A Roundtable with Christiana Figueres
Articles | April 12, 2019
On Friday 04 April 2019, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Christiana Figueres was awarded the Edinburgh Medal for her work as a global leader on climate change and her efforts in bringing 195 nations together to jointly deliver an unprecedented climate change agreement in Paris in 2015. The Paris summit, the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference, was the first time that all of the world’s nations agreed to a binding commitment to transform the global economy towards low carbon and high resilience and in doing so, limit the damaging effects of global warming. The Paris Agreement was a historic achievement of international co-operation and as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana’s leadership was central to this success.
The Edinburgh Science Festival is a place where the latest scientific ideas and technological innovations collide in a public forum to be shared, discussed and debated. The science and societal issues related to climate change form a fundamental part of the Festival’s programme. The Festival, and Christiana’s visit, also coincide this year with the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Edinburgh as part of their work on reducing the rate of global climate change. It has been six months since the IPCC’s Special Report on global warming, warning us that we have 12 years to transform society in order to limit global warming to 1.50C. A key challenge for all of us is how to achieve economic growth whilst managing Earth’s natural resources in a sustainable and equitable way and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Scotland, our demand to supply ratio is 3:1, that is, if everyone lived like us, we would need three planets to support us. That is clearly not sustainable, so what can we do about it? How can we lead by example? In order to explore what lessons we could learn from Christiana, the Edinburgh Science Festival facilitated a roundtable discussion to explore how Scotland can reduce emissions whilst also pushing for “inclusive growth”. I was extremely privileged to take part.
So here is what I have taken away from that precious hour with Christiana.
We should be outraged. Outrage is fuel for change, and the best example of this is the youth climate strikes. However, it’s not up to the young to do the hard work – it’s up to us, people in the workforce now. We’ve only got 12 years, so we have to make the progress, not wait for the next generation to do it. If we do, we risk seeing their outrage transform into despair, and we will have failed them.
Our mindset is everything. It is a privilege that we have the agency to effect change at this crucial point in history. We need to have self-belief and turn that into self-actualisation. We have to be brave, and above all to be optimistic. If we shy away from ambitious goals because we don’t really believe that they are achievable, that will become self-fulfilling.
That means turning perceived wisdom on its head and questioning how things work. We are so ingrained in the systems we have created that we think they are immutable, when they are not. Addressing a problem of this magnitude requires a systematic approach and we need to understand how our systems work to identify the key points at which we can change things most effectively. That will require cross-sectoral collaboration, transparency and information sharing, new regulation, use of technology and ‘safe spaces’ for discussion. This is where institutions like our universities, organisations like the Science Festival, or independent bodies like the Scottish Government’s Infrastructure Growth Commission will play a vital role.
We should celebrate our successes. We need champions from all sectors who are proud to stand up and say, we are doing things differently and not only is it good for the planet, it is good for business. At the end of our discussion, Christiana challenged everyone in the room to take action now – whose permission were we waiting for, she wanted to know? And as it turns out, it’s no-one’s. We’re now accountable to each other, and to Christiana who will be checking up on us, so it is definitely time to do, not just discuss.
Yesterday, my 10 year old daughter and I watched the historic news that an image of a black hole had been captured for the first time. That lead us to the Ted talk given by Dr Katie Bouman, who developed the algorithm that turned the data into an image while she was a PhD student at MIT. At the end of her talk, Dr Bouman put up a photo of the team of people involved in the collaboration. She said yesterday, “we’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible.” The Event Horizon Telescope started gathering data in 2017, it took the team 2 years to achieve their goal. There is no reason that we can’t apply the same collective effort to climate change.
At Malcolm Hollis, we know what can be achieved when different specialists work together with a shared focus. That focus has to be on deep decarbonisation – becoming a net zero carbon business and delivering net zero carbon buildings.