Skip to main content

Listen: The Anthropology of Climate Change

Listen: The Anthropology of Climate Change

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00

Christiana Figueres '79 is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She is also the founder of the non-profit Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas and received the Hero for the Planet award from National Geographic in 2001.  

In addition to her B.A. in anthropology from Swarthmore, Figueres holds a master's degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics and a certificate in Organizational Development from Georgetown University. She has been involved in climate change negotiations since 1995 and represented Latin America and the Caribbean on the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism in 2007 before being elected vice president of the Bureau of the Conference of the Parties 2008-2009. Her lecture this semester is part of the Department of Biology's fall lecture series, "The Challenges of Climate Change," and was sponsored by the President's Office, the Department of Biology, and the Environmental Studies Program.


Thank you. Good afternoon to you all. It is wonderful to be back home. I'm actually quite touched to be back home because I haven't been here for such a long time. So I would like to first start by thanking President Chopp for inviting me to return to Swarthmore.

But I will be very honest with you. I have actually been waiting for this invitation for a very long time. And so I'm going to tell you what happens on the Swarthmore campus if you wait for an invitation, okay? So my freshman roommate, Madeline Barillo '78, who's sitting there. Madeline, she was and continues to be my very best friend. So Madeleine and I can both tell you the following story, because it is a true story.

When we were Swarthmore students way back in the '70s, okay, that's like the Petroglyphic age, we constantly watched fellow students who were being invited to the president's home. Everybody except us. And we thought, oh well, we have to take matters into our own hands, okay? So one early Easter morning, before sunrise of course, a group of us got dressed up as bunnies and hopped up to President Friend, who was president at that time, hopped up to his door, pounded on his door, with the wonderful excuse of a basket of chocolate eggs. Now, this poor man, at 5:30 in the morning, opened up the door in his striped pajamas, that we can still see in our head, stared at this bunny invasion in total disbelief. He was utterly shocked.  But I tell you, he never forgot us after that.

So here's the deal. I was actually thinking about that little episode when I met a couple of Swarthmore students last year in Durban at the last climate change conference. Are you here, those of you who were there? No, you're not here. All right. So, I met two or three Swarthmore students at the last conference that I directed in South Africa at the end of last year, and they said, well, have you been back to Swarthmore? Like, oh no? Well would you like to come? Yes. Yes, I would like to come back. And I didn't tell them, but I was wondering, you know, hmm, I wonder if they're working here on President Chopp's behalf, you know? Because maybe President Friend gave her a call and said, if you make her wait for an invitation, she's going to, you know, organize this little bunny invasion. So I was wondering whether President Chopp was actually concerned about having a bunny invasion in her garden. And what's even more suspicious is she's actually invited us to dinner tonight.

So let me tell you, you may think that this was actually just a fun campus prank. But I tell you this story because I would like to impress upon you that on the very critical issue of climate change, the world can no longer afford for you - for any of you - to wait for an invitation. You cannot wait for an invitation to put your knowledge to purpose, to put your passion to action. The world needs you, and it needs you now. President Chopp actually said it best in her inaugural address, and I quote her: "We must educate to set anew and set aright our relationship to the earth, to our climate, to the web of all existence. Under this canopy of trees, can there be any doubt that we must do all we can, all we can, to sustain the beauty of this good earth?"

Well, I must confess that in the idyllic setting of the Swarthmore campus, it's indeed very, very tempting to ponder global challenges from an intellectual perspective, to write fantastic papers, which I'm sure you all do, to participate in stimulating honors seminars, if you're very lucky in your professor's living room, and then leave it at that. But as I'm sure President Chopp would agree, doing all we can, which is what she said, means taking action. And it means taking action, not tomorrow but today, because when it comes to climate change, thought without action is not only empty, it is profoundly irresponsible.

And let me tell you how I come to that conclusion. So it all started when I decided to become a sociology and anthropology major here at Swarthmore. Anybody here in the room wondering, well, how does an anthropologist get to do climate? How does she get to be the head of the climate convention? Well, I must admit that way back then in the Petroglyphic age when I was here, I did not dream about one day becoming the head of the United Nations Climate Convention. In fact, I was even lucky if I had time for one dream under those very, very short sleeping hours, as you well know.

And the honest truth is that, when I graduated from Swarthmore in 1979, the global environmental movement was very much at its infancy. And I was frankly not very concerned with global environmental issues - with one exception, an important exception. I was a committed solar energy activist, and got a pan in front of Parrish Hall every time that I could get it. So if there are any anthropology majors here, or in fact any students who spent any time overseas, you may remember, or you may have heard of [Professor Emeritus of Anthropology] Steve Piker.

Does anybody remember Steve Piker? Raise your hands. Okay. Well, Steve Piker was my thesis advisor, and my inspiration on campus. And I would like to pay tribute to Steve. He opened my eyes to a simple but very, very powerful truth that still resonates with me today - that the direction, scale, and speed of change in society is determined by man. Simple, but very powerful.

Now, since I know that the science of climate change is a taboo topic in some parts of the United States, but certainly not in Swarthmore, I trust that we will all agree very, very quickly that the unprecedented atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases that are at the root of climate change are produced by the activity of man. And I say by the activity of man because it has occurred over the past 100 years, therefore not man and woman, but we can leave that discussion for later.

"What is urgently necessary is the creation of a new norm, the low-carbon norm. And that requires nothing short of a consumer rebellion against high carbon living, which is what you and I have right now."

I trust that we can also agree why addressing climate change is so darned urgent. This August, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the extent of ice cover on the Arctic had fallen to its alltime record low, shrunk by 186,000 square miles, compared to just five years ago. That's four times the size of Pennsylvania. Now, can you imagine the impact of that on the lives of those who lived in the Arctic region, let alone the alarming consequences of that much water flowing into the ocean and affecting ocean currents circulating throughout the globe? In January, I had the opportunity, and some of you have read about this, to see the effect of warming temperature on the opposite pole, in the [Antarctica]. Huge pieces of ice breaking off, triggering a shrinking of land-based, which is different than the Arctic, land-based ice, faster than it had ever been anticipated by the glaciologists.

Now, sitting here in Swarthmore, Antarctica may seem very distant, but believe me, what happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica. There is a direct and proven correlation between ice melt on that continent and sea levels all around the world. Just ask some of the 50 million people who live in low-lying island states, whose survival is directly threatened, not tomorrow but today.

On the island of Fiji, where I once traveled as a young anthropologist, the families of the village of [unintelligible] are today, today as we speak, relocating to drier and higher land because of sea level rise and constant flooding. And they're actually lucky that they have higher land on Fiji that they can relocate to, because the former president of the Maldives toured the world and was unsuccessful in finding any country that would accept the entire Maldives population as climate immigrants or as climate refugees.

Now, climate refugees - there's a term that wasn't around in 1979. But you know what? Get used to it, because current projections estimate that we could reach anywhere between 100 and 400 million climate refugees over the next 20 to 30 years. One hundred to 400 million refugees. And that tragic situation is made even more poignant by the fact that all those people are the least responsible for climate change.

Now, we don't have to go so far away. I know that you understand the urgency of climate here in the United States. January through August were the warmest eight months of any year recorded in the United States. This country just experienced one of the worst droughts on record, a heat wave extending from the Rocky Mountains to the Ohio Valley, with devastating effects on the farmers of the entire region, and today, the assessment that it will mean 1.3 percent less economic growth because of the losses in that region.

Furthermore, the U.S. is the world's largest exporter of corn, soybeans, and wheat. And because of that drought, the Department of Agriculture estimates that global food prices of these staples will jump two to three percent next year. Now, if you're a poor family, a few cents on the dollar can very quickly determine whether you eat or whether you starve. So it doesn't take a scientist to connect these dots. While none of these single events can be exclusively linked to climate change, taken together, they indicate that we're already in the midst of climate unpredictability, of a profound disruption in the earth's hydrological cycle, the effects of which are actually still unknown. So yes, Steve Piker, the direction of global change has been determined by man, but the speed may now be completely out of our control. And I'm sure Steve Piker could not possibly have imagined the scale of the change that we may already have caused.

So in the face of this calamity, is anything being done about this? Well, good news and bad news. The good news is that there is some progress, both from governments and from private sector. So at the intergovernmental level, in the last round of negotiations that we had in Durban in South Africa at the end of last year, all governments agreed to not let the rise in temperature go beyond two degrees centigrade, with a view to revising that with the most recent science to 1.5 degrees - which is actually the temperature rise that we should allow, and no more, if we want to be responsible to the most vulnerable populations of the world.

Additionally in Durban, most industrialized countries - most - agreed to continue leading in their emission reductions efforts via a second commitment period in the Kyoto Protocol. That covers only 10 to 12 percent of global emissions. So in order to increase that emission for the very first time, governments have agreed that they will negotiate a legally based, universal agreement to be applicable to all - underline, have to underline that many times, particularly when I speak in the United States - by 2015, to come into effect by 2020. So that's at the international level.

At the national level, actually, a lot of movement because of the advance of the climate convention. And there we see a number of countries with actually very serious climate initiatives. All industrialized countries, in fact, even including the United States. All industrialized countries have made voluntary - not legally binding, voluntary - pledges to reduce their own emissions by 2020. And even more impressive, 49 developing countries with no historical responsibility for climate change - future, yes, but no historical responsibility - 49 developing countries, including all emerging developing countries, have announced nationally appropriate mitigation actions to 2020 and beyond. And some of these countries actually have already passed and enacted domestically legally binding legislation, such as Mexico, Korea, and yesterday, Pakistan. Now, I know you won't read about this in the press in this country, but China has legally binding domestic legislation on climate, on renewable energy, on energy efficiency, and they are now working on their first national comprehensive climate legislation, with a view to enacting it over the next few years. And finally, 119 countries around the world have renewable energy policy targets, and nearly every country has some type of energy efficiency initiative.

So this is progress. But let me be perfectly clear. It is not enough. In fact, if fully implemented, all of the above efforts amount to about 60 percent of the global effort that we need to guarantee a two degree temperature rise, let alone a 1.5, which is, as I said, where we should be. And there is no doubt that reaching the temperature target requires, yes, decisive national action, but it also requires collective commitment in the context of an agreed global framework. And that's where Steve Piker's lesson is to be applied yet again. There is no doubt that we need to change the way we generate, transmit, and use energy. And only man - and here in this case, I'm going to rephrase, man and woman - can actually help to solve this problem, by determining the direction, the scale, and the speed of the positive change that we need.

Now, the challenge is that as things currently stand, time is not on our side, and math is clearly not in our favor. Given population growth and economic development, particularly in the emerging countries, global demand for energy will double over the next two decades. And to meet that demand, we're going to need approximately 26 trillion dollars of investment in climate responsible infrastructure, and well over half of that needs to go into developing countries. So we stand at a very, very clear fork in the road. We can either take the path of least resistance, the business as usual, path of high carbon, high emissions. And if we do that, we stand a very good chance that in 40 years, global emissions will have risen by 50 percent, as opposed to fallen by 50 percent, which is what science demands.

The other choice that we have is the green path. If those investments are focused on renewable energy, on energy efficiency, and if we improve access to sustainable energy, then we will achieve something very different, something actually truly remarkable. We will, for the first time in history, have de-linked economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. We will increase economic growth where it's most needed, and we will decrease greenhouse gases where they are the highest. We will create new jobs, new opportunities, new direction. And that is in fact the path that many businesses are beginning to take. They're recognizing that the opportunities offered by green growth are there to be taken.

Just a few months ago, the trillionth dollar - trillionth dollar - was invested in renewable energy, cumulative, not in a year. And companies all across the world have seen the like. One example that I like to use is a company in Qatar, because it is the host of our next climate change conference this year. Well, I'm hoping you all know that Qatar is one of the world's oil and gas producing states. In Qatar, the Qatar solar technologies company recently invested more than a billion dollars in a cutting-edge, polysilicon facility, because they're aiming to produce a thousand, 800 megawatts of solar power by 2024. Other than the investment of Saudi Arabia, that would be the largest solar farm in the world. And now, right here in Pennsylvania, we're seeing how renewable energy can provide an economic boost. In 2010, the wind energy industry in Pennsylvania supported, directly and indirectly, 4,000 jobs in this state.

"Believe me, what happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica. There is a direct and proven correlation between ice melt on that continent and sea levels all around the world. Just ask some of the 50 million people who live in low-lying island states, whose survival is directly threatened, not tomorrow but today."

Now, to not leave Swarthmore out of the equation - Swarthmore has also chosen the green path, and I would like to applaud Swarthmore's efforts to make this college more sustainable, certainly more sustainable than when Madeline and I were here. And I especially want to note President Chopp's leadership, because in 2010, she signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, and she is moving forward on delivering on that. And Swarthmore has also committed to develop a clean action plan by January 2013. You will tell me after this how far we are on that one. And Swarthmore has attracted widespread attention for concrete climate actions such as the green roofs that I have yet to see and would like to see this afternoon.

So that's the direction governments, institutions, and private companies are moving. Now the question is, is that enough? Can we leave the responsibility of the transformation to governments, institutions, and private companies? Well, my response is, absolutely not, for a very simple reason. Because what is urgently necessary is the creation of a new norm, the low-carbon norm. And that requires nothing short of a consumer rebellion against high carbon living, which is what you and I have right now. So let me explain what that means for you today, as students, and what it means for you tomorrow, as tomorrow's leaders.

You're students. It is actually very, very easy to fall into the trap of exporting responsibility. But let me tell you, this is not about others. It's not about those who we think are not doing enough, or those who you judge to be responsible. This is about you. It's about your lifestyle, your consumer choices, your energy consumption. It's about your choices and mine. To be very honest with you, my husband has grown so tired of telling me to turn off the light when I walk out of a room that he has finally put motion sensors in my house, okay? And my daughters, I travel all the time, so my daughter's always asking me, and did you take a plane, or did you take a train? Did you walk, or did you take the car? So they're on my case all the time. And the fact is, that's what it takes. That is exactly what it takes. Being responsible means being honest with ourselves.

So let me try a little honesty here. How many of you own a car? Okay. I would say three-quarters of you. How many of you know what your CO2 emissions on your car are? One. Two, three? Three and a half? Okay. So if you don't know what the CO2 emissions is, I'm assuming that when you bought the car, the carbon efficiency of the car was not a factor in buying the car. Is that a correct assumption? No, it is? It was? Okay. [Comment from audience and laughter.]

Well, you can calculate it, you know? You can calculate it by gallon. You can calculate it by average mile. The point is, this is a lot of incredibly enlightened, committed, thinking students. So if you don't know what your carbon footprint is, can you imagine the rest of the U.S. population? And here is my concern. It is your purchasing power, your purchasing power, that is your strongest voice. Your generation - excuse me, faculty, I'm not talking to you - your generation, students, is the one that is going to determine how quickly we shift to low carbon, and you're going to determine it through your choice of whatever you buy, your everyday products.

Think, every time you buy. You are determining the pace of this transformation. That's a pretty heavy responsibility to have on your shoulders, but that's the one that you have to pick up. Now, companies are actually finally, slowly realizing that sustainability is more than just a cute advertising campaign, right? It is what informed consumers (I'm sorry, on this one you just don't make it, okay? You're not informed consumers yet). But I would really ask you to join others who are letting companies know that your dollars will follow sustainability. That is the one way that you can make your voices heard today as students.

Now tomorrow, as tomorrow's leaders, let's look at some basic facts that you're going to have to address. So we're trying to get to two degrees max, hopefully 1.5, two degrees maximum temperature rise by 2050. Who knows what the average per capita emission would have to be in order to get two degrees. So is it 50? Up or down? 40? Tons, tons. Is it 50? Tell me if it's 50. 40? Down? 30? 20? 10? Dudes, it's two tons. Okay? Two tons per head per year. That's the global average that we would need to use.

Now, do you know what the average emission of every citizen in India is? Above or below two? It's one. Do you know what the average emission in China is? It's two. Do you know what the average emission in the United States is? Okay, everybody's getting uncomfortable, right? It's 20. So here's your challenge, okay? You thought getting through Swarthmore's a challenge. Forget it. Here's your real challenge: to be in line with responsible global [citizens], you, each one of you, would have to reduce your personal average emissions by 90 percent from where you are today, 20, to two tons in your lifetime. And I daresay, you're probably not even the average human citizen, because everybody who comes to school is a privileged person. And so you probably are even above 20, even above the U.S. average.

So how the heck, how the heck are you going to get from 20 to two tons per year, and meet your Chinese colleagues, because that's where they are? Well, so think about it, okay? Where are your emissions? Well, how you transport yourself, the a/c and the heater in your room. Do they even have a/c and heaters, because when we were here, they were really crappy. Maybe they're better. I hope they're certainly more energy efficient than we were here. And I'm sure you have electricity in your room. I'm sure you have lighting. I'm sure each of you has at least three iPad, iPhones, laptops, etc. etc. etc. Well, they all use electricity. So you see? If you switch off the a/c, particularly because you're not here in the summer, if you turn off the lights when you go out of a room, and if you unplug your computer at night, well you can get down a little, but it's not going to get you from 20 to two. It just is not going to do it.

So you see, the challenge is - we need a dramatic, dramatic change. And some call it transformational change. I actually quite simply just call it a revolution, because I don't use that word lightly. President Chopp introduced me as the daughter of a president, but that president was a revolutionary leader. And he led the Costa Rican revolution in 1948, and I am proud of the social change that that revolution brought.

But here we are in Swarthmore, a peace-loving Quaker college, okay, with a strong anti-war tradition, and I don't remember too many courses on how you operate a machine gun here. So I did receive values and inspiration and principles that I still live by. So I'm not calling for an armed uprising, but I am calling for something that is in fact even more challenging. I'm calling for an uprising against our own consumption patterns, which have become fatally incompatible with our vision and our responsibility for a sustainable future.

Energy is at the heart of everything that we humans do, everything. And I'm calling for a radical transformation in the way we generate, transmit, and use energy. Now, ladies and gentlemen, as tomorrow's leaders, I actually need your help. No matter what field you're going to go into, you will very likely be affected by climate change one way or the other. So I need you, I need the brightest minds to come up with real and lasting solutions in every single field. Don't think about climate as this thing over here. Climate change affects everything. It is the most transversal challenge we have ever, ever had. I need you to find solutions. I need you to discover them. I need you to articulate them. I need you to operationalize these solutions in such a way that they make sense from an environment point of view, from an economic point of view, and from an ethical point of view.

And that's what Swarthmore is all about, isn't it? It's always been about that. This college was forged in the crucible of the U.S. Civil War in a time in which some human beings literally owned other human beings. Think about that. At the time, most people thought that that paradigm was intractable. But there were people with passion, who knew that it was fundamentally wrong, and who took the firm steps to remedy that problem. Now today, it's not just the United States, but it's the entire world that is facing the challenge of addressing climate change. So some may think it's too complex to be solved, it's too far away to warrant any concerted effort now. Well, there is no doubt, and I'm the first one to admit, that the complexity of climate is unparalleled in human history. But I hope that I have shown you that we are making some progress, and above all, I hope that I have shown you that each one of you can make a difference - in fact, that each one of you must make a difference.

So dear students, please don't sit around in your dorm room waiting for an invitation. You can't wait any more. So let's get to work together; together to make a radical change required of every man and every woman; together, to meet challenges with conviction and resistance, with resiliency, regardless of the odds or opposition; together to build on the proud tradition, on the proud Quaker tradition upon which this school was founded; together to have our voices heard; together so that our lives speak. Thanks.

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing