Christiana Figueres on hope and necessity

Food & climate change article written on the 07 Dec 2010

Last week the UN Climate Trackers had the opportunity to meet with the UNFCCC executive Christiana Figueres. Oneclimate interviewed me to get my reflections on the meeting and the UN climate negotiating process.

Christiana Figueres, myself and several of the other Climate Trackers from around the world had a very moving conversation about the status of the Cancun talks and her motivations for working with countries to find common ground to make real progress on addressing climate change.

Leela Raina, the Indian Tracker, opened the conversation by telling Figueres how much the last meeting they shared meant to everyone who participated. When one follows the UNFCCC process closely, what’s most obvious is the constant dissonance between participating country’s positions. It’s hard not to feel disillusioned, but Figueres bright spirit, her grounded optimism, and fierce dedication to solving the challenges we face due to climate change lifted the hearts and spirits of the our small team.

After the flattering and well earned introduction, we were eager to ask Figueres why her spirit shined so bright. What motivates her to do this job. Perhaps because of our eager eyes, or maybe because a few of the young ladies on the team reminded her of her daughters… a tear rolled down her cheek, the room got quiet, and after a pause she answered “It’s you”. Figueres went on to explain the weight she carries on her shoulders, the weight that her generation carries – leaving a diminished planet to it’s children. She went on to say that in spite of the challenges of taking global action, especially now;

“Each of us here has the moral responsibility to make sure we’re doing the absolute best that we can at that moment under those circumstances.”

In many cultures, hospitality is a key piece of serious negotiations, and it’s a tradition that the host country welcomes delegates to the talks with an opening reception. Mexico, being the host, welcomed us with an exceptional reception. It was a memorable highlight in the many talks we’ve attended over the past year, but we wanted to know what Figueres highlight might be. While she didn’t miss out on the reception, she surprised us with an in depth answer about how Mexico has worked extremely hard to rebuild trust among parties after the breakdowns in Copenhagen, and how her highlight would be when parties reach an agreement at the close of talks, December 10th.

Figueres comes from a family of more than impressive achievers. Her father was the founder of modern democracy in Costa Rica and a major figure in the country becoming a model of economic and environmental sustainability. We really wanted to know how she thought about her role in this process and how it might compare to her father’s proud legacy. She responded by noting the similarities between her father’s achievements in a national / Costa Rica context, and the aspirations of the UNFCCC to ensure that citizens of the world have a stable environmental and economic context to build upon.

Countries’ negotiators spend a lot of time talking about process. So much so, that we often wonder if they remember what all this is even about. We wanted to know whether Figueres had personal experience witnessing the impacts of climate change, and it turns out, she did. Figueres told us the story about her childhood, remembering some beautiful tiny toads that would sparkle like golden coins under the moonlight in spring. By the time her daughters were born, the beautiful amphibians (often the unfortunate harbinger of environmental change) were extinct. She realized that her daughters would never share that beautiful experience; that they were inheriting a diminished planet, and that she had to do something about it. She went on to talk about more heartbreaking recent events, like the extreme flooding in Pakistan and untold lost lives and livelihoods that resulted. Floods that don’t have a historic precedent and are most likely due to changes in our climate.

From there, our conversation moved toward current events. We talked about the Cancun negotiations in particular and what needs to happen. Figueres reminded us that the Cancun exercise is not about countries restating their mitigation targets. We already know countries’ targets. What the Cancun exercise is about is creative action, compromise and finding the common ground necessary to take concrete steps forward. She talked about the status of climate finance and future of a possible second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol. We talked about how potential outcomes of this conference, and how they might affect our trajectory in the coming year.

It was a pleasure to be able to meet with Christiana Figueres. You can dig into the wonky details by checking out the fascinating conversation in it’s entirety below.