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UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres ’79 Leads Global Fight to Cut Carbon Emissions

Christiana Figueres '79

Christian Science Monitor: Climate change summitry’s force of nature: Christiana Figueres 

Last November the United Nations was holding one of its annual climate meetings in Warsaw. The World Coal Association was convening a summit of its own across town. The coal boosters asked the UN’s climate chief, Christiana Figueres [79'], to officially address the group.

In other words, the world’s biggest carbon emitter was inviting the world’s top official charged with cutting carbon emissions into its none-too-friendly lair. Environmentalists considered the overture a provocation. Allies such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and Oxfam warned Ms. Figueres not to take the bait.

“NGOs were filing in asking me not to go, the youth movement was asking me not to go ... their concern was that I would legitimize coal,” says Figueres. “I didn’t think that was a very strong argument” against taking the climate case straight to the opposition.

She doesn’t see ignoring any player in the climate game as an option. If trust is a bridge built stone by stone, this was one heavy-lifting job Figueres couldn’t refuse. The tiny diplomat from tiny Costa Rica is the world’s top climate policymaker, and she’s in a manic, 11th-hour race to span what many believe to be an unbridgeable divide: getting 195 nations to agree by the end of 2015 to begin cutting their carbon emissions or adopting other climate-friendly policies to halt global warming.

It’s this kind of piecemeal bridge-building – and her relentless optimism that every stone counts – that makes Figueres possibly the most important environmental leader you’ve never heard of.

“No one has done more to advance climate policy than Christiana Figueres, period,” says Paul Steinberg, a scholar of environmental leadership at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

Al Gore may have won a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award for popularizing awareness of climate change. But Figueres has “walked the talk” on a global circuit, from the unglamorous grass-roots work to the tedium of line-by-line horse-trading on treaties to sophisticated charm offensives at the head-of-state level.

Professor Steinberg notes specifically that Figueres parlayed knowledge developed while consulting on small sustainable development projects into shepherding an unprecedented collection of clean development mechanisms in Latin America when she was a climate negotiator in the 1990s and early 2000s. Many diplomats spend their careers “making changes in the margins to legal text and convening meetings,” says Steinberg, but few at Figueres’s level have her “intimate familiarity with how policy works ... how to bring about change ... at the national [and local] levels.”

Figueres, say some, owes her rise to UN climate chief in part to where she comes from: a nonthreatening small country sandwiched between the Atlantic and Pacific, Nicaragua and Panama. But she boasts an outsize political and environmental pedigree that gives her some extraordinary grounding for the job, too.

Her father – José Figueres Ferrer, the revolutionary founder of modern Costa Rican democracy – was elected to three nonconsecutive terms as president and abolished the nation’s standing army. Her US-born mother, Karen Olsen Figueres, served in the Costa Rican congress and as ambassador to Israel. Her older brother, José María Figueres, served a term as president in the 1990s. Her younger brother, Mariano Figueres Olsen, is now the national security director. And her half sister, Muni Figueres, is the ambassador to the United States.

“I unduly get some credit for what the family has done,” observes Christiana. But she adds that her background – from formal protocol to a year spent in an indigenous village in Talamanca, Costa Rica, writing a Bribri language literacy textbook – prepared her well for her current job. Last spring she met with Prince Charles and the Queen of Bhutan – “no problem,” she says. “But I can also sit in Nepal on the floor of a little hut with a woman who has just installed her new efficient wood stove and have a conversation with her.”

A direct line can be drawn from the family ethic to Christiana’s reputation as a facilitator. She has a formidable sensitivity in bridging the gulfs between the interests of struggling developing nations and big-foot industrialized countries. She’s also legendary among friends and colleagues for her personal outreach. Last year she spent two weeks of vacation caring for her Swarthmore College roommate’s ailing mother, and she’s known for her pajama-clad Skype sessions, in the wee hours, with former employees who need counseling and advice across time zones.

Figueres’s official title captures all the arcane technicality of the notoriously lethargic UN bureaucracy: executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). But Figueres defies the stultifying nomenclature: A lean long-distance runner, she cuts a fast-twitch profile. Often swathed in bold colors, she makes charming eye contact, alternates a machine-gun intellectual delivery in fluent Spanish, English, or German with a mom-like patience, and has a propensity to pound tables and shed contagious mascara-tinged tears. 

While colleagues refuse to compare her with predecessors, they use adjectives such as “revolutionary,” “intense,” and “reenergizing” to describe her imprint on the UNFCCC. Miriam Medel, a Mexican diplomat who worked in the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany, when Figueres took over in 2010, says, “I have never seen anything like it [in] a top leader.”

Whether the treaty squeaks by or not, it’s hard to see Figueres – whose second term as climate chief ends in 2016 – giving up the global warming fight, which she says is not a job but “my purpose in life.” “If destiny had an adjective,” she says, “that’s the adjective I’d want to use” to describe what is “my passion in life.”

Christiana Figueres '79 is the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 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 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. Listen to her 2012 campus lecture, "The Anthropology of Climate Change.” 

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