It’s no secret that if you want to make better-big picture decisions, get women involved in the process. Researchers see it in corporate boardrooms and we see it in the climate movement.
We’re about giving credit where it’s due and so we’re starting a new series putting the spotlight on incredible women who are champions of the climate movement. Meet Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (and trained Climate Reality Leader since 2007). Lauded as “the world's top climate policymaker,” "climate revolutionary," "bridge-builder," and "UN's climate chief," Figueres has been speaking for and uniting people on the front lines of climate change around the world.
Figueres was appointed UNFCCC executive secretary in 2010 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after the failure of the COP 15 talks in Copenhagen. The job she was given was – more or less – to save the planet. (But really, no pressure.)
With that kind of responsibility, it would be easy to assume Figueres would fail. But last year, she was instrumental in herding leaders from 195 countries together to create the historic Paris Agreement to cut emissions and catalyze a global shift to clean energy. And while we’re the first to admit the agreement is far from perfect and we have a lot of work to do to strengthen national commitments to reducing emissions in the years ahead, it was a critical first step in the right direction and a true turning point for the movement. And Figueres deserves a lot of thanks for her part in making it happen.
So how do you become the woman tasked with saving the world? Figueres came to the UNFCC with an extensive resume in diplomacy and climate policy. She began her career in public service at the embassy of Costa Rica in Germany in 1982, and has been involved in climate change negotiations since 1995. She also founded the Centre for Sustainable Development of the Americas (CSDA), a climate change policy think tank, which she directed until 2003, and has served on the boards of many climate change-focused NGOs.
From day one as executive secretary at the UNFCC, Figueres was focused on changing the conversation on climate change. Coming out of the failure in Copenhagen in 2009, she knew big changes had to happen and quickly. She realized that if we were going to stop climate change, we had to fundamentally transform how we approached the issue.
Forget climate denial, it’s time to turn all our attention to climate solutions. Retweet if you agree! pic.twitter.com/RoRWxAMcUe— Climate Reality (@ClimateReality) April 13, 2016
Her response was in some respects so simple and so human that it’s easy to overlook just how bold and revolutionary it was. Because while so much of the climate movement was veering toward something like despair after Copenhagen, Figueres instead insisted on a strategy of hope. Her reasoning was simple. As she told Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, “I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news . . . Not a single human being.”
With hope and optimism as the tone of Figueres’ UNFCCC, the message that emerged was that climate change wasn’t just a challenge for bureaucrats, but an opportunity for all of us to build a future we actually want to live in. And she refused to listen to anyone telling her otherwise. “Impossible is an attitude,” she said. “It’s only an attitude.” In her TED talk, Figueres said she “stubbornly, relentlessly injected optimism into the system,” no matter what.
Today, we can see how that optimism became the beginnings of a self-fulfilling prophecy as investors and innovators began pouring time and resources into clean energy technologies like solar and wind, with the result that the use of renewables around the world is growing at a record pace. Add to that the millions of people who spoke up demanding a strong climate agreement in Paris and the 175 nations who signed the agreement on Earth Day (setting a new record along the way), and you can see just what an impact Figueres has had both in the policy world and far, far beyond.
When Figueres looks back over her six years as executive secretary, she first remembers the historic day the Paris Agreement was adopted. Figueres will be stepping down from her post in July, but she will leave behind a sense of optimism and motivation that is crucial in solving climate change. Her attitude has set a precedent for future leaders, that the impossible can be achieved.
As actor Robert Redford wrote when Figueres was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2016, “What Christiana is inspiring us to do is nothing short of revolutionary: act as one citizenry to protect the future of all citizenry.”
And for that, we have two words: Thank you.
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