Thank You Christiana Figueres for Helping Secure Stronger International Climate Action

Christiana Figueres term as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has just ended and we all owe her a huge thank you for the safer climate legacy she has left our children and grandchildren. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her for the entire 16 years I’ve been working on climate change so when she took the job after Copenhagen I knew she was the best person for this difficult position. If anyone could help steer the global community to a stronger international climate agreement I knew Christiana could do it. But could the global community really get its act together and could she successfully navigate this difficult terrain? She helped eliminate any lingering doubts with the Paris Agreement.

While the Paris Agreement wouldn’t have occurred without the perseverance of many NGOs, citizens, countries, cities, and companies, it would have failed miserably without Christiana’s leadership. She helped rally the world to finalize an historic climate agreement that includes new climate commitments from all major countries and set in motion efforts to require deeper emissions reduction commitments from all countries over time.

Christiana Figueres moderating a panel after signing ceremony in April with NRDC’s Brendan Guy.

Looking back on her tenure there are a couple of traits that she embodied which I think proved critical in getting us to this point. Here are just a few of them.

Smiling. The night the Paris Agreement was agreed by over 190 countries she attended the NGO celebration and she had her trademark smile as she entered the room. I gave her a hug and congratulated her. But she wasn’t only smiling after achieving historic agreements since you could often find her with a welcoming grin. I don’t know if this was her intention, but I think her smile reminded the negotiators that even in the midst of difficult negotiations they were people trying to secure a better future for their citizens. A smile has a way of setting the tone for difficult negotiations much better than a straight face or a grimace.

Smart. I interacted with Christiana when we were working on similar ideas to help shift developing country action from the project-by-project nature of the Clean Development Mechanism (e.g., individual wind projects) to sector-wide actions that would help transform entire economies, not just little islands of positive climate action in a sea of climate inaction. She was a leading advocate for this changing dynamic when she represented Costa Rica and she helped shepherd through this shift as the Paris Agreement reflects national climate action plans from all major countries.

Persistent. I saw her in the halls of the UN after she had come out of a meeting with NRDC Trustee Robert Redford who called her a “force for nature” after their meeting. That is an appropriate description for Christiana since she kept at it even when the outcome looked in doubt. At that moment a lot of the key details were uncertain as the negotiating text was a mess and important elements around how countries would strengthen their targets over time were in doubt. She had a smile on her face and seemed confident that countries would resolve these difficult issues and move “us from good success in Paris to shining success in Paris”. I knew she would do everything in her power to push countries towards that shining success.

Strategic. The UNFCCC Secretariat can’t by herself get 194 countries to adopt a strong climate agreement. Reflecting this dynamic Elizabeth Kolbert described Christiana’s job as having “the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none)”. In order to overcome this dynamic, Christiana had to be very strategic with how she helped all the key countries get to the strongest agreement possible. She used her giant megaphone to push where she thought public statements could help and she utilized quiet diplomacy where that was a better tactic.

Forward-looking. In order to address climate change, you often have to see at least two steps ahead of the current political dynamic. So you adopt the agreement that is possible today given the current politics, but include key provisions that create the conditions for even greater action in the coming years. Christiana recognized this aspect of international climate agreements as she was a strong champion of including cities, states/provinces, and companies into the global effort. This “action-agenda” can now play a key role in driving greater action so that when countries start to reassess their targets in 2018 they are prepared to outline even deeper targets than they committed to in 2015.

As Christiana leaves her role as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC she will be missed. She helped shepherd through the historic Paris Agreement and we all owe her a huge debt of gratitude. I suspect that she won’t disappear from the international climate radar as solving this issue is too important to her. This passion to address the gravest challenge of our generation runs too deep in her bones for her to go quietly.

Thank you Christiana and keep up the fight!