Not so – this is a rather different discussion. It’s a question of simple arithmetic using established facts. Have another look at what I wrote above. Then answer this: do you think there’s a realistic prospect of non-Western countries cutting their emissions from 30 billion today to 16 billion by 2030?

        1. That’s not a question that gets us anywhere.

          That’s true – but only if you’re unwilling to answer it.

          1. No, answering it gets you nowhere. If I say yes, you say I’m being unrealistic. If I say no, you say we’re heading for catastrophe. So neither of those answers moves us anywhere and I don’t see the point.

          2. Fair enough Jeremy. There is of course a third possibility: to try to show that I’ve got the facts wrong.

            But, as it is, it seems I’ve demonstrated that – assuming of course that Christiana Figueres’ view of the science is correct – the West (or such part of it as takes CC seriously) faces a largely unacknowledged but overriding challenge: how to persuade the newly industrialised economies and the major OPEC countries to completely reverse their climate polices. That, I suggest, is the question the West (including Figueres etc.) should be addressing.

    1. … you should reflect a little on your ‘west’ and ‘everybody else’ categories.

      No need – I’ve been reflecting on this for a long time. As I must have told you, I have a special interest in international law, the interpretation of agreements and treaties and in international climate politics. I’ve been following relevant developments in detail since 2007 and have read extensively about how nations’ positions on the environment and climate have developed since the 1950s. I’ve concluded from all this that the ‘climate emergency’ is almost exclusively a Western concern: the countries where scientists, the media, academia, commentators and leading politicians are concerned about it are essentially all in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. That doesn’t mean of course that it’s an unfounded concern, but it explains why GHG emissions that are sourced in the West (i.e. the countries comprised within Western Europe etc.) have declined from 11 bn. tonnes p.a. in 2000 to less than 10 bn. in 2018 whereas global emissions have increased by 46 percent over the same period. Most of the rest of the world (the source of 75 percent of emissions) either doesn’t care or doesn’t see the issue as a priority

      So as I’ve said, if the warnings of dire consequences if action is not taken are accurate, the West (i.e. the countries within geographical areas referred to above) faces a largely unacknowledged but overriding challenge: how to persuade the newly industrialised economies and the major OPEC countries to completely reverse their climate polices.

      Do you agree?

  3. No I don’t.

    Given the current debate around race and empire, I really do suggest you do a bit more reflection on the categories ‘the west’ and ‘everybody else’.

    1. No I don’t.

      In other words, you think it’s acceptable for the newly industrialised economies (e.g. China, India, Brazil and Indonesia) and the major OPEC countries (e.g. Iran and Saudi Arabia) to continue with their current climate polices. A strange position for someone who’s concerned about climate change.

      The countries where very many – often prominent – people and organisations share that concern and are urging action are almost only found in the EU, UK, Norway, Switzerland, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (i.e. the West).

      Please explain how you think ‘the current debate around race and empire’ has done anything to change that. Thanks.

      1. a) No, I disagree because you’re wrong to suggest that developing countries are doing nothing. But I’m not going to go into this any further because if you didn’t take it on board the last 30 times I explained it, you won’t this time.

        b) If you’re serious about the task of persuading other nations, then how arguments are perceived is hugely important. So as a thought experiment, read back your comments and where you read ‘the west’, substitute in the words ‘white people’.

        1. …you’re wrong to suggest that developing countries are doing nothing

          But I didn’t. I said this:

          most countries outside [the West] are either unconcerned about the impact of GHGs on the climate or don’t regard the issue as a priority, focusing instead on economic growth and poverty eradication.

          Very different. I suggest you read carefully (and ‘take on board’) what I actually say.

          where you read ‘the west’, substitute in the words ‘white people’.

          A most interesting point. Having thought about it overnight, I’ve identified one reason why ‘the current debate around race and empire’ might possibly make a difference. It’s this. Most people in the countries I listed as ‘the West’ are of white European heritage – i.e. the very people who for more than 300 years engaged in what many regard as condescending, arrogant, greedy and cruel colonial exploitation. Developing countries with a history of being subject to that behaviour are hardly likely to be interested in taking advice from such people, let alone following their lead.

          I think that’s true anyway. But does ‘the current debate around race and empire’ make a difference? Well, I suppose it’s possible that it might exacerbate the distinction between the West and the rest of the world. And of course that would make what I’ve described as the momentous obstacle to global GHG reduction even more difficult to overcome.

          But you haven’t answered my question. Do you agree that, if emissions are to be reduced substantially and urgently, the West has to find a way of overcoming that obstacle and persuading the newly industrialised economies and the major OPEC countries to completely reverse their climate policies?

  4. I don’t agree with the premise of your question, that newly industrialising countries need persuading. The majority don’t. Some of them do. Even among those that need persuading, it is more accurately specific politicians, parties and power brokers that are the problem. And they don’t need persuading – they need replacing.

    Your thinking about empire and race has yielded a useful conclusion – especially if you’re right in your summary of the challenge. Former colonies will not be lectured on climate change, and so the idea of persuading or leading developing countries is a non-starter. It will be seen as racist or a claim to power.

    The current awareness around these issues could be productive if it leads developed countries to remember the legacy of empire and put aside talk of ‘leading’ the world. It should be more about supporting the transition, about cooperation, about creating space for the development of others by reducing their own carbon footprints first. It’s a more humble, more just approach that might just get us somewhere.

    1. I don’t agree with the premise of your question, that newly industrialising countries need persuading. The majority don’t.

      I said ‘industrialised’, not ‘industrialising’. The countries categorised as industrialised include China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia. Each of these has increased its emissions since 2010 – some massively. In your view, which of these comprise the majority that don’t need to reverse their climate polices?

      And they don’t need persuading – they need replacing.

      How might the West go about replacing, for example, the Chinese Politburo?

      the idea of persuading or leading developing countries is a non-starter.

      I agree re ‘leading’ (see below). But ‘persuading’ is a totally different matter – nothing racist about that. But it’s finding a way of persuading them that’s the challenge.

      I wholly agree that developed countries should put aside embarrassing and neo-colonial talk of ‘leading’ the world. But … ‘creating space for the development of others by reducing their own carbon footprints first’ cannot possibly work if Figueres is right. You seem to have forgotten that she says emissions must be reduced by at least 50 percent in the next nine years. So there just isn’t time for the West (the source of only 25 percent of emissions) to ‘create space’.

      1. I know who you’re talking about, and I don’t agree that China, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia can all be treated the same. None of them are doing enough, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not doing nothing and there are some very big differences.

        Not for ‘the west’ to do the replacing, but local leadership.

        I’m not going to keep arguing about your question, but I will address this specifically in a post next week.

        1. Two points: (1)The one thing these countries (and many others) have in common is that they’re continuing to increase their emissions; (2) As I’ve already reminded you, I’m not claiming that they’re doing nothing.

          I suggest we leave it at that. This has been an interesting exchange: and the comments I made about Cristiana Figueres’ book in my initial post above continue to be as valid now as they were then. It will be interesting to see if your post next week does anything to counter that.

        2. ‘Next week’ has come and gone. When do you plan to publish the post that ‘specifically’ addresses my question?

          1. Tuesday

            Good. To recap, here’s a summary of my comments on Christiana Figueres’ book:

            1. She said we face an existential threat: unless humanity reduces its GHG emissions by at least half by 2030, the world will be engulfed by multiple irreparable disasters.

            2. But she ignores a momentous obstacle: most countries outside the West (Western Europe, North America and Australasia) are either unconcerned about the impact of GHGs on the climate or don’t regard the issue as a priority, focusing instead on economic growth and (laudably) on poverty eradication.

            3. Yet these countries are today the source of 75% of emissions. Therefore, unless they reverse their emission policies, there’s no realistic prospect of a 50% reduction being achieved.

            4. I noted that humanity emits about 40 bn. tonnes of GHGs p.a. So, if Ms Figueres is right, we’ve got nine years to bring that down to 20 bn. The West emits about 10 bn. – therefore, even if it were to cut its emissions by 60% (i.e. to 4 bn. p.a.) by 2030, the rest of the world would have to cut its from today’s 30 bn. to 16 bn. That’s most unlikely: for example, just two countries (China and India) are already emitting 14 bn. and have indicated (in their NDCs submitted to the UNFCCC) that they expect that to increase between now and 2030.

            5. Therefore, if she’s right, we’re heading for catastrophe. Unless, that is, the West can somehow persuade the newly industrialised and major OPEC countries (i.e. the big ‘developing’ emitters) to reverse their emission policies urgently.

            6. I concluded that – again if she’s right – that’s the issue the West should be addressing now.

            Unless I’ve misunderstood, you disagree. Why? That’s my question. I look forward to learning your answer on Tuesday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: