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Earth Day at 50: A Conversation with Christiana Figueres

After failure to negotiate an agreement in Copenhagen in 2009, Christiana Figueres took the reins as the executive secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for the Paris negotiations in 2015. The negotiation fiasco of 2009 and bomb threats at the venue in Paris shook the start of the event. With Figueres at the helm, she made the tough decision and pushed on with the negotiations ultimately leading to the Paris Agreement. Figueres has since moved on from her role at the UNFCCC, however, her advocacy for climate action remains strong. On April 16, 2020, Figueres joined the UMB community as the 2020 Robert C. Wood Visiting Professor of Public and Urban Affairs to share her experiences and ideas from her coauthored new book, The Future We Choose.

Center Director, Maria Ivanova organized the event to host Christiana Figueres. The event would kick-off Earth Week in anticipation of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day. However, things changed. COVID-19 altered lives worldwide. Most national governments instituted shelter-in-place orders and classes and work transitioned online. All the changes caused people to rethink, reframe, and reengage in creative ways.

UMass Boston embraced the changes and decided to host Christiana Figueres through Zoom. Instead of an event only available to local participants, the new orientation allowed for a global community to engage. Dean David Cash welcomed the global community, and Dr. Maria Ivanova moderated the discussion with Christiana Figueres. Initially, the conversation was to focus on Figueres’s new book with her co-author, Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose. However, when faced with the reality of COVID-19, the discussion transformed.

Figueres aptly navigated the concerns of COVID-19 and weaved in the commonalities with climate change. She opened the event with a thoughtful acknowledgement of the challenges of living with COVID-19. She took the time to mention the concern for those who lost their jobs and others whose reality dramatically changed. She stated that “The core of who we are is being tested…It is a daily choice of who we want to be.” Figueres truly understood the challenges of the audience and took time to address them. In doing so, she allowed people to reflect on their experiences with COVID-19 and created the space to talk about both COVID-19 and climate change.

She mentioned four necessary outcomes for climate change: solidarity, multilateralism, thanking and releasing fossil fuels, and regeneration. She emphasized the importance of solidarity as a tenet of human life and connected it to the importance decision-making from local to global. She voiced her concern about the disregard for multilateralism and the need for it to address global climate change and prevent future pandemics. Figueres acknowledged the importance of fossil fuels in the changing lives and providing new opportunities, however, acknowledgement does not mean continuation of use. In fact, she appreciated their contribution, saying we should thank them for their service but send them into retirement. The final outcome that she highlighted was the idea of the regeneration, both of the self and nature. She stated that we have an “extractive perspective” that takes from the Earth and does not and/or cannot replace the natural resources the Earth provides. Instead she suggested a “regenerating nature” in which we embrace the natural resources that do not deplete, disrupt, or pollute the earth.

How can we accomplish these outcomes: Changes in mindset about climate change. Figures and Rivett-Carnac suggests three: stubborn optimism, endless abundance, and radical regeneration. Stubborn optimism is the idea that we should embrace living in a time to address this problem, develop a determined attitude, and inspire others to do the same no matter how challenging it can become. Stubborn optimism retrains “learned helplessness” to recognize that we can create change. Endless abundance seems contrary and almost provocative when thinking about climate change. The authors challenge the current conception of abundance which is usually in opposition to scarcity. They do this because scarcity often conjures fear and spurs competition. Instead, she suggests collaborative pursuits with “shared winning.” Their definition of abundance is reframed to include wind, water, and sun as endless resources, but also human ingenuity, shared information, and collective problem solving. Abundance in this sense reframes the types of resources and includes humans as resources. Radical regeneration presents another change in mindset. In this sense, the relationship between nature and humans is not separate. This idea moves away from extraction and toward building each other. The mindset provides us an option to reframe the way we think about climate change.

The book and the talk emphasize that climate change is “high risk, high probability, and high impact.” However, we have the capital, technologies, and creativity to make the changes to address climate change.

Additionally, New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassen joined the conversation to discuss COVID-19, healthcare, and climate change. We appreciate Senator Hassen for joining the conversation.

Additionally, we thank Christiana Figueres for joining us as the 2020 Robert C. Wood Visiting Professor of Public and Urban Affair and sharing her optimism.

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