SwatTalk: Climate Outrage & Climate Optimism: Swarthmore and the World
with Christiana Figueres '79
Recorded on Wednesday, June 22, 2022
Mike Dennis Hello, and welcome to our SwatTalk, Climate Outrage and Climate Optimism, Swarthmore and the world With Christiana Figueres in conversation with David Gelber. I'm Mike Dennis with the Alumni Council, and we are very excited and honored to have Christiana and David with us today. Before introducing Christiana and David and to set the stage for the conversation, I have a couple quick things to cover. First SwatTalks are brought to you by the Alumni Council, the governing body of the alumni association. The Alumni Council organizes programs and initiatives such as SwatTalks to foster communication and connection between the college and alumni. And I especially wanna acknowledge and thank our Alumni Council President BoHee Yoon for her help with today's SwatTalk and her tireless leadership over the years. Second, in addition to alumni, we also wanna welcome students and faculty and staff who are joining today's SwatTalk on this critical topic. All are welcome to join future SwatTalks as well. Third, this SwatTalk is being recorded and will be posted online a week or two afterwards. You can also find recordings of previous SwatTalks on the Swarthmore website, including recent ones with Jonathan Franzen and Guggenheim fellows, Professor Steven Hopkins and Professor Ron Tarver. And finally, we're expecting Christiana and David to talk for about 40 minutes. Then we'll have time for your questions, which you can submit at any time by typing them into the chat feature. Please include your name and your class year. We'll do our best to field as many as possible. Now, it's my great privilege to introduce Christiana and David. Christiana is a Costa Rican citizen and internationally recognized leader on global climate change, who served as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, stepping into rescue the world negotiations after the failed Copenhagen Conference in 2009. Her work and leadership culminated in the historic Paris Agreement of 2015. That for the first time brought all nations together to commit to ambitious efforts to combat climate change. Since then she has stayed laser focused on trying to accelerate the global response to climate change as the founder of Global Optimism, as a co-host of the successful podcast, "Outrage and Optimism," as an author and as the chair of the Earthshot Foundation Prize launched by Prince William in the Royal Foundation in October, 2020. She is incredibly busy calling in today from Madrid and we are so appreciative of her time. Thank you, Christiana.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Thank you. Thank you very much for the invite.
Mike Dennis Christiana will be in conversation with David Gelber, a climate change leader in his own right. David is a co-founder and chairman of The YEARS Project, a multimedia storytelling and education effort designed to inform, empower and unite the world in the face of climate change. And he was a producer of "Years of Living Dangerously" in an Emmy award-winning documentary on climate change, which "The Guardian" called the most important climate change multimedia communication in history. He's also a former producer at 60 Minutes and has been recognized with numerous awards, including nine Emmys. David also claims to be the last man on the bench on the worst college basketball team in history. Though as I remember, Haverford's 40 year lose or I'm sorry, 40 game losing streak in the 90s sets a pretty high bar. So David, thank you for joining.
David Gelber ’63 Thanks, Mike. I should say that I've been doing some work on my moves since those days on the bench at Swarthmore, and I'm now ready to take on any 81 year old one on one head-to-head. I had a brief chat with Christiana yesterday. Christiana's father, José Figueres as many of you know is really the greatest political figure in the history of Costa Rica among other things. He abolished Costa Rica's military. And to this day there was no standing army in Costa Rica. So, I asked her if that was the reason she chose to attend a Quaker School. No, she said it was the only co-ed school I applied to. I asked her for a vivid memory of Swarthmore and she said that she resided in Parrish where all the virgins lived. That of course was a long time ago.
Christiana Figueres ’79 And that was only five of us on the entire campus.
David Gelbe ’63 So, Christiana as you've heard is considered the architect of the most important climate accord in history. She succeeded in wrangling 195 countries together for the Paris Agreement. I asked her if Swarthmore prepared her for that. She hesitated for a second and said, "Well, I studied anthropology, and that helped." How exactly did that help by the way?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Well, first of all, how delightful to be in conversation here together with so many other Swat alumni. Thanks for the invitation to both you and, Mike. How did it help? Well, one of the really golden principles of anthropology is a profound respect for differences, different cultures, different ways of thinking, different ways of doing. And when you have to work with 195 countries and probably 20,000 stakeholders from different sectors, believe you me, there are many different cultures than you raise thinking. And to be able to approach that complexity from a non-judgmental perspective and be able to be sincerely open to understanding the logic and the needs and the interest of every government, let alone every sector that is represented there was really deeply, deeply instilled in me as an anthropologist, studied at Swarthmore, and then went on to do a master's degree also later on in London. Never expecting to work on climate change, but you know, there you go.
David Gelbe ’63 So, I have one more thing about Christiana and Swarthmore. A few years ago, Christiana, the college wanted to confer an honorary degree in you and you refused. Tell us why?
Christiana Figueres ’79 I refused because Bill McKibben and I, Bill being one of the leading icons of environmental activism and thought leadership in the United States. Bill and I decided together, or rather to be just to this. Bill had been doing it for a long time, then called me and said, "Christiana, do you want to join me in this?" And I said, "Absolutely." So, Bill's practice that I adopted was not to accept any honorary academic degrees from institutions that had not divested their endowment. So, Bill has a long list of institutions that he has received honorary degrees. I have received only eight, which is tiny, tiny, tiny compared to Bills. But they do not include Swarthmore because I and as I'm sure many other alum have and students, thank you to the students, have been, let's call it diplomatically in conversation with the finance committee to divest the endowment. And they have staunchly refused. Our faculty. Yes, indeed, faculty have also been very helpful, but it actually, you know, honestly it is quite shameful that Swarthmore, that was one of the first academic institutions to really take a very strong stand on apartheid, for example, in South Africa. It's very sad that we are now lagging behind so many other institutions. Harvard University with the largest endowment, academic endowment, 42 billion has divested, or at least given their divestment plan. And it is just sad. $40 trillion combined assets have divested and Swarthmore continues to say that they're fine with being on the forefront of academia, but they ignore the very science, which they teach us as students.
David Gelbe ’63 I'm sure it will come up in the question period, but let's move on. I wanted to follow-up with something you just said about the $40 trillion, which is amazing. But let's move on from divestment for a minute. You have this remarkable podcast called "Outrage and Optimism." So, let's spend a few minutes on outrage, starting with how the world has responded to the Paris Accord. Any outrage there?
Christiana Figueres ’79 No, actually. My bucket of outrage is how the world is responding to the Putin invasion of Ukraine, so we can talk about that. No, I actually am more in the optimism bucket of how the world has responded to the Paris Agreement. Because there it is, if you turn on your optimistic glasses, it's pretty easy to see what is now being recognized as the Paris Effect, both in terms of regulation with the Paris Agreement already being national law in 189 countries. More than 2,000 national climate change laws and regulations around the world and counting. 1,500 at least litigation cases against both public institutions and private companies. And most recently, just in the chapter of regulation, huge step forward on the part of the SEC for a very soon requirement of companies to disclose their carbon footprint. Currently voluntarily in most countries except France. But it is moving to be mandated and will be announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission of the US. So just on regulation, actually pretty good. And honestly, I can go through a long list in the finance sector, $130 trillion in assets under management have been committed to net zero portfolio by 2050. More than a thousand companies collectively worth some 23 trillion have set their emission reduction goals lining up with the Paris Agreement. 350 or I think actually yesterday I saw 360 companies having committed to being net zero by 2040, which is 10 years ahead of the timetable. And the list goes on and on and on. The sad thing here, David, is that the media prefers to report on bad news. And we are from an evolution perspective, wired to let bad news enter our cognitive space more than good news. So, we have to retrain and reprogram ourselves to be able to see that. In fact, there is evidence of progress and there is evidence of delay for sure, but both are present. It is not correct to say that there's only evidence of delay.
David Gelbe ’63 I really want to get to the optimism, but I do think it's worth commenting on some of the things that don't seem to be going as well as they might have been. One of which has to do with the financial industry. I mean, you talk about banks. Since Paris, my understanding is that the world's biggest 60 banks have provided about $4 trillion of financing for fossil fuel companies and a large proportion of that goes to building fossil fuel infrastructure. The scary thing about that is that that infrastructure has got to generate revenue for about 30 years to justify the initial investment. Problem?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Yes. Or rather in my preferred language, yes and no at the same time. Yes, it's a problem. If you have those investments there that have to be paid off over x number of decades, but this is not a static, right? The life is not static. It is actually a constant process. And those investments are actually smaller than the investments that had been there before. And if you look with the exception of this year, 2022, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we can talk about that later. But if you take that out, then you see that actually financial institutions have begun to descend their investments into fossil fuels, not because of any altruistic reason, okay? So, let's just forget about, "We wanna save the planet." Honestly, there are very few out there, corporations or financial institutions. None of them are motivated by saving the planet and they shouldn't be, they're actually motivated by the protection of their assets. And they have totally understood that those are assets that will be stranded pretty soon, and they wanna protect their value. Furthermore, they wanna take advantage of new investment opportunities that are coming in that actually represent much better long-term investment value. So yes, this is a process. Yes, we still have assets that are being financed. And unfortunately that has gone up in the past few months since February invasion. But if you look at it as a long-term trajectory, it is pretty impressive, the fact that the financial sector has really understood the risk moved mostly by the insurance companies, because the insurance companies are of course, risk gurus. They totally understand. They have been saying that a world that goes above two degrees is systemically uninsurable. Systemically, okay? That doesn't mean, "Yeah. We know that certain sections of Miami are no longer insurable," et cetera, et cetera. No, this is not about some geographies not being insurable. They are saying systemically uninsurable. And that has actually alerted the financial institutions to as I say, protect their assets.
David Gelbe ’63 I came across a speech you gave to at a breakfast meeting for financial executives at Citigroup a couple of years ago. And you told them, you said, where capital goes over the next 15 years is gonna decide whether we're actually able to address climate change and what kind of a century we're gonna have. So, what would you tell the same finance executives today? How would you update if at all that remark.
Christiana Figueres ’79 It continues to be true. Where capital goes, so go emissions. So, especially the last few months since February to now of fresh capital being put back into last century's assets is a huge problem. And they're gonna have to crawl their way out out of that. But, you can see a straight relationship there between capital allocation and global emissions. I mean, that is just absolutely key. And so the question then still remains. And as I said before, that's where my outrage bucket is. The question then remains whether a year from now, we will see these investments that are being made now understandably into the most ridiculously, ridiculously lucrative fossil fuel industries, whether that's going to be a blip in the financial sector or whether it's going to cause a new trend. It is definitely a change in trend from where we were before February.
David Gelbe ’63 I'm curious to know how your own understanding of the problem. We're gonna get to the, I promise you, we're gonna get to optimism soon, but how your own understanding of for instance, the political influence, maybe some people would say the stranglehold, the fossil fuel industry has over climate policy, especially in the US. Has that changed over the last seven years? I mean, do you have a different understanding of the power of the fossil fuel industry now than you did then?
Christiana Figueres ’79 I think they're more conflicted than they used to be. For years and years and years they've been playing the tobacco playbook of trying to minimize the science, trying to pretend like they're not doing any damage, trying in fact, even in developing countries to position themselves as the industry that is going to bring development and economic growth to developing countries. Question, if they can do that, why haven't they done it during the last 50 to a hundred years, in which they have had supremacy? So, absolutely unacceptable arguments. Since 2015 or actually I would say probably since 2014, I think they're now conflicted and sitting on two chairs where there is of course corporate momentum and deep corporate expertise to continue in fossil fuel exploitation, drilling, refinement, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, distribution, that whole gamut. There's a lot of momentum in that. And at the same time, they realize that that is not going to be the path of business continuity and that they have to change. And so you do have, certainly in the European oil and gas companies, not so in most of the US, but certainly in the European companies, you have those companies already setting up subsidiary companies that are investing into either already what I call traditional renewable energies, which are solar and wind, offshore wind, or even onshore wind. So, already investing there, but also investing into the newer technologies that are coming still online. So, the shift what has to occur is you still have most of the CapEx being allocated into the traditional fossil fuel profit centers and not as much into the future. And that relationship was beginning to change. The relationship between how much CapEx wasn't being invested into fossil fuels and how much was being invested into renewables. But that has completely and dramatically changed as of February, as I said before. So, this schizophrenic I think, schizophrenic allocation of assets in some of the leading oil and gas companies remains today. And leaders there of some of those oil and gas companies totally understand their responsibility. They understand that the leaders of those companies prior to them were really playing with public opinion and with public understanding of science and that they need to make up for that. But they don't see yet a clear path forward.
David Gelbe ’63 I'm glad you raised that point about the denial, the period of that, the decades of denial that they went through. It's one of my pet peeves. I mean, these companies knew everything they needed to know about the science of climate change since the early 1980s. Their own scientists were telling them exactly what greenhouse gas emissions were doing. And they chose to spend many billions of dollars on a campaign of denial of doubt. And it's one of the biggest, most dishonest and most harmful campaigns ever conducted by private corporations. If you look at that campaign from the late 80s, when this became a public issue to one could say, recently, you were sort of ending into 2014, but is it really true? I mean, they've had phenomenal ally in the public relations industry. They've spent a fortune on PR companies to create these illusions. So, let's just talk about that for a second.
Christiana Figueres ’79 And lobbying.
David Gelbe ’63 What? And lobbying for sure. Yeah, no, absolutely. Lobbying as well. The question is this, are they still lying to us?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Are they still lying to us? Ah. The reason why I don't really like that question to be honest is because it demands a yes or no answer. And I really shy away from binary thinking because I don't think the world is black or white. I think there are many, many shy shades of gray, and especially when it comes to responding to climate change. So, my answer to that would be, yes, they're still lying, and no, they're not still lying. Because they're doing both. They're doing both at the same time. They have a very, very well-practiced playbook. They actually hired to a great extent, many of the same communications experts as the tobacco industry did. And so, it's a very easy run because the runway has already been tested out. And if you were sitting in those shoes, you would understand that that is their industry, that's their profit center, that's what shareholders want. And that they're pressed into that. Now, different from the tobacco industry, the consequences of not acting on time on climate are absolutely survival level consequences, which is not the same as the tobacco industry. So you could say, absolutely, absolutely exponential responsibility with respect to what the tobacco industry did. Now, the tobacco industry did not crawl itself out there and begin to invest into, I don't know, health sector. They didn't do that. The oil and gas companies, some of them, are beginning to crawl themselves out and beginning to invest into the response or the solution technologies. So that, I mean, obviously that's the minimum they can do. And when you see the pockets that they have, especially the pockets that they have just filled over the past few months. And if you see the engineering depth that they have. They have a huge responsibility, both from their engineering capacity, as well as from the depths of their pockets. So, are they living up to that responsibility? Definitely not right now. For sure, they're not.
David Gelbe ’63 So, how do you react to claims that the companies are making that many companies are saying that they intend to be net zero by 2050? How do you take those promises?
Christiana Figueres ’79 You take them as promises or good intentions that need to be implemented. And there is a huge gap in most of those promises. I think it is important for any company or any financial institution or any person by the way, to not exempt ourselves from responsibility, or any academic institution, anyone. It is important to set a goal. You tell me what you have achieved if you haven't set the goal to achieve that. And setting the goal is definitely not a guarantee of success, but at least gives you a sensitive direction. And it allows you to measure progress or lack thereof in the direction of that goal. So, setting the goal is absolutely necessary and completely insufficient because if you set the goal and you don't begin to move toward that goal, then it brings us absolutely nothing. So, it is a combination of setting ambitious and timely goals, and implementing the transition plans that need to be implemented in order to meet the goal.
David Gelbe ’63 I wanna turn to optimism in a second, but I don't wanna end this part of the conversation without at least touching on what is to me, one of the most terrifying prospects in the next 10, 20, 30 years, which is to say climate enforced migration. The number of people who are being forced to leave their homes around the world in Central America, South America, Asia, Africa.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa.
David Gelbe ’63 Africa. Yeah. Right. How do you see that developing? And it just seems like people, it's already happening right? I mean, we can already see what happens when Syrian migrants come to Europe, how it affects the politics of countries there. And for that matter what happens when Central Americans and Mexicans end up coming to this country. I mean, Trump opened his presidential campaign by saying, we have to keep these Mexican rapists and murders from crossing the border. And that's a climate. Those Mexican rapists and murders were actually Guatemalan farmers, right? Who couldn't make a living because of the drought. Anyway, tell me about your sense of where we're going.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Partially. Partially, David. I don't think you that we can say.
David Gelbe ’63 No.
Christiana Figueres ’79 That every single person that crosses into the United States is actually a climate refugee.
David Gelbe ’63 Right.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Let's just understand that what climate does is it doesn't cause any problem, it exacerbates most problems.
David Gelbe ’63 Right.
Christiana Figueres ’79 That's the difference, okay? So, it's not a cause of, it is an exacerbate or what would be the noun there. It exacerbates many of the social issues, social and political issues that we have anyway. So yes, I mean, the projections for migration due to exacerbated weather events, both short-term and long-term weather events are that we could have up to 10 times as much immigration pressure in all the regions. Basically to be irresponsible about this, let's just say northern into the Global North, because it's actually the Global South that is going to be most hit by climate change. And it is the Global South that is the least prepared to deal with those hits. So, let's think about the social and political pressure of 10 times as much, or as many immigrants coming from the Global South into the corresponding Global North and getting there actually in desperation. And what does that do, not just to put pressure on the social, the social network that is currently in place in the Global North, but political stability. Once people will be willing to do anything to save their families lives. And so, we could be facing here not just political instability, which would be the politically correct term. We could be facing outright conflict because of unaddressed climate change.
David Gelbe ’63 Hmm. So, let's turn to optimism. What countries in the world are doing well, or at least much better than the US when it comes to climate policy? What are some of your success stories?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Well, the EU traditionally has been, if not the leader, at least one of the leaders and the EU, even before the Putin invasion was already in the front lines of climate policy, mostly because European citizenship is more educated and more aware and more active on these issues than let's say citizens in the United States. So, you already had in Europe prior to the Putin invasion, you already had a policy that was, had set a goal for having 40% of renewable energy on the matrix in Europe by 2030. And now as one of their measures to increase energy independence and decrease energy dependence from Russian oil and gas. Now, they are pushing the 40% up to 45% by 2030. That's a sizable increase. And they now have a plan in place called REPowerEU, which allocates 300 billion to specifically to end dependence on Russian gas, to foster the import of hydrogen, to invest into new infrastructure. It includes a ban on combustion vehicles as of 2035, no more combustion vehicles sold in the EU. And that is definitely pushing technology. It's pushing awareness. It's pushing demand interestingly, because supply and demand is never a one way street. It's always cyclical. And so, those policies actually push then companies to anticipate the impact of those policies and it pushes citizens to act and purchase in response to those anticipated technologies and policies. And the other of course, shining example, the new kid on the block is Australia, which after 12 years of climate wars, one prime minister after the other being toppled, because of either climate irresponsibility or climate responsibility. Finally, we have a new government in Australia with a new target that they've just set, a 43% by 2030. So I would say, those two, Europe and Australia are definitely shining examples. On our continent, shining example is for sure Chile, where there are very, very aggressive targets for renewable energy, for closing coal plants, closing coal mines, for really moving into a completely clean matrix. My own little country has also has always been a shining example. A counterexample on our continent is Mexico, completely irresponsible policies now under this government, which is really an outright, an absolutely outrageous since Mexico was prior to this government was actually on a pretty good path to be able to move beyond their oil and petroleum. So, mixed bag there, very mixed bag.
David Gelbe ’63 The Australia story is amazing. I mean, that was a government that for years was all about protecting its domestic coal industry. And now they have a Labor government, which is declaring its intention to, as you pointed out, to transition to clean energy. Very striking. And it has not been reported on that much in this country.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Well, I don't know why it's not being reported because for one thing, this is a big win of women in Australia, a completely female political party that was stood up for this election, completely on a climate and gender agenda, the Teal party where all these fantastic women, all of them are women. They're all sitting in parliament now. For anybody listening to this, do look up Teal party, T-E-A-L as in the color teal. They were all wearing their teal t-shirts. And really very exciting here. Very exciting to bring the gender and the climate agendas together, and actually be able to win so many seats in Australian parliament from zero. They hadn't even existed before this election. So very, very exciting.
David Gelbe ’63 Suppose, Christiana, the leaders of climate groups in the US came to you and asked you for advice on tactics and strategy to turn things around in this country, because climate really is not yet a salient issue in this country. It doesn't change elections yet. What would you tell them in terms of strategy and tactics?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Well, what is very particular about the United States is that climate is actually a political issue and it is a divisive political issue. That is something that United States citizens think is normal. That's not normal. That is not normal. I mean, I lived for many years in the UK and you have governments that right center, right center left governments come and go. And there is a certain basic continuity on climate, on climate policies. Because this is not about politics, this is about human survival. That at least in my book is above and beyond politics. So, that is actually pretty sad that in the United States climate change has actually been politicized. And the Democrats have taken one side and the I'm gonna call 'em the conservatives have taken, the Republicans have taken another side of the climate debate, a completely unnecessary, completely unnecessary because at bottom here, what is being really discussed is A, the competitiveness of the US industry into the next few decades. And certainly the political stability of the United States because of the immigration issue that we have just discussed. Both of which coincide with planetary health and frankly, with personal health, because pollution is absolutely killing us. I mean, you try to walk down these congested and polluted cities in the United States. It's absolutely dreadful. And it all comes from the same burning of fossil fuels.
David Gelbe ’63 Christiana, one more question before we turn to the audience, and get questions from them. So, you're talking to several hundred Swarthmore graduates, probably some students, parents, faculty as well. So, other than making their next car electric, what should they be doing to help turn the tide on US policy on climate?
Christiana Figueres ’79 The first thing that we all have to do is something that we don't usually think of, and it is a mindset shift. If we convince ourselves that we're not able as a human race, as a country, as a family, as a corporation, whatever your reference point is. If we convince ourselves that we are not able to address the climate challenge in a timely fashion, I'm telling you that's gonna be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so, the first thing we have to do is a mindset shift to go, wait, wait, wait, wait, right? Especially in the country of a moonshot, especially in a country that saw an ambitious goal being set, we're gonna put a man because it was a man. We're gonna put a man on the moon within this decade, and we're gonna do it. That was a mindset shift. And we have to do the same thing on climate. We have to have a mindset shift that says, "Okay. Yes, it's complicated. Yes, yes. There are many, many different factors. And that doesn't mean that we just sit back, twiddle our thumbs and assume that we're not gonna do it." So mindset shift, number one. Number two, how many of us know what our carbon footprint is? We have to know that. Just like you know what your bank account is and where it stands today and tomorrow, and the day after. You have to know what your carbon footprint is. So, very easy. You go into Miss Google, you ask her for a carbon calculator, choose the organization that you trust the best and figure out what your carbon footprint is, for you personally, for your family, for your city, whatever. And then begin to figure out how are you going to reduce your personal footprint? If you are taking your family or your individual as a reference point, or if you work in a company, how's the company gonna do it? Or if you are a city official, how's the city gonna do it? Whatever your sphere of influence is. But we all have to reduce our carbon footprint, especially in the United States that has the highest carbon footprint per capita in the world. How do you do that? First of all, take a look at what you eat. I don't think I need to say anymore about that. Secondly, the energy that you use. Whether it's in your house, whether it's in your school building, your office building, whatever. The United States replaces things constantly. Every time that you replace, do go for the absolute highest efficient boiler or whatever it is that you're replacing. And if you have an old boiler, get rid of it and put in an efficient boiler. Transport, you've already talked about. The other thing that we're completely blind to is where are our savings. In the UK, there is a very, very important campaign called Make My Money Matter, which is everyone who has savings accounts or who has pension of funds moving, asking their asset managers to move that money out of high carbon assets and move it over to low carbon assets. Those industries need to be starved with capital and we are the asset owners. We can tell our asset managers what to do.
David Gelbe ’63 That's a great answer. Mike, do you want to get to questions?
Mike Dennis Yes. Thank you so much, Christiana and David, we have a whole bunch of questions here. Following up on your comments about our carbon footprints, Christiana, a question from William Prindle, who was observing on his last trip to Latin America and Costa Rica, how struck he was by how much land was devoted to cattle grazing, and how the AG sector emits a lot of greenhouse gases. And was also noting that red meat and dairy consumption are huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Americans, massive beef and dairy consumers. And the question he was asking is like, this is something we could change at any minute overnight, as opposed to longer investments and renewables or EVs, electric vehicles that is. And asking, what does that suggest about focusing on personal action on dietary choices, as opposed to urging people to overhaul their houses or EVs, and why has it been tricky to move in this area?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Yeah. I mean, it's not as opposed to, it's and also, right? Let's get away from the binary thinking. Either I replace my boiler or I give up red meat. No, here's the point. Both. One is good for your pocket. The other one is good for your health. And so we wanna do both. But yes, it is one of the easiest things. And I think I mentioned what you eat as my first choice, because it is completely within our control. Completely within our control. And the amazing thing about moving away from red meat or in fact, meat in general and over to a plant-based diet is A, it is completely under your control. B, you don't have to do it from Sunday to Monday. You can do it gradually, but do it. And C, it is good for our health, as well as for the health of the planet. Currently, about 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from the land-use sector, 70% from energy. And so, as consumers, we do have a very, very active role in sending demand signals to the food industry of what are we going to eat. And there again, Europe is far, far, far ahead of the United States in sending those food signals.
Mike Dennis Great. Thank you. Here is a question from a student and there's a follow-up question too. It's from Zach Vilanilan And I apologize, Zach, if I mispronounce your last name of class of '26, asking what do you think about the feasibility of hydrogen cars as a substitute for electric cars?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Well, I don't think this is my opinion. This is basically conclusions from those who are actually doing this analysis. And that is that hydrogen is not really worth it for light transport because they're much cheaper and much cheaper technologies and technologies that are much more mature than hydrogen, i.e., electric vehicles. Much, much cheaper and very simple transition. And most car manufacturers, in fact, I'm struggling to think of any that haven't. So I would say most, if not all car manufacturers have already committed to moving all of their models over to electric, somewhere between 2025 and 2030 or 2035. So very soon, not only. Right now, you have a long list, waiting list of people who want to buy electric cars. But very soon, you won't even have a choice of not buying an electric car because that's the only thing that's going to be produced. And you will, in fact, just from a practical point of view, you won't really find that many mechanics anymore who can do the maintenance to combustion vehicles because they just won't exist anymore. There won't be that demand. So, that's moving very quickly. Where hydrogen does make a lot of sense, and I should say green hydrogen, which means hydrogen that is produced with renewable energies. Where hydrogen does make a lot of sense is in maybe for heavy transport and definitely for industrial uses. So, for cement, steel, iron, all of that, that is currently still stuck in the coal pre-history or into natural gas.
Mike Dennis Great. Thank you. And Zach, thank you. It's great to get a question from a student. And as a follow-up question, the Alumni Council organizes a lot of career events for students, connecting students with alumni. And we get a lot of questions from interested and enthusiastic students about how to start their careers on sustainability and climate change, and would welcome any thoughts you have on how to build that career path into making a difference in the world.
Christiana Figueres ’79 The amazing thing about climate change is that it is not a sector. It is not a field. It is completely transversal. So, if you are in medicine, you have to practice medicine in the context of a climate that has already changed. If you want to practice, I don't know, anything related to agriculture. You have to practice that in the context of an environment that has already changed. If you want to be an architect, an urban planner, you have to do that in the context of climate change and on and on and on. So, for me, it's not about what field, it's how has the context changed for whatever the field is that I choose. Because to practice any profession, hence forth is a very, very different challenge than when I started to practice my profession. Very different.
Mike Dennis Great. Thank you. That's really, really powerful. Another question, actually kinda merging two questions here together from Maurice Eldridge, class of '61, does it help in your take on our alma mater that we love that the college is working hard to be free of fossil fuel energy sources and on sustainability, is it seeking to reduce its carbon footprint? What do you think the college is doing well in that regard.
Christiana Figueres ’79 I don't know what the college is doing well, because I don't follow what Swarthmore is doing. But in general, everybody has to reduce their footprint. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Everybody has to reduce their footprint. We have to be at one half and just keep that sort of the reference point. Whatever the college footprint is right now has to be slashed to 50% by 2030. Everybody has to do that. Every family, every individual, every college, every corporation, every financial institution, every country, every government. One half by 2030. So, that's eight years from now. So, yes. And that does not exempt the college from being responsible with its endowment. Again, it's not about slashing emissions on campus and then forgetting about the endowment. It's not about, I don't know, buying a hyper efficient boiler and still consuming red meat. We have to do everything. I don't think we have really understood the emergency that we're in. This is in all hands on board, all sectors, all efforts. Everything, everything has to change.
David Gelbe ’63 Can I just jump in there for a second. Just to say that, just to correct what the college is doing. The college has promised to be carbon neutral by 2035, which is just for the record. And I know that they're actually making some headway on the endowment, although not nearly where maybe some of us think it should be. So, that's for just to give Swarthmore a nod in that respect. I had something else I wanted to say, and I'm just forgetting it right now. Go ahead. Other questions.
Mike Dennis Here's a question from Professor Elizabeth Bolton, getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies seems an obvious, easy strategy. Why has this been so hard in countries around the world?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Because of lobbying. Because the fossil fuel industry lobbies and lobbies and lobbies. And because they hide behind one fallacy and one untruth. And that huge fallacy is that the fossil fueled subsidies are actually protecting the bottom of the pyramid. And that the moment that you remove those is actually the most vulnerable people who will suffer the most. That is a fallacy. Just think about how much energy do the bottom of the pyramid citizens use. It's actually those that are more energy intense and that have more access to financial resources that will have to pay the absence of those cost cuts. And furthermore, furthermore, if you really, really are concerned about the vulnerable population, then with just a slice of the money that you save, help them out, subsidize them.
David Gelbe ’63 I'm gonna just add what I remembered I wanted to say that has to do with divestment. What's happened in the realm of divestment is that the numbers are incredible. I mean, as Christiana said, it's $40 trillion worth of assets are now committed to be not invested in the fossil fuel industry. And one of the things that people can can think about is we talked about banks earlier. There are a couple of organizations like Stop the Money Pipeline and Sunrise Movement that are very active and aggressively trying to mount campaigns to persuade banks to get out of the fossil fuel, to stop lending money for fossil fuel infrastructure. I mean, in terms of things that you can do that actually have an impact. When you're talking about $40 trillion. I mean, there was an argument that at one point divestments seemed like virtue signaling, and it didn't really have any impact in the world. It does now. I mean, you can't claim any longer that divestment doesn't have an impact because it obviously does. It's affecting markets. It's affecting what these companies can do. And for the banks that are giving them the oxygen to survive. To be told to just stop it, is something that citizens can do effectively.
Mike Dennis Following up on your comments in this question about lobbying. A question about the feasibility of a carbon tax from Terry Yu obviously we came, US, United States came very close with Waxman and Markey in 2009. State of California has moved ahead on that. What is your view on if a carbon tax or carbon tariff system is realistic and could get implemented politically in the United States? And that's from Terry Yu, class of 2017.
Christiana Figueres ’79 I have never understood why a carbon tax is so difficult in the United States. I mean, those who are US citizens will please explain that to me, but it remains a mystery to me. But in the meantime, what everyone can do just to add to my list there, is get politically involved, whether it's for a tax or whether it's for any other policy, any other incentive. Please do get politically involved because it is frankly shameful. It is shameful that the United States is the per capita highest emitter in the world. And the US citizenry is the most lethargic on political engagement on climate change. I mean, what? Hello?
Mike Dennis I have a question here from Jeb Eddie says-
David Gelbe ’63 My roommate my freshman year. Hi, Jeb.
Mike Dennis We'll get some stories later from Jeb. Your book, Christiana offers 10 actions, all good and all hard. What are two to three of your favorites?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Two or three. I don't think it's so hard to do your carbon footprint. I don't think it's so hard to change diets. I honestly, I went to a plant-based diet. I think it was about 10 years ago when I saw the numbers of carbon emissions from the consumption of meat, in addition to the fact that it's completely inefficient to derive your protein from animals. You have to derive your protein from plants. And it's just not that difficult. So for me, going over to a plant-based, I also feel so much better because I'm on a plant-based diet and you can actually feel very proud of yourself, you go, "Oh, I'm a vegetarian." It's actually pretty cool to be a vegetarian. So, diet, diet, diet, number one. And secondly, well, transport. But I guess for me, it's easier because if you live in a country that has public transport, then your transport options are so much better. And I guess, as I said, the waiting line for electric vehicles is still very long. But my favorite, well, I don't have any favorites because I know we have to do everything.
David Gelbe ’63 I just wanna say that you can't understate the importance of moving to electric cars. I mean, the impact that that's gonna have on not just American industry, but if the EU is requiring no more internal combustion engines by 2035, that's a huge thing. That is a transformational event because car companies have no choice, but to follow through on that. That'd be way up there on my list of things to do. Don't buy an internal combustion car anymore. That's it.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Get on the list, get on the waiting list now, because then you maybe will get it two years from now. If you don't get on the list now, you ain't gonna get it.
David Gelbe ’63 Right.
Mike Dennis So, one last question here, if you could just share a little bit of personally, Christiana and certainly David too, how did you develop this passion for climate change? Like what inspired you?
Christiana Figueres ’79 Oh my God, that is so easy. My daughters, I became a mother and I went like, "Holy shit, what kind of a planet am I turning over to my daughters?" I received a planet that was in halfway decent shape, right? Because I was born in 1956 and I was born by the way, everyone who is here on this conversation, who was born in the 1950s or before, we all belong to a different geological era called the Holocene, which was the sweet spot of human evolution, where we went from living in caves to what some people call civilizations and everywhere in-between. And then after the 50s, we started messing everything up and that's the Anthropocene. So most people I'm assuming on the call today are Anthropocene citizens. And the sad thing is that since the 1950s to today, we have really screwed things up majorly, majorly, majorly. And the question for me then is, are we condemned? If you go to Miss Google and you look up Anthropocene, all the literature is negative, right? All the hockey sticks are negative. Every single one of them. Now, the question is, do we accept the myth? Because I wanna call it a myth. That we are condemned to a story of destruction in the Anthropocene, or do we have a mindset shift that says, hold on. Now, we realize what we have done, and we are going to shift the narrative, shift our actions, shift our decisions, shift our behaviors, and actually collectively write a positive, constructive regenerative history of the Anthropocene period. That's the choice that we have. If we don't make a choice, we go down business as usual, and we will condemn ourselves to a self-destructing planet, or while the planet won't get self destroyed, because she'll be fine without us, she'll be realizing, good riddance those idiots that didn't know how to do anything. We will self-destroy, right, as a human race. Or we can actually change the way we do things and write a very, very inspiring and wonderful story of the Anthropocene, which is to come back to my daughters, which is what we wanna give our children and our grandchildren. Do we wanna hand over a story of destruction or do we wanna hand over an inspiring story of regeneration?
David Gelbe ’63 So well said, Christiana, and I'm gonna answer that question too, in a similar way. I hate to brag, but I am actually the president of the 81 year old guys with two kids under 18 club. And since I'm the only member in the club, I've made myself the president, but it's the same reason that I decided 11 years ago to stop doing what I was doing at 60 Minutes and to focus entirely on climate. And it's a choice that has enriched my life. But I think the idea of knowing where we're headed on the course we're on right now is simply unbearable. And thank you so much, Christiana for your inspiration in so many different ways.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Thank you, all. Thank you for the participation today. Relying on all of you to do what needs to be done.
Mike Dennis Thank you so much, Christiana and David for letting us join your conversation today, for your insights and your forceful call to action to address arguably the greatest crisis that humankind has ever faced. So, as we close, I'd encourage all of you to visit Christiana's website Global Optimism, check out her podcast, "Outrage and Optimism." And please check out David's website as well, The YEARS Project. And finally, a recording of today's SwatTalk will be available on the Swat website in a couple weeks. So, from all of us on the Alumni Council, thank you again, and we'll see you at the next SwatTalk.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Thank you.
David Gelbe ’63 Christiana, I hope I'll see you soon.
Christiana Figueres ’79 Super. Thanks very much, guys. Bye