By Andrew Mathis
The uncertainty associated with our warming climate is often highlighted, but these projections boil down to only two possible outcomes, an Earth that is unsuitable for human life or an Earth that supports human life in flourishing. And as Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac point out in their book The Future We Choose, we still have time to choose which future we want to live in.
What do our options look like? Well, put simply, the bad one is very bad, and the good one is very good. Many people now know that the direction we are heading is serious, but tend to tune out whenever the topic comes up. This is often due to a combination of feeling powerless, avoiding feeling sad, and not knowing what to do. But it is as important to understand what our choices are as it is to understand that this is a choice that we get to make.
I’ll leave Christiana and Tom’s description of the uninhabitable Earth to you to choose to read or not, but the image I’ve had in my head goes like this:
The year is 2050, and we are surviving. Luckily, living in Canada, we don’t have it so bad. Our family lives in a fire-resistant neighbourhood, so when the wildfires do come, we stock up on air filters, turn on the heat pump’s A/C, order drone-delivered take-out, close the blinds, and settle in to watch a TV show. We knew that social media sheltered us from opinions different than our own, but everyone now shares an unspoken appreciation that social media shelters us from most of the suffering in other countries. We have to put ourselves first, otherwise how will we survive? Virtual and augmented reality along with satellite internet allow everyone to not only work from home, but explore, game, and vacation in an endless number of unspoiled virtual worlds. Some governments have the money to continue to establish human settlements on the moon and Mars, but the living conditions still are a lot worse out there. Most people have given up on talking about what could have been done, but the anger towards past generations continues, with the achievements of past leaders being rewritten in the history books in the light of where they ultimately led us. As for future generations, who would want to bring a child into this? There isn’t much left of the world to inherit.
No one would consciously choose to live in that future. But that is the direction we’re heading unless we consciously choose to change. So, what’s the alternative look like? Well, just like the bad future was likely worse than you thought it would be, the good future is probably better than you think it will be:
The year is 2050, and we are thriving. Looking back, we often wonder why it took until the 2020s to start making the major shifts required to decarbonize our society, as everything is simply better. Although the financial payback took several years, the shift to renewables and electric and hydrogen vehicles started making communities healthier immediately. Over a span of months, we noticed that not only was the air fresher, but we could hear birdsong and children playing over the low hum of electric traffic. People use to think that they had to leave the cities to be in nature, but that certainly isn’t true anymore. Trees shade the streets, vines shade the sides of buildings, and new buildings are built in terraces and covered in trees to the point that some appear to be steep tree-covered mountains throughout our cities. All this vegetation not only creates shade, releases moisture, absorbs carbon, creates oxygen, and dampens noise, but it also grows free food for everyone. Most paved surfaces were replaced with permeable materials, allowing the life-giving rain to once again slowly soak into the soil, supporting the plants above. Once we regulated safe driverless car sharing, private car ownership dropped quickly in major cities, allowing entire streets to be converted into spaces for people and places for urban agriculture. Cities now produce a large fraction of their own food through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and the same bicyclists that deliver this food also pick up kitchen waste to be composted and used to grow more food. With cleaner air, better food, and exercise from wanting to walk or bike everywhere, many people’s health conditions improved, and to date most of the cost of decarbonization has been paid for with savings from the healthcare sector. There have been consequences from not having made this transition sooner, but our collective mindset shifting from scarcity to abundance has eased inter-party and international disagreements, and we have been able to work together to support each other when crises do strike.
So, how do we choose between these two futures? Either continue living as we currently do, known as the business-as-usual scenario, and have future generations curse us for our selfishness, or take decisive and urgent action to start reducing our polluting of the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses. The goal is to reach a point where we are only emitting as much as the planet can safely absorb, known as net-zero, by 2050. This will represent a complete transformation of most of our human systems, such as agriculture, transportation, and housing to name a few, and the sheer magnitude of what we need to do can seem overwhelming. So how do we start? Well, as the saying goes, the “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. To reach the 2050 goal, we need to half our emissions by 2030. To half our emissions by 2030, we need to know what our current emissions are, and then make personal and business plans to meet that goal.
What should you do? Well, with a vision of where we want to end up, it can be easy to be critical of governments, businesses, and neighbours that aren’t helping us move in the right direction. But, pointing out others’ failings isn’t likely to make them change, and therefore we risk being hypocritical if we haven’t taken steps forward ourselves. We should instead work from where we have the most influence, to “be the change we want to see in the world”, convincing and motivating others by demonstrating that a decarbonized life is simply better.
The very center of our sphere of influence is our mindset, and some argue that this is the only thing we can truly control. Why our mindset? Well, as Christiana and Tom explain, our social and economic systems are a product of our ways of thinking, creating this apparent paradox where systemic change begins by changing ourselves. They outline three paradigm shifts that we need to be embraced to move forward with building a prosperous future: Stubborn Optimism, Endless Abundance, and Radical Regeneration.
Stubborn Optimism means letting go of the despair and hopelessness that are common when approaching climate change, and instead realizing that we are living in the only time when massive transformation can happen and that we have the agency to be a part of this change. Focus on the threads of hope that are coming together and realize how much is possible if each one of us does our part.
Endless Abundance means letting go of the zero-sum paradigm, thanking competition for how far it advanced society, and instead embracing collaboration. We need to realize that we are truly all in this together, win or lose. What’s best for us individually is what’s best for us collectively. This enlightened self-interest, where increasing abundance means that everyone wins, will be the force that drives us to put aside our differences and work together towards our common goal.
Radical Regeneration means letting go of the extractive paradigm of nature being ours to deplete for profit, to a regenerative paradigm where we are a part of nature and have a responsibility to improve human, ecosystem, and planetary health. Keeping this idea of enlightened self-interest in mind, we need to redesign our human systems of energy production, agriculture, and economics to go beyond sustainability and meet our needs while increasing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
We are driving towards a cliff, squabbling and too distracted to realize the danger, but these paradigm shifts can help us realize that now is the time to take action. We need to radically change course to have a future.
Our next sphere of influence is our household, the systems and routines that help us meet our physical needs. This is where you should look at your own carbon footprint and make changes to half your emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Changing your lightbulbs is great, but focus your attention on making at least one big change a year, like upgrading your house’s insulation, switching to an electric car, flying much less, installing solar panels, or eating less meat. All these climate actions will save you money in the long run too. But as you calculate your carbon footprint, you will quickly realize that it is not all within your control. If you bank, have insurance, or buy practically anything, there are significant associated carbon emissions and there are very few low-carbon alternatives. This is where we need to continue to our next sphere of influence and be catalysts of change in our community to work towards transforming these large systems.
In your community, talk to others about why you are concerned but also why you are hopeful. More people share your concerns than you think they do2, and the tipping point for success of non-violent revolutions is only 3.5% of the population standing up for their common dream3. Explain to people how the things they care about will be impacted by climate change and tell them what they can do to stop it. Protest, vote, write to your political representatives, and hold companies accountable to the changes you want to see. Help people work through their climate grief by finding hope in taking action as part of a global movement. As Christiana and Tom say in their book, we need to be stubbornly optimistic, “not because success is guaranteed but because failure is unthinkable”.
- Figueres, Christiana, and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020) ‘The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis’ First edition. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
- Geiger, Nathaniel and Swim, Janet (2016) ‘Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 47, pp. 79-90
- Robson, David. (2019) ‘The ‘3.5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world’, BBC Future, Retrieved October 5, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190513-it-only-takes-35-of-people-to-change-the-world