What Will Earth Look Like in 2050 Without Climate Action?

Christiana Figueres, the architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement, has dedicated her life to climate policy. In her new book “The Future We Choose,” she urges us to harness our technological, political and economic potential to create long-term solutions. In the face of the very real threat climate change poses to our planet, Figueres tells contributor Sheelah Kolhatkar why she doesn’t lose hope.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, someone who has dedicated her life to climate change policy is Christiana Figueres. She’s architect of the 2015 Paris agreement. She was the U.N. negotiator. And in her new book, “The Future We Choose,” she urges us all to harness our technological, political and economic potential to create long-term solutions. Despite the very real threat that climate change poses to our planet, she tells contributor Sheelah Kolhatkar why she doesn’t lose hope.


SHEELAH KOLHATKAR: So, there’s a sense right now that we are in something of an environmental freefall.


KOLHATKAR: Crisis is a good way of putting it.


KOLHATKAR: Just at the moment when things seem really dire and urgent, it feels, at least from the outside, that policy decisions, global cooperation, all of that is sort of moving backwards. What are the odds that we can turn things around in time?

FIGUERES: Well, interestingly enough, the odds right now are 50/50. That’s what makes this a very exciting moment, because we have 50 percent probability of actually walking down the crisis path onto, honestly, irreversible damages that we will never be able to control and that are life-threatening for the human species, without any exaggeration. But we also have 50 percent probability of actually doing something completely different. And that’s the excitement of the moment, because, collectively, not individually, but, collectively, we can decide to choose a better path, to write a future that we really want, and that we can look forward to. That’s the exciting moment. Can you believe it? We are right at the crossroads of humanity having the possibility to go one way or the other. Well, guess which way we have to go? Only the positive way.


KOLHATKAR: You mention two dates in your book–


KOLHATKAR: — 2030 and 2050. What’s the significance of these two years?

FIGUERES: By the end of this decade, by 2030, we have to have achieved a reduction of 50 percent of our current level of greenhouse gas emissions. And if we do that, then we stand a very good chance of creating a fantastic world. If we don’t, we basically have closed the door to anything that we could possibly control or influence over natural disasters that will completely take over. And the ultimate consequences of this very evident by 2050. But we can’t wait until 2050 to decide that. It has to be now.

KOLHATKAR: Ten years is not very far away. A lot has to happen in 10 years. And I feel like I blink and a year has gone by. So how is this going to happen so quickly?

FIGUERES: The fact is that, as wonderful human beings that we are, we tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term. I don’t know what your to-do list looks like every day, but mine is always way longer than I can possibly get to. And we really tend not to have a realistic sense of what we can do in the short term, because we overestimate that. Also, we underestimate what we can do in the midterm, so we underestimate what we are capable of doing in 10 years. And technology has come so far so fast. The fact is that we are living in the moment of the most accelerated technological and policy shifts and financial shifts that we have ever witnessed as a human race. This is no longer a linear progression. This is now exponential. And we have to understand that, because we are in the low levels of that curve, but it is going to be exponential, the transformation that we are capable of having. Hence, we can achieve much more in 10 years than we can possibly conceive of right now. That’s the good news.

KOLHATKAR: You outline two possible scenarios for life on Earth in 2050. The first scenario is what we will end up with if we continue on the current path, not really changing our environmental policies at all, perhaps chipping away a bit around at the edges. Could you describe a little bit what that world would look like, if we just continued laissez-faire on the path that we’re on?

FIGUERES: So, in the year 2050, if we do not do what we have to do by the human race, we will walk out of our homes, and we will not be able to walk down the street without putting a mask on, because the air is going to be so polluted that it will be life-threatening. We will not be able — because of heat, we will not be able to exercise or play outside. We will have to do all of that inside very large gyms that we will have to build. It is a world in which we will have much more prevalent diseases, because we will have much more dengue, we will have much more malaria. We will certainly have much more asthma, all kinds of respiratory diseases, all kinds of heart diseases that come from air pollution. And we will have a huge public health bill. This is a world in which we will look at the news every day, and we will see millions of people migrating away from their homes because they do not have enough water, they do not have enough food, they do not have the environmental conditions to make their home habitable. They will be forced to migrate. And there will be millions of people migrating away from their homes. And we will have military protection at many borders of countries. That will produce a social, political and economic pressure that will unseat most democracies in the world. The social and political consequences of unabated climate change are only beginning to be felt. So are the biodiversity consequences. Australia has already lost 20 percent of its territory, burned down, one billion animals burned in — burned alive. This is not farfetched. This is what science is very clearly putting out to us to contemplate this, not as a possibility, but, rather, as the path that we are walking toward. So, this is no exaggeration. This is not a hyperbole. This is the world that we would get to, which is not a world that you and I want for our children or our grandchildren.

KOLHATKAR: So, what’s the best-case scenario?

FIGUERES: The world that we do want is a world in which we walk out of our homes and the air is fresh and moist. It almost feels like we are walking in a forest, because, very likely, that’s what we’re doing, because our cities have been planted with just an unlimited number of trees, bushes, flowers, vegetable gardens. The rooftops are producing either vegetables or flowers. We have many, many more trees, and we have very few cars. So, the parking spaces, those ugly buildings that we used to have as parking, they have actually been converted into green areas or into battery-charging stations. And the walls, the vertical walls of buildings that used to be, you know, not very attractive cement have actually all been transformed into either solar energy-gathering areas or they’re completely covered with verdant vines. So, we have a very different city experience that is actually much more enjoyable. And if we go to developing countries, the 800 million people who today in developing countries have no access to electricity, hence, they’re in extreme poverty, they would all have electricity in their homes. Every person would have electricity. That means that children will be able to study at night. It means that women can stay home and have a little cottage industry, and it also means that clinics, no matter how remote they are, they will have a little refrigerator where they can keep medicines refrigerated, and women can have safe births. That’s a very different world.

KOLHATKAR: I’m going to ask you to read a short little passage from your book, “The Future We Choose.”


KOLHATKAR: I have circled it there.

FIGUERES: “Optimism is not soft. It is gritty. Every day brings dark news, and no end of people tell us that the world is going to hell. To take the low road is to succumb. To take the high road is to remain constant in the face of uncertainty. “That we may be confronted by barriers galore should not surprise anyone. That we may see worsening climate conditions in the short term should also not surprise us. We have to elect to boldly persevere. With determination and utmost courage, we must conquer the hurdles in order to push forward.”

KOLHATKAR: Gritty optimism.

FIGUERES: Gritty optimism. I also call it stubborn optimism, because it is a little bit more provocative.


KOLHATKAR: When you were appointed to lead the group at the U.N. that ultimately created the Paris agreement, you initially said you never thought it would happen in your lifetime. Yet, in 2015, 195 countries unanimously agreed to adopt this agreement. You describe a moment with the green gavel going down. What was it like? How did it feel at that moment?

FIGUERES: Well, I have to say that, when I walked out of that press conference — and, today, I’m trying to find out who was the brilliant journalist who asked me that very provocative question, because he did. And I do remember it was a male. He said, do you think a global agreement would ever be possible? And I said, not in my lifetime. And you know what, Sheelah? I walked out of that press conference a changed person, a completely changed person, because I realized that, while I had uttered the zeitgeist of the moment, the complete lack of confidence and the despair and the grief about not being able to agree collectively on a path forward in climate, I also realized that is com — that is a reality that we cannot allow to happen. That is a reality that has such cataclysmic consequences on the future of humanity and of the planet, that it’s not something that can happen on our watch. And so I walked out of that press conference determined to prove myself wrong and to begin to inject the world with a sense of confidence that, yes, this is very complicated, yes, it’s costly, yes, there are many different political positions on this. But, above all of it, it is the right thing to do. And we have the capacity, we have the ingenuity, we have the creativity, we have the finance, we have the technology. We know what the policies are. We can bring all of this together to co-create a very different reality. And that’s what we injected into the Paris agreement. That, you know, optimism, which is a choice — it is not the result of having achieved something. For us, optimism is a strategy. It is the input with which we actually face any challenge. If we don’t believe that we can actually succeed at something, the only guarantee is that we will fail.

KOLHATKAR: In 2016, the U.S. had a very consequential presidential election. And President Trump issued a formal notice that the U.S. is going to withdraw from the Paris agreement.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord.



KOLHATKAR: And when he was announcing this, he said: “The Paris accord will undermine the U.S. economy and it puts the U.S. at a permanent disadvantage.” And he’s since said that the livelihoods and the employment opportunities for people who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania are more important than a global climate change agreement. What are the implications of that? That seems like a major setback, no?

FIGUERES: The sad thing is — and I’m not a U.S. citizen, but I am deeply saddened by the fact that the current position of the U.S. administration actually takes the United States out of the race into the 21st century. And it opens up the space for other economies, namely, China, to be the decisive country in investing in wind energy technology and solar technology, battery development, in electric cars, because they understand that that’s what is going to make them competitive. They understand that that’s where growing demand is coming from. And want to be ready to serve as a market that is growing exponentially. So it’s very sad that the White House cannot see that that is in the interests of the United States. Now, fortunately, 65 percent of the United States’ economy continues to decarbonize, for two reasons. One, they happen to know that they live in a democracy and that, eventually — we don’t know when — but there will be different opinion in the White House. And as soon as that occurs, the United States will dovetail back into the Paris agreement very quickly, because most people understand that this is in the interest of the United States. It’s very sad when you see leadership in the United States leading people down a dead-end road.

KOLHATKAR: You talk a lot about personal responsibility and optimism. But it’s hard sometimes, when you look at the bigger picture, to feel like reducing the use of straws or taking public transportation, rather than driving, is really going to make a difference, when these major policy decisions are being made that completely fly in the face of reducing fossil fuel consumption. So, how are individuals supposed to continue to feel responsible and like they can do something, they can make a difference, when our policy-makers and our leaders in major polluting countries are not following the same thinking?

FIGUERES: Well, we first have to remember that there is no such thing as an impersonal corporation or an impersonal government. I hate to break the news, but governments are made out of individuals. I hate to break the news, but corporations are composed of individuals. And so it all comes down to the individual mind-set. I cannot tell you how many CEOs of major oil and gas companies — and I work with many of them — tell me that they’re already on the path to a transformation because their 13-year-old daughter comes home every night and says, dad, what are you doing about my future? This is about individual choices. It is about individual responsibility. Another example, plastic straws, because you mentioned that, Sheelah. How quickly did that image of a turtle with a plastic straw through its nose go virally around the world? And that totally changed our concept of using a plastic straw. Now, because of that change in individual behavior,because most of us decided, right, that’s it, no more plastic straws, so what has happened with that individual behavior that became very quickly a collective behavior? First, those who pollute — who produce plastic straws are not investing anymore into plastic straws. There are many new companies that are actually producing jobs and economic growth by producing alternatives. In Costa Rica, my country, we’re producing straws out of avocado seeds, to one have one example, or metal straws. But you have many industries that have grown up, many companies that have grown up because of the new demand. That was not a regulated demand. I have yet to see a policy or a law that goes through in any country that says, thou shalt not use a plastic straw. That transformation came through because of individual choice, responsible choice. And we have to remember that those choices that we make as individuals do trickle up. They trickle up to corporations. They trickle up to governments.

KOLHATKAR: Your father was a three-time president in Costa Rica, a transformational leader in that country. He eliminated Costa Rica’s military, among many other things. What did you learn from him?

FIGUERES: I learned many things from my fantastic father. Among them, I learned that the purpose of our life is service to the common good. And for him, that was the nation. For me, it’s the planet. But it’s the same principle. That is the north toward which we guide our lives. I also learned from him to be incredibly stubborn when it comes to the common good. We do not compromise. Once we have put out a target, a destination that we know is aligned with the common good, and, frankly, on the right side of history, like he did, and like we’re doing now in the planet, then we stop at nothing. We stop at nothing, because we have to be able to turn over any stone that is in the way, because some things are just more important than our personal little issues.

KOLHATKAR: This work is clearly very personal to you. Is there anything you would like to be able to say in the future to your children, to future generations about what happened during this period of time?

FIGUERES: Sheelah, you’re going to kill me with that question, because whenever I speak about kids, I can’t contain it.

KOLHATKAR: There’s a very moving passage towards the end of your book that maybe–

FIGUERES: Can you read it instead, because, honestly, it’s just too much?

KOLHATKAR: “When the eyes of our children and their children look straight into ours and they ask us, what did you do, our answer cannot just 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.”

FIGUERES: And in the difference between those two lies humanity’s destiny.

KOLHATKAR: Christiana Figueres, thank you so much for being here.

FIGUERES: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Austan Goolsbee explains how coronavirus is affecting the global economy. World Health Organization expert Dr. Bruce Aylward provides more information on the outbreak. Christiana Figueres, the architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement, sits down with Sheelah Kolhatkar to discuss long term solutions to the climate crisis.