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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • I never thought that I would be giving my TED Talk somewhere like this.

  • But, like half of humanity,

  • I've spent the last four weeks under lockdown

  • due to the global pandemic created by COVID-19.

  • I am extremely fortunate that during this time

  • I've been able to come here to these woods near my home in southern England.

  • These woods have always inspired me,

  • and as humanity now tries to think about how we can find the inspiration

  • to retake control of our actions

  • so that terrible things don't come down the road

  • without us taking action to avert them,

  • I thought this is a good place for us to talk.

  • And I'd like to begin that story six years ago,

  • when I had first joined the United Nations.

  • Now, I firmly believe that the UN is of unparalleled importance

  • in the world right now

  • to promote collaboration and cooperation.

  • But what they don't tell you when you join

  • is that this essential work is delivered

  • mainly in the form of extremely boring meetings --

  • extremely long, boring meetings.

  • Now, you may feel that you have attended some long, boring meetings in your life,

  • and I'm sure you have.

  • But these UN meetings are next-level,

  • and everyone who works there approaches them with a level of calm

  • normally only achieved by Zen masters.

  • But myself, I wasn't ready for that.

  • I joined expecting drama and tension and breakthrough.

  • What I wasn't ready for

  • was a process that seemed to move at the speed of a glacier,

  • at the speed that a glacier used to move at.

  • Now, in the middle of one of these long meetings,

  • I was handed a note.

  • And it was handed to me by my friend and colleague and coauthor,

  • Christiana Figueres.

  • Christiana was the Executive Secretary

  • of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change,

  • and as such, had overall responsibility

  • for the UN reaching what would become the Paris Agreement.

  • I was running political strategy for her.

  • So when she handed me this note,

  • I assumed that it would contain detailed political instructions

  • about how we were going to get out of this nightmare quagmire

  • that we seemed to be trapped in.

  • I took the note and looked at it.

  • It said, "Painful.

  • But let's approach with love!"

  • Now, I love this note for lots of reasons.

  • I love the way the little tendrils are coming out from the word "painful."

  • It was a really good visual depiction of how I felt at that moment.

  • But I particularly love it because as I looked at it,

  • I realized that it was a political instruction,

  • and that if we were going to be successful,

  • this was how we were going to do it.

  • So let me explain that.

  • What I'd been feeling in those meetings was actually about control.

  • I had moved my life from Brooklyn in New York to Bonn in Germany

  • with the extremely reluctant support of my wife.

  • My children were now in a school where they couldn't speak the language,

  • and I thought the deal for all this disruption to my world

  • was that I would have some degree of control over what was going to happen.

  • I felt for years that the climate crisis is the defining challenge

  • of our generation,

  • and here I was, ready to play my part and do something for humanity.

  • But I put my hands on the levers of control that I'd been given

  • and pulled them,

  • and nothing happened.

  • I realized the things I could control were menial day-to-day things.

  • "Do I ride my bike to work?" and "Where do I have lunch?",

  • whereas the things that were going to determine

  • whether we were going to be successful

  • were issues like, "Will Russia wreck the negotiations?"

  • "Will China take responsibility for their emissions?"

  • "Will the US help poorer countries deal with their burden of climate change?"

  • The differential felt so huge,

  • I could see no way I could bridge the two.

  • It felt futile.

  • I began to feel that I'd made a mistake.

  • I began to get depressed.

  • But even in that moment,

  • I realized that what I was feeling had a lot of similarities

  • to what I'd felt when I first found out about the climate crisis years before.

  • I'd spent many of my most formative years as a Buddhist monk

  • in my early 20s,

  • but I left the monastic life, because even then, 20 years ago,

  • I felt that the climate crisis was already a quickly unfolding emergency

  • and I wanted to do my part.

  • But once I'd left and I rejoined the world,

  • I looked at what I could control.

  • It was the few tons of my own emissions and that of my immediate family,

  • which political party I voted for every few years,

  • whether I went on a march or two.

  • And then I looked at the issues that would determine the outcome,

  • and they were big geopolitical negotiations,

  • massive infrastructure spending plans,

  • what everybody else did.

  • The differential again felt so huge

  • that I couldn't see any way that I could bridge it.

  • I kept trying to take action,

  • but it didn't really stick.

  • It felt futile.

  • Now, we know that this can be a common experience for many people,

  • and maybe you have had this experience.

  • When faced with an enormous challenge

  • that we don't feel we have any agency or control over,

  • our mind can do a little trick to protect us.

  • We don't like to feel like we're out of control

  • facing big forces,

  • so our mind will tell us, "Maybe it's not that important.

  • Maybe it's not happening in the way that people say, anyway."

  • Or, it plays down our own role.

  • "There's nothing that you individually can do, so why try?"

  • But there's something odd going on here.

  • Is it really true that humans will only take sustained and dedicated action

  • on an issue of paramount importance

  • when they feel they have a high degree of control?

  • Look at these pictures.

  • These people are caregivers and nurses

  • who have been helping humanity face the coronavirus COVID-19

  • as it has swept around the world as a pandemic in the last few months.

  • Are these people able to prevent the spread of the disease?

  • No.

  • Are they able to prevent their patients from dying?

  • Some, they will have been able to prevent,

  • but others, it will have been beyond their control.

  • Does that make their contribution futile and meaningless?

  • Actually, it's offensive even to suggest that.

  • What they are doing is caring for their fellow human beings

  • at their moment of greatest vulnerability.

  • And that work has huge meaning,

  • to the point where I only have to show you those pictures

  • for it to become evident

  • that the courage and humanity those people are demonstrating

  • makes their work some of the most meaningful things

  • that can be done as human beings,

  • even though they can't control the outcome.

  • Now, that's interesting,

  • because it shows us that humans are capable

  • of taking dedicated and sustained action,

  • even when they can't control the outcome.

  • But it leaves us with another challenge.

  • With the climate crisis,

  • the action that we take is separated from the impact of it,

  • whereas what is happening with these images

  • is these nurses are being sustained not by the lofty goal of changing the world

  • but by the day-to-day satisfaction of caring for another human being

  • through their moments of weakness.

  • With the climate crisis, we have this huge separation.

  • It used to be that we were separated by time.

  • The impacts of the climate crisis were supposed to be way off in the future.

  • But right now, the future has come to meet us.

  • Continents are on fire.

  • Cities are going underwater.

  • Countries are going underwater.

  • Hundreds of thousands of people are on the move as a result of climate change.

  • But even if those impacts are no longer separated from us by time,

  • they're still separated from us in a way that makes it difficult to feel

  • that direct connection.

  • They happen somewhere else to somebody else

  • or to us in a different way than we're used to experiencing it.

  • So even though that story of the nurse demonstrates something to us

  • about human nature,

  • we're going to have find a different way

  • of dealing with the climate crisis in a sustained manner.

  • There is a way that we can do this,

  • a powerful combination of a deep and supporting attitude

  • that when combined with consistent action

  • can enable whole societies to take dedicated action in a sustained way

  • towards a shared goal.

  • It's been used to great effect throughout history.

  • So let me give you a historical story to explain it.

  • Right now, I am standing in the woods near my home in southern England.

  • And these particular woods are not far from London.

  • Eighty years ago, that city was under attack.

  • In the late 1930s,

  • the people of Britain would do anything to avoid facing the reality

  • that Hitler would stop at nothing to conquer Europe.

  • Fresh with memories from the First World War,

  • they were terrified of Nazi aggression

  • and would do anything to avoid facing that reality.

  • In the end, the reality broke through.

  • Churchill is remembered for many things, and not all of them positive,

  • but what he did in those early days of the war

  • was he changed the story the people of Britain told themselves

  • about what they were doing and what was to come.

  • Where previously there had been trepidation and nervousness and fear,

  • there came a calm resolve,

  • an island alone,

  • a greatest hour,

  • a greatest generation,

  • a country that would fight them on the beaches and in the hills

  • and in the streets,

  • a country that would never surrender.

  • That change from fear and trepidation

  • to facing the reality, whatever it was and however dark it was,

  • had nothing to do with the likelihood of winning the war.

  • There was no news from the front that battles were going better

  • or even at that point that a powerful new ally had joined the fight

  • and changed the odds in their favor.

  • It was simply a choice.

  • A deep, determined, stubborn form of optimism emerged,

  • not avoiding or denying the darkness that was pressing in

  • but refusing to be cowed by it.

  • That stubborn optimism is powerful.

  • It is not dependent on assuming that the outcome is going to be good

  • or having a form of wishful thinking about the future.

  • However, what it does is it animates action

  • and infuses it with meaning.

  • We know that from that time,

  • despite the risk and despite the challenge,

  • it was a meaningful time full of purpose,

  • and multiple accounts have confirmed

  • that actions that ranged from pilots in the Battle of Britain

  • to the simple act of pulling potatoes from the soil

  • became infused with meaning.

  • They were animated towards a shared purpose and a shared outcome.

  • We have seen that throughout history.

  • This coupling of a deep and determined stubborn optimism with action,

  • when the optimism leads to a determined action,

  • then they can become self-sustaining:

  • without the stubborn optimism, the action doesn't sustain itself;

  • without the action, the stubborn optimism is just an attitude.

  • The two together can transform an entire issue and change the world.

  • We saw this at multiple other times.

  • We saw it when Rosa Parks refused to get up from the bus.

  • We saw it in Gandhi's long salt marches to the beach.

  • We saw it when the suffragettes said that "Courage calls to courage everywhere."

  • And we saw it when Kennedy said that within 10 years,

  • he would put a man on the moon.

  • That electrified a generation and focused them on a shared goal

  • against a dark and frightening adversary,

  • even though they didn't know how they would achieve it.

  • In each of these cases,

  • a realistic and gritty but determined, stubborn optimism

  • was not the result of success.

  • It was the cause of it.

  • That is also how the transformation happened

  • on the road to the Paris Agreement.

  • Those challenging, difficult, pessimistic meetings transformed

  • as more and more people decided that this was our moment to dig in

  • and determine that we would not drop the ball on our watch,

  • and we would deliver the outcome that we knew was possible.

  • More and more people transformed themselves to that perspective

  • and began to work,

  • and in the end, that worked its way up into a wave of momentum

  • that crashed over us

  • and delivered many of those challenging issues

  • with a better outcome than we could possibly have imagined.

  • And even now, years later and with a climate denier in the White House</