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Episode 1: The Future of Climate Change

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Transcript for Episode 1: The Future of Climate Change


DAVID WALLACE-WELLS is the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, a best-selling book based on a story he wrote in 2017, which was the most widely read in the history of New York Magazine. He writes about climate and other issues for New York.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES is the former Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and played a vital role in the negotiations that led to the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015. She is also the co-author of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis and the co-host of the Outrage + Optimism podcast.


Danielle Mattoon: Welcome to The World As You’ll Know It. A podcast about life after Covid-19. I’m your host, Danielle Mattoon. If we think of the pandemic as a giant global reset, what challenges and possibilities will it bring? That’s the question this show is asking. Each week, we invite an established journalist to host a conversation with an expert in their field about how Covid and our response to it will affect the future. This week, on our first episode, the conversation is about climate.

Our host is David Wallace Wells. His bestselling book -- “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” -- is based on a story he wrote in 2017, which was the most widely-read in the history of New York Magazine. Joining him is self-proclaimed “stubborn optimist” Christiana Figueres, the co-author of “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis.” She is the former Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in this role, she was vital in the negotiations that led to the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015.

Here’s one way to frame the urgency of their conversation. In 2020, with the world's economies largely shut down, there has been a drastic reduction in carbon emissions. But to even have a chance at avoiding some of the worst effects of climate change, we will need to reduce emissions by the same amount every year for at least the next decade. Christiana thinks we can do it. David is not so sure.

Here is their conversation.


David Wallace-Wells: Christiana, I wanted to start just, thank you so much for taking the time. I'm so thrilled to be talking to you again. And I thought it might be useful just to start by sort of zooming back in time to more or less when we first talked, which was, I think last August or early September.

Christiana Figueres: It seems like last century. Was it last century?

David Wallace-Wells: Amazing, right? So much has changed. And we'll talk about the change in a second, but maybe first, let's talk about just what you were thinking then, how you saw the prospect for real action on climate change, what you thought the next year or so would look like.

Christiana Figueres: Well, actually, I know that emotionally, we feel that we're in a drastically changed scenario, with respect to climate change. But actually, if I think about this dispassionately and coldly, I don't think that much has changed. There are two things that are very different; one positive, and the other one TBD.

The very positive thing that has occurred over the last year, is the kids on the streets. I mean, honestly, how fantastic to see these young people so bravely out in the streets, and just putting a heck of a lot of pressure in 130 countries. I've spoken to many CEOs, in fact, even in the last few months who tell me, "Even despite COVID, I am going to increase my commitment to climate action, because my kids come home and ask me, what the heck am I doing?"

David Wallace-Wells: Yeah, that part of the story has been especially remarkable to me; it's how quickly and how totally. At this point, I tend to think of it as mostly rhetoric and we'll sort of see how much those CEOs honor those commitments. But even at the level of rhetoric, they're making much more intense, profound commitments to change on these metrics than you would have thought even possible a year or so ago. And I completely agree, I think it's largely to the credit of the social pressure put on by all the youth around the world.

Christiana Figueres: Yeah. And I mean, it's either pressure from visibility on the streets or it's pressure around the dinner table to their parents, and kudos to them that they're doing both. So that's one thing that has changed.

The other thing that has changed that is sort of a TBD, is we don't know what the recovery packages of COVID are going to be. And honestly, I think the scale and the depth of decarbonization is going to largely depend on the characteristics of those recovery packages, more than on anything else because of their scale, right? We're already at 12 trillion, we could go up to 20 trillion; all of which will be allocated over the next 18 months. And we have never seen, the world has never seen $20 trillion go into the economy over such a short period of time. And because of the scale of the financing, that is going to determine the logic, the structures, certainly the carbon intensity, of the global economy, at least for a decade, if not more.

David Wallace-Wells: But before we talk about some of those particulars, I wanted to pull back a little May need to cut bit and just talk about big picture. What are we hoping for if we imagine these next 18 months unfolding in as aggressive of a way, with regards to climate action as we can? Where would that leave us?

The Paris Accords, which you played a major role in crafting, established a goal of doing everything we could to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And just to give listeners context, the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees is enormous. At 2 degrees, you’re talking about 150 million additional people dying of air pollution. You’re talking about storms that used to come once a century coming every single year. You’re talking about probably hundreds of millions of additional climate refugees. Cities in South Asia and the Middle East especially becoming so hot in summer that you wouldn’t be able to walk around outside without risking heat stroke or death. These are cities that some of them have 10 or 12 some 15 million people in them today. And probably just around 2 degrees, maybe a little north of 2 degrees, but just around there, we would be locking into inevitability the permanent loss of all of the planet's ice sheets, which that melt would take centuries to unfold, but over time would bring scientists estimate probably 200 feet or more of sea level rise. We can avoid all those things at 1.5 degrees and at 2 degrees all of those horrors are waiting for us.

So when I look the trajectory that we’re on now, even building in how much change could be encoded into these recovery packages, I still have a very hard time imagining the world avoiding 2 degrees of warming. So, I still see all of those impacts as basically inevitable. Do you think that staying below 2 degrees and getting close to 1.5 is still possible?

Christiana Figueres: Well, the majority of scientists have concluded and have agreed precisely in the 1.5 degree report that they brought out at the end of 2018, that yes, it is possible. They're not saying it's easy, but they have said, "It is possible." It's like squeezing yourself underneath the closed door. I mean, that's the difficulty, right? It's not like the door is open and we can just walk through. No, it is definitely difficult.

Now the current, let's say, best possible target is not below 1.5, because I think most people have agreed that that is just no longer possible. And when David and I say 1.5 or two degrees, what we're talking about is the average increase in global temperature by 2100; that's when that temperature will be manifested. Now the trajectories to go to that, are very, very different, whether we're at two degrees by the end of the century or 1.5 degrees at the end of the century, those two trajectories are very different, as David has just mentioned.

Now, the morality of the difference between those two worlds is so huge. Or, let me say, the immorality is so huge.

David Wallace-Wells: It's sort of misleading to talk about it as a half a degree. It feels like it's a totally different universe between those two.

Christiana Figueres: It is a totally different world, right? It's two completely different worlds from the point of human misery. It's two completely different worlds from the point certainly of ecosystem resilience. And it is two completely different worlds, with respect to economic profitability and stability. And it will be unmanageable for any social system in any country to deal with the increased poverty and the increased migration pressure that a two degree world would bring.

And the point is, there is no way that we can allow temperature to go beyond 1.5. Now, the tough question is, how the heck are we going to do that? And I think, David, that that is where this new interest or renewed interest in nature based solutions. Nature based solutions, which is reforesting and taking care of mangroves or reestablishing mangroves, restoring soil, regenerating forest, all of that; a huge family of activities. Yes we have to do a huge transformation on the energy side, but that’s 70% of the problem only. The other 30% of the problem and 30% of the solution has to come from nature based solutions. And we have been pushing that ball up the hill for decades.

And it's only recently, I would say in the last three months perhaps, David, that I have seen a huge resurgence of interest in this. And for me, that is like the new star that has risen in the heavens, for people to understand that that is such an important component. And yes, most of us are focused and obsessed by the energy part; fine, but that cannot be the limit of our interest.

David Wallace-Wells: I think the point about nature based solutions is really important and vital. And I think I would group it with everything else that you're saying as these are trajectories that we could have identified last September. And one, I think that you're right, that they're all still true today. But what worries me is that the big picture timeline is really so short. The 1.5 degree report that you mentioned that came out in 2018, said really to have a good shot at avoiding two degrees and to getting close to 1.5 degrees, we need to cut by 40 to 45%, our emissions by 2030; which means at this point, we have less than a decade.

When we spoke earlier in the spring, right after your great book came out, I was saying I had been amazed and inspired at how sudden the global response to COVID had been. That in the space of a couple of months, basically the entire planet went into a quite burdensome shelter-in-place lockdown, for the sake of individual health and the health of communities. And that inspired me thinking about the future of climate change, because I didn't think that that kind of the globe acting in unison for the sake of the health of the planet, it really surprised me, honestly. And extrapolating that going forward, I think that there are positive lessons about what kind of global concerted action we could get on climate.

On the other hand, I look at the increased rivalry emerging between China and the US right now. I look in particular at those two countries and see that China's emissions are already back to where they were going to be before COVID. The US relief packages that we've passed to this point, under Trump and under a Republican Senate, are sort of a mixed bag. They allow some support for renewables, but also some support for the fossil fuel business.

And I wonder in particular, how you think about that aspect of the geopolitical landscape? The EU is moving quickly, but China and the US are the main players here. And you would have thought a year ago, probably that an optimistic future for climate action involved some really meaningful collaboration and coordination, at least between those two countries and maybe involving the whole world led by those two countries. That seems a lot harder to imagine to me right now than it did a year ago, because of how much more conflict there is between Beijing and Washington. How do you see that dynamic playing out?

Christiana Figueres: I totally agree with you. I mean, obviously just from a numerical mathematical perspective, if those two countries don't get with the program, it is going to be practically impossible. It's going to be practically impossible to get on the track toward ... Actually, you're being very generous when you say 40 to 45 emissions cut. I'm always saying, "50% cut by 2030," right?

David Wallace-Wells: Which, by the way, would require the world to cut emissions every year between now and 2030 at, or more-

Christiana Figueres: 7.6%.

David Wallace-Wells: And that's more than we've seen this year, even during the depths of the COVID lockdown. It's about that level.

Christiana Figueres: Actually, it seems like we're going to do 8%, so more than the yearly. But David, let's remember, this is not the way we want to decarbonize, right?

David Wallace-Wells: Right.

Christiana Figueres: We don't want to do it on the back of human misery and lockdown and economic paralysis. That is not the path at all. But sorry, to get back to where we were, China and the United States, I totally agree with you. And to do just a quick flashback, it is incontrovertible that without the collaboration between the US and China, we would not have had a Paris Agreement, and the same is true today. Without the collaboration between the United States and China, there is no way the world is going to get on track. A, because of mathematical reasons, just their own emissions, but also because of the geopolitical role that they play in modeling the kinds of investments and the kinds of policies and the kinds of technologies that want to be furthered in order for this decarbonization to be worldwide. So I totally agree with you.

Now, here is where we come to the mammoth crystal ball called the US election. If the US election results in a reelection, then we have a very serious problem, because predictably, the problems with China will continue. The fact that 60% of the US economy continues to decarbonize even under this administration, is good news, but I really question whether that would continue under four more years of policy attack.

I mean, yes, they know that eventually, decarbonization is the way to go, et cetera, et cetera, but all of these companies and sectors also have to live their short term reality, in addition to having their longterm vision.

David Wallace-Wells: And it makes a really big difference if we hit these targets in 2050, as opposed to 2030.

Christiana Figueres: Oh my gosh, it's a world of difference. So I don't think that we should underplay the importance of the US election. It is critical for the United States, in terms of everything that the United States stands for, but it is also critical for the world.

Now, if in our mega crystal ball, the White House changes hands, then David, I don't know, I haven't talked to the transition team, but I can only imagine that they're going to want to very quickly turn a new leaf on everything; certainly on climate. They will rejoin the Paris Agreement, which is just basically a procedure; a very, very quick executive order. But more importantly than that, I am assuming that they are preparing a host of measures that to begin with should reinstate all of decarbonization policies that the Trump administration has rolled back.

And I'm also assuming, I could be dead wrong, but I am also assuming that one of the very important things that they are going to do is to reach out to China immediately on climate change. Why? Because the United States had four bilateral agreements with China in the lead up to Paris. There was incredible enthusiasm about what the two countries could do together on the development of technology. And even then, even in those days, it's not like the United States and China were in any kind of a geopolitical honeymoon. Not at all. They were still having major differences on most issues, but not on climate.

And given the fact that there are so many leaders in the Democratic party who were in the administration then, and who will likely be very close to this administration, those ties to China remain warm. And China, frankly, I think they're just playing, Waiting for Godot. That's the game that they're playing now. They're just saying, "Well, we're just going to wait until they figure out what kind of a government they want."

In the meantime, interestingly, David, we had a fascinating conversation with James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, and he was telling us about the work that he's doing in China to help them to green the Belt and Road Initiative. Now the Belt and Road Initiative is this mega investment project, bigger than any investment project the world has ever seen, that is going to invest in infrastructure in China, but more importantly, in other countries.

So they are preparing a traffic light system for those investments that will tell them whether they are climate friendly or not. Of course, even if they look at some that are not, they may decide to just forget about the traffic light and go ahead and do it. But I think the tendency is going to be to go with the green lighted investments.

That's a huge change for China. That was not on the Chinese radar when they launched the Belt and Road Initiative. It's taken a long time for them to put two and two together. But for them, to green the Belt and Road Initiative is absolutely critical. Because let's remember, wherever Asia writ large, not just China, but wherever Asia goes on carbon emissions, there goes the world.

David Wallace-Wells: And it's especially important because the Belt and Road isn't just in Asia, they're also building much of the infrastructure of Africa, which is scheduled to grow population-wise much faster than anywhere in Asia, over the rest of the century.

Christiana Figueres: Exactly.

David Wallace-Wells: So, I think they are kind of an underappreciated aspect. It's interesting you mentioned ClientEarth. I had a conversation a few months ago with Brian Eno, the producer who's on the board of ClientEarth. And he was telling me about a visit that they had made to China, in which China reached out to them and said, "We want you to set up," I don't remember the number, "Several hundred ClientEarth outfits here." And so our listeners know, ClientEarth, it's a legal advocacy organization. It's a pro bono legal advocacy organization on behalf of the environment.

So they said, "I don't think you understand what we do. We fight the government. Why do you want us out here?" And the Chinese officials they were speaking with said, at least according to Eno, "That's the problem we're dealing with here, is that so many of the citizens of China are too scared to raise environmental alarms because they're intimidated by the political structure. And we need someone to be telling us when the air is unbreathable and when the rivers are polluted, because we want to have a clean country, a clean empire, but the state of our politics internally is such that we can't count on citizens to speak up about that."

And that brings me to… The future of China is, and I say this as an outsider, I'm ignorant about most of it, but we've seen over the last year, even during the COVID crisis, some really ugly moves by Xi Jinping in Hong Kong, the continuation of persecution of Muslims, the Uighurs Muslims in Xinjiang.

This is a government that is moving away from a lot of the humanitarian liberal values that I think people like you and me would expect would be at the center of any global project devoted to any collective goal. That doesn't mean that they can't be a partner on climate change, but it is a slightly different dynamic than I think even would have seemed to be the case 5 or 10 years ago with China, when you could still believe that economic liberalization was going to bring about some amount of political liberalization.

Do you not see that as a meaningful threat going forward? I look to the model of the US Soviet Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreements and see rival superpowers really can cooperate on matters of truly existential importance to the planet. And maybe that's still true for the US and China, but I worry about the increasingly authoritarian turn--Xi Jinping is now president for life--and how that affects the dynamic. It sounds like you don't see it as all that meaningfully changing the underlying calculus.

Christiana Figueres: Well, and the reason why I don't see it as, let's say, erasing their efforts on climate change, is because I think, David, that in the West, we tend to package values, principles, and politics into very intertwined packages. There's a whole package that has to do with the positions on science, and the positions on human rights, and the position on racism, and the position on rights of women, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on. And I wonder if the way that we do things is the way that other cultures do it.

It's entirely possible that China would look at decarbonization as an economic opportunity and as a competitive area, that is going to bring a heck of a lot of export possibilities of new technologies to China.

David Wallace-Wells: And as what you and I have talked about before, also offers enormous public health benefits, which show up very quickly.

Christiana Figueres: Enormous public health benefits, and that, that doesn't necessarily have to get wrapped up in a mega package of the position of China on human rights at the United Nations. For them, those are not necessarily a question mark, question mark, I'm not making a statement I'm questioning. Maybe those are not necessarily interlinked.

They have one position on human rights and they have a completely different position on, let's call it, technology development, which is for them, climate change.

David Wallace-Wells: Well, you're making me somewhat more optimistic, I have to say, about the prospect of some kind of collaboration. And I wanted to maybe finish up talking a little bit more concretely about what an optimistic next year or two would look like. So assuming that there's a US election and that Joe Biden is the president, and as part of his arrival, the US reenters the Paris Accords and undoes what Trump did to the Obama era regulations. Thinking not just in the US but maybe based there, what would a really successful 2021 look like for climate action? What should we be hoping for and pushing for? And what should we be using as a basis for judging how much progress we are making?

Christiana Figueres: Well, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, 2021, we may be out of the thick of the health crisis, but we will still be in the economic post-crisis of COVID. And so for me on climate, next year, it is still going to be dependent on what those recovery packages are. Which is a combination of financing that goes in, plus the conditionalities for that financing, and both of those have to come together.

David Wallace-Wells: So what would be a good test or a good set of tests or benchmarks for how to judge a particular stimulus package or relief package? What should we be hoping for as those roll out?

Christiana Figueres: So let's use an example, right? The airlines, the airlines are all broke, completely broke, and they're all filing for support from their respective government independently of where they are. Well, the support of governments to airlines should definitely be given, because we need the airline industry. But it should be given with a conditionality of increased efficiency in operations, and especially to take the decarbonization targets that the airline industry has already agreed to, as a baseline of action, and in fact, even increase them. Because if they're going to have now fresh money, and if they're going to basically restart the whole operation, they have a huge opportunity to rethink everything. They have an opportunity to rethink their routing, to rethink their arrivals, their takeoffs, et cetera, et cetera. They're going to have to order new equipment, that should be highly efficient equipment.

And the same thing for any other industry, every sector that is being bailed out, and most of them definitely merit bailing out with a few exceptions, such as coal, but those sectors should be given financial support with what many people are calling green strings attached. Yes, we want you to re-operate, but you cannot operate the way you were operating a year ago. You now have to operate the way you have to operate five years from now. Accelerate it, do it now.

And that kind of pressure actually will have huge, innovative effects on these sectors. They will all complain. They'll all go, "No, we need the five years and now we're broke." I can just hear it. But the fact is, the carbon restraint that any company or sector is put under, is basically the playground for innovation, and just catapults them into a completely different level of thinking, ingenuity, and performance capacities.

And Europe is beginning to do that. Europe is beginning to do that, and the good news is that because Europe has gone forward, we will be able to take a look at a Europe that is basically innovating on that, because they’ve never done it. Nobody has ever done it before. And by the time, hopefully, the United States will be doing this in January of next year, they will be able to take lessons learned from Europe because Europe will have been doing it for 6 months.

David Wallace-Wells: I wanted to finish with a couple of really fast questions. So I'm going to ask you maybe three or four questions and they may be yes or no, maybe answers in just a sentence. But first is, you've sort of mentioned a couple of times now, how valuable in the fight against climate change, the leverage offered by the pandemic is. So on net, do you think that the pandemic has been productive for the fight on climate change? Do you think we're in a better position?

Christiana Figueres: I would say it has a huge potential of being productive, but we haven't seen it yet.

David Wallace-Wells: And we've been talking a lot about 1.5 degrees, two degrees, how different those situations would be. And in terms of spending all of the money that we're going to be spending over the next year, if we're not yet sure where on that spectrum of temperature levels we're going to fall ultimately, should we be focusing all of that investment on mitigation, that is reducing carbon emissions? Or should we also be investing in adaptation, that is figuring out ways that we can live in a much hotter world and defending ourselves against some of the quite likely climate impacts?

Christiana Figueres: That's a really difficult question, David, a really difficult question. Yeah. Congratulations. That's a really difficult one, because the relationship between mitigation and adaptation is an inverse relationship, right? The more we mitigate and the faster we mitigate, the less we will have to adapt, and vice versa, right?

And so a part of me says, "Oh my God, mitigate right now, because one ton reduced today has much more human and economic value than one ton reduced tomorrow, for sure. And so for me, it's all about mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. On the other hand, in developing countries, it's about adapt, adapt, adapt.

So I think the answer to your question is, it depends where. There are some countries that have a huge emission level and therefore huge mitigation responsibility and possibility. There are other countries that don't have that emission, and where they have to concentrate is on adaptation.

David Wallace-Wells: If you had to bet your life, and many people on the planet will be betting their life on some of these questions-

Christiana Figueres: We're all betting our life right now.

David Wallace-Wells: Yeah. Are we going to stay below two degrees?

Christiana Figueres: Yes.

David Wallace-Wells: What's one plausible accomplishment that we could hope for in the next year that would significantly raise your level of optimism about where we're headed? If we could only hit one benchmark, what is the most important, most exciting, plausible achievement that we could see in the next 12 months?

Christiana Figueres: In terms of policy or technology?

David Wallace-Wells: Maybe one from both.

Christiana Figueres: In terms of policy, can I pick the green recovery packages? Because honestly, that is the biggest thing, right? If we see the United States in January coming with really strong green strings on their recovery packages, that is just the most awesome, and they will influence the rest of the countries.

And on technology, what can we do in 12 months? I would love to see the internal combustion engine banned.

David Wallace-Wells: That's bold.

Christiana Figueres: Yeah. But I would love to see the decision. I mean, obviously they're not going to decide to ban it immediately, but I would love to see a growing number of countries, cities, banning the internal combustion engine by 2030, 2032. I mean, somewhere in that area, because the moment that that is done, that accelerates electrification of vehicles.

David Wallace-Wells: And very last question, what is the biggest kind of conceptual or imaginative obstacle? What is holding us back from embracing the vision of the medium term future that you see and see is so exciting? What is standing in our way?

Christiana Figueres: Our brain, our head, our lack of imagination, because we are so, so tied to the past; to the tried and true. We have not liberated ourselves from the chains of the past to say, "We can create a very different future." Let our imagination fly and then follow that with action.

David Wallace-Wells: Christiana, thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a pleasure as always speaking with you, and I love hearing your thoughts on all of this, so thank you again.

Christiana Figueres: Thank you very much, David.


Danielle Mattoon: Thanks for listening to The World As You’ll Know It.

David Wallace Wells is the author of The Uninhabitable Earth. Christiana Figueres is the co-author of The Future We Choose and co-host of the weekly podcast Outrage and Optimism. You can find links to their work and more in our show notes.

This podcast is brought to you by Aventine Research Institute, a non-profit dedicated to supporting work that helps us understand the long-term consequences of today’s decisions and behaviors on the future. The views expressed are those of the participants and do not represent those of Aventine, its employees or affiliates. This podcast is produced in partnership with Pineapple Street Studios.


Next time on The World As You’ll Know It, we talk about the future of labor...

Prior to the crisis only about 2% of workers worked fully remotely. Businesses are now projecting a tripling or quadrupling of the fraction of all work hours that will be done telepresently. And that’s important because it’s not going to just affect those workers, it’s going to indirectly affect demand for many people who do the service activities that support that type of work.

Join us back here for a conversation between Steven Greenhouse, New York Times journalist and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up, and David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics at MIT and co-chair of its Work of the Future task force.



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