Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who was an architect of the worldwide Paris climate agreement, is enraged. She thinks you should be too.
She was traveling in 2017 when Donald Trump made plans to announce the US withdrawal from the pact. Perched at the end of her hotel bed with pen and paper, she decided to write down each correct statement she heard.
“The speech finished and my piece of paper was completely blank,” Figueres told the Guardian in an interview. “There was not a sentence uttered in that whole speech that was correct, true or even informed.”
With tiny silver frogs dangling from her ears and strung around her neck, the small-framed Figueres is animated as she recalls the story, alternately pushing back in her chair and lowering her head toward her crossed arms.
Trump gave his remarks in the White House Rose Garden, a venue typically reserved for major events.
“My first thought was the poor roses, they had to listen to all this,” Figueres said.
Figueres, who was executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, could easily be swallowed up by her anger at the intensifying climate crisis. But instead she has become an advocate for positivity about climate action.
Despite Trump’s planned withdrawal, not a single nation has followed suit. Countries that agreed to the Paris deal, however, are not on track to fulfill their obligations. And, even if they were, their actions wouldn’t be enough to stall significant global warming.
Figueres and her former senior advisor Tom Rivett-Carnac, who was once a Buddhist monk, have written a book they pitch as “surprisingly optimistic”. It’s titled The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, and it offers two contrasting visions for how the world might look in 30 years. They also have a podcast, called Outrage and Optimism.
Rivett-Carnac said people can be upset and positive at the same time.
“We see this form of stubborn optimism as a way of changing the world,” he said. It’s not like we wake up every morning thinking, ‘everything’s ok, don’t worry.'”
Figueres argues that society is “paralyzed and obsessed about the consequences of climate change,” and hasn’t been able to separate that fear from the upsides of cutting the fossil fuel and other emissions heating the planet.
She lists the possible benefits: stronger economies, energy independence, a livable environment, breathable air, less time wasted commuting, improved health, an increased connection to nature, and “on and on,” she says.
Trump believes the Paris deal would sink the US economy. In Figueres’ mind, if there was any country aware of the growth opportunities from addressing the climate crisis, it was the US.
“There was hardly any country that had actually gone into such an analysis of the text,” she said. “Frankly, there was barely a country that contributed as much to the text … It’s very sad when you basically cut your nose off to spite your face.”
She said “the sad thing is that the US has become irrelevant in the most consequential challenge that humanity has faced,” clarifying that she meant the federal government, and not the states, localities and businesses that have stepped up to make their own pledges in its place.
The book and podcast come as eco-anxiety is growing, particularly among younger people.
Nearly half of US adults under the age of 35 say stress about climate change affects their lives, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Among all adults, seven in 10 say they wish they could do more to combat climate change, but 51% say they don’t know where to start.
Figueres wants those people to take their power back.
“We would say what makes you feel better quickly is actually to engage in a positive contribution so that you bust through this myth that individual actions don’t count And you begin to realize the world is only made out of individual actions,” she said. “It does count. It does add up.”