Nature’s new ambassador: A conversation with Christiana Figueres

(Christina Figueres)

Christiana Figueres (left), executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, celebrates the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change in December, 2015 with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left); Laurent Fabius (second from right), minister for foreign affairs of France and president of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris; and François Hollande (right), president of France. (© UN Photo/Mark Garten/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Seven years ago, Christiana Figueres was asked to do the impossible. Months after the failure of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, she took the reins of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change with a mandate to rebuild the global diplomatic process on climate change. Five short years later, the world agreed to the first-ever binding global agreement on climate change in Paris, a stunning achievement for climate action. Now as a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, Figueres is working to ensure that nature plays its part in making the Paris Agreement real. In this interview, Figueres talks cities, women and the climate change actions that must come next.

Question: Why is protecting nature important to fight climate change, and how are you using the Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship to further your work?

Answer: I come mostly from an energy background. My association with Conservation International and with this fellowship is giving me an additional window into everything having to do with nature-based solutions, because nature is 30 percent of the problem and hence 30 percent of the solution to climate change. If we do a much better job at land use, if we do a much better job at reducing deforestation in the next few decades, if we do a much better job in agricultural practices, then we can reduce emissions, and we can make land much more productive, and we can make our forests much stronger sinks, or absorbers, of emissions. Over the next decades, by 2050 at the latest, we need to have a global economy that is not emitting any more than can be naturally absorbed by the planet, which means that land-based solutions are a very important part of that formula.

Q: You lead a collaborative called Mission 2020. What is so important about the year 2020, and what do we need to achieve by then?

A: One aspect about climate change that still needs to be raised in our understanding is the immediacy and the urgency of the solution. There is only so much carbon that the atmosphere will hold without going into unmanageable situations. And so as a human race, we have already eaten up, if you will, two-thirds of the carbon emissions that we can put up in the atmosphere. We only have one-third left for the rest of the history of mankind on this planet. The year 2020 is the turning point at which we have to get to the highest point of emissions so that we can have a descent that is an organized, orderly and predictable transformation of the global economy. What that means is supporting developing countries, because it is the developing countries that will determine whether we reach a global peak or not. The developing countries are least responsible for climate change, as well as the least capable countries of coping with this transformation unless they have the financial and technical support that they need.

Q: Are you hopeful?

A: I am always optimistic, because we don’t have another choice. None of us alive today would want to have on our shoulders the responsibility of turning over a planet that is severely in danger to the next generations. That is something that is just inadmissible. And so (a) we don’t have a choice; (b) we already have the technologies at hand, whether they are man-made technologies or nature-based solutions; and (c) we have the capital, and so all we need to do is to put these things together and to do it in a timely fashion.

Q: You have begun working closely with cities on climate solutions. Why are city-level actions so important? 

A: The fact is that over the past six years we have had a growing and powerful realization that while national governments have the legal responsibility to set the course, they cannot actually provide the solutions on the ground. That has to come from everyone else. Cities very soon will house 80 percent of the human population and will contribute 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And so cities are a very important part of the solution — so are corporations, so is the investment sector, so is civil society in general. Everyone must provide the contributions that they can from their own circle of influence. And so it is about unity of purpose and diversity of approaches. Everyone comes to climate now out of their own enlightened self-interest. And that’s very, very important to understand, because it’s a much more powerful lever than saving that planet, which is also very important, but it comes as the result of the collective efforts of everyone to actually tend to their self-interest.

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Q: Are human conflicts increasing because of climate change?

A: If the climate change convention is implemented in a timely fashion, then we are actually protecting human rights, which are food, safety, water, education, the right to your own home and the right to stay in your home. We’re living in a moment in which we have more displaced people than ever in the history of mankind, 60 million people. That is already a situation that has caused an incredible about of armed conflict, that has caused deaths and that at a minimum is causing a huge amount of pain and violation of human rights. Climate change, if unaddressed, would accelerate that situation.

Q: Any specific examples?

A: It is very difficult to make a statement that climate change is directly responsible for any one conflict because climate is an accelerator, not the detonator. But one of the very powerful examples that has been used in the literature is Syria. There was a drought in Syria that was the worst drought that Syria has ever experienced between 2006 and 2010, and that drought caused the migration of 1 million farmers who had to leave their farms with their families because they could not produce food and they did not have water. And so that migration pressed into cities, Aleppo included, and caused a huge amount of social pressure in cities, and caused many people who were desperate about survival to join groups that went into violent conflict with each other. And so it is a very good example of the fact that climate does not cause conflict, but climate can and has already accelerated conflict and involuntary migration.

Q: You have said that the rise of female leadership is one reason you’re optimistic about action on climate change. What is it about women leaders that make you hopeful?

A: I think one of the most heartwarming experiences that I have had throughout 30 years of working on climate change is that over those 30 years I have really seen the step up of women leaders at all levels. This includes women on the front lines of climate change, aboriginal women who are really understanding that they need to adapt very quickly and that they need to contribute to the solutions. It also goes all the way up to women who are in positions of making decisions for their own communities, for their own states, regions, countries and on the global level. And I’ve had the honor of working with many women along the way.

Q: Is climate change a women’s rights issue?

A: Most people agree that women are disproportionately affected by climate change. That is because — in particular in developing countries — women are directly responsible for food preparation and water provision for their families. And food and water represent the absolute most critical nexus we have with climate change, because the advance of climate change is a real threat to food security and water security. It also disproportionately affects women because of cultural patterns. For example, women are less mobile when an emergency comes. And so it is a fact that women are disproportionately negatively affected by climate change. The flip side of that is that women can disproportionately contribute to the solution because we women are so much closer precisely to everything that has to do with food production and water security and energy. We need to focus on the rights of women, on protecting women, and on enabling women and empowering them to be solution providers. (Watch the video below to find out how climate change is impacting one particular group of women in a Maasai village in Tanzania.)


A Distinguished Fellow through Conservation International’s new Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship, Christiana Figueres is a world authority on global climate change and was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from 2010-2016.

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer for Conservation International.

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