Meet our 2016 Global Leader, Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres is a Costa Rican diplomat and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). With over 35 years of experience negotiating both national and international policy and multilateral agreements, her six-year effort as head of UNFCCC led to the historic 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Christiana is a laureate of the 2016 Devex Power with Purpose Award and the only female Latin American listed on Fortune magazine’s 50 Greatest Leaders. This year, she has been named a Tällberg Foundation Global Leader, along with Eleni Antoniadou, Thuli Madonsela, Celina de Sola, and Sunitha Krishnan. She recently shared the issues that have inspired her work.

Going back to 2010 when you became head of UNFCCC, in a press conference you replied to the question, “Are we going to see a climate deal?” You said, “Not in my lifetime.” What happened between that statement and you getting the job done at UNFCCC?

That gut reaction of mine when I was asked by the press in the first press conference, “Will we ever see a global agreement?” and I said, “Not in my lifetime,” that really reflects where everybody was. That reflects the fact that there was a very bad mood on climate change. For me to say that it is impossible to get to a global agreement is so unacceptable, especially from the point of view of developing countries. Especially the point of view of all vulnerable populations in all countries.” It was morally unacceptable.

That was just a huge wake-up moment for me. Right then and there I decided, “You know what?” This has got to change and that’s going to have to be my commitment to this process is to actually change the prospects that we have now and lead us to the agreement that we knew. We all knew that we needed it. Exactly how that was going to happen, honestly we didn’t know in 2010. It did take 6 years to get us there, but what was defining about that moment was the decision to change the global mode to actually inject optimism and to begin to invite everyone to think creatively about what we can do.

Can you tell us something about that process?

The first step was to recognize that governments..are not the only ones who have a responsibility. 
 The first piece there was to open the political space for the private sector. My day job obviously was with governments but my night job was approaching many of the companies that had absolutely no trust in governments and were in fact very resistant to anything that governments would say, do, or legislate. Opening up the space to the private sector and to some national governments was very important as well as to open up the space to NGOs.

I traveled more to Saudi Arabia than to any other country, because I really wanted to understand Saudi Arabia, how they see their economy progressing over the next decades, how they see themselves in front of climate change. And instead of preaching to them because I do not demonize anyone, I was really there to listen, to ask questions about their future, focus them on a little bit longer term. Then of course they came to the conclusion themselves that it is in fact even in their own interest to begin to mill about beyond oil. I was really quite delighted when just a few months before Paris, the Prince of the United Emirates said he wants to be alive the day that the Emirates export their last barrel of oil. When the Prince of Saudi Arabia also just before Paris said that Saudi Arabia was now hunkered down with its entire government to design an economy shift that would look at Saudi Arabia beyond oil. Those are the kinds of shifts that take a lot of time and a lot patience and a lot of respect for all those governments who were doing that.

By introducing all of these partners you certainly create a broader context that makes the process a lot more complex, how do you keep it going?

In the 21st century, we need to get away from our black and white thinking and speaking, assuming that there’s only two positions about any issue, and really understand that there are more shades of gray about every issue. And that there are a growing number of partners and stakeholders that have a very important part to play in any issue.

I think complexity for me is just the order of the day and one that we just need to manage, never control. Don’t ever expect to control every single factor, because nobody can. You do need to have a pretty cognitive mapping of all of the pieces that are working, and what I think is very important is to get a critical mass of these stakeholders to determine a common direction of travel. Then once the common direction of travel is established, then all the stakeholders can contribute or try not to contribute, but you have, if you will, a large and broad river that is flowing down.

Finally, you’ve successfully completed this final COP negotiation. You also expressed an interest in becoming secretary general of the UN. What other projects are you passionate about taking on?

The reason why I have thrown my hat in for the SG race is because I feel that it is really critical for us to understand that a huge part of the responsibility of the UN to address the very painful and imminent conflicts and wars that are going on right now. I am sure that no matter who gets to New York {office of United Nations SG}, over the next 5 to 10 years they’re going to have to face this challenge of bringing both long-term and short-term immediate threats together and bring them to the attention of the UN in a more integrated fashion. If it is me, I will be thinking about how to do that. If it’s not me, I’m not going to sit back. I will continue on my work. I will definitely continue on climate change. I will continue to support the implementation and the acceleration of the Paris agreement. I also must say now that I have been so much more exposed to peace and security issues, I suspect I’ll be dabbling in those also. So I do have many other options.