‘A Chance to Re-create the World’: Former
UN Climate Leader Offers Words of Hope

While it might be natural to feel despair about the threat of climate change, a champion for global climate action advised against it during a recent Yale visit. Instead, Christiana Figueres recommended a feeling of awe and gratitude for the historic opportunity shape humanity’s collective future.
Figueres 2018 web
Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, addresses an audience at Yale F&ES on Sept. 21.
It might be natural to feel despair about the threat of climate change. But a champion for global climate action advises against it. Speaking to a Yale audience recently, Christiana Figueres instead recommended that people feel awe and gratitude for the historic opportunity to shape humanity’s collective future.
 
She should know. Until 2016 Figueres was the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during negotiations for the Paris Climate Accords, perhaps the most significant international climate treaty ever achieved. Nearly 200 nations were present for the negotiations and signed the treaty, an unprecedented number in the UN’s history.
 
“We are on the verge of the greatest transformation humanity has ever set itself,” she told the audience at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “We never, as a collective people, all of humanity — we never have decided before with choice and intentionality to do this. We have the chance to re-create the economy, to re-create the world.” And instead of feeling despair about climate change, she told her audience, people should feel awe and gratitude at the incredible opportunity to shape humanity’s collective future.
We never have decided before with choice and intentionality to do this. We have the chance to recreate the economy, to recreate the world.
— Christiana Figueres
The event was hosted by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, a center based at F&ES and the Yale School of Management, which inspires research and builds relationships to advance business solutions to the world’s environmental challenges. It was co-sponsored by WE@Yale, a collaborative movement to support women innovators and entrepreneurs across the Yale campus, and the Yale School of Management’s Energy Club.
 
The Paris Accords focused on establishing commitments from each member nation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Previous research had established 2020 as the deadline for reversing the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions in order to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, to stay within a 2-degree C increase, and to protect the global economy.
 
The historic agreement has the potential to make a tremendous contribution to reducing global climate change because it set the groundwork for a coordinated global reduction in emissions-causing activity, Figueres said. Each member nation presented their own solutions to reducing greenhouse gases based on their own economic, technological, political and environmental realities.
 
“The Paris Agreement is based on the enlightened self-interest of countries,” Figueres said. This adds more force to the commitments. The agreement also included a commitment to reconvene every five years to assess progress and make new commitments, with the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by midcentury. Most nations — with the exception of the United States — are on track to reaching or surpassing their 2020 goals, she said.
christiana figueres yale fall 2018 kroon
Photo by Matthew Garrett
“2020 is a very important year because it is the first time this ‘ratchet’ mechanism is going to be implemented [since Paris],” Figueres said. “Some say it is the first time [the Paris Accords] will be questioned. I refuse to accept that. It will be implemented because we don’t have another option.”
 
Since leaving the UNFCCC, Figueres has continued to work towards achieving the goals of the Paris treaty, including through an organization called Mission 2020. Co-founded in 2016 by Figueres, Mission 2020 promotes climate action through international diplomacy, corporate and multi-stakeholder convenings, and communications campaigns.
 
While we are often presented with a “doom-and-gloom” scenario, there is also the potential for human society to be “co-creators of a new world,” she said.
 
“We can do it,” she said. “We have the technology, we have the capital, we have the know-how — we just have to put all of this together. The question is: what is it going to take?”
We have the technology, we have the capital, we have the know-how — we just have to put all of this together. The question is: what is it going to take?
— Christiana Figueres
What is happening so far includes contributions from many sectors — technology, business, science, finance, government, and civil society — that are voluntarily committing to innovations and reductions in emissions, Figueres said. She spoke of a “bifurcated reality” in which some governments continue to fight over whether climate change is even real and others that, along with leaders from business, state, and local levels, are taking steps to reduce emissions.
 
“Both realities are equally real,” she said. “Both of them have political and economic effects. Both of them are sending messages out to the world. So we need to choose: Which reality do we want to take more seriously and, in particular, which reality do we want to support and accelerate? That is a choice we have to make.”
 
Figueres urged students and young professionals to work for companies that follow a “people, planet, and profit” model. “Do not sell your brains to companies that are not responsible,” she warned. “You should be working with and for companies that are responsible. They’re the ones that not only deserve, but need your talent, to get us to where we need to go.”
 
Her message of optimism was welcomed by many students.
 
“I was inspired by her tone of optimism that the market of the future will encourage investors to only support companies with proven environmental strategy and long-term sustainability, buyers to patronize businesses with low-impact products, and employees to choose to work for green businesses,” said Chris Perkins ’20 M.E.M.
 
“She transmitted genuine belief that we are on the right path and that something historic is happening,” said Camilla Rodriguez Taylor ’19 M.E.M. “What resonated most with me was her perspective that we are on our way to 1.5 degrees and that we will make exponential progress towards that goal. Every action now is the foundation for something greater in the future. That’s what gave me hope.”
Allegra Wiprud ’20 M.E.M. is a first-year master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
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PUBLISHED: October 10, 2018
 

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