âThe planet has been around for four and a half billion years. She was perfectly happy before we got here, and she will be perfectly happy if we’re foolish enough to pull the ejection seat out and go.
Christiana Figueres has been nicknamed “the woman who saved the planet” on several occasions. Remarks like these come from his role in the monumental success of the Paris Agreement 2015.
But after speaking with Figueres, it is obvious that this is not a completely accurate description. As she says extensively in her book and in our conversations, tackling the climate crisis is not at all about saving Earth, but about saving humanity.
âIt’s really not about saving the planet,â says Figueres, âit’s about saving something incredibly unique in the evolution of the planet.
âA very, very short period of time – 12,000 years – allowed the human species to flourish and build the ‘civilization’ we have now.
“If there is anything we want to save from this, then we have to be able to get back to a stable environment.”
As an environmental journalist who has frequently used phrases like ‘saving the planet’ in headlines and articles, I ask Figueres if there is a perception problem with regard to the climate crisis. Should we, the media and environmentalists more broadly, redefine the task as “saving humanity”?
Figueres corrects my question right away. âFirst of all, it’s just a reality, isn’t it? It’s just the reality.
She explains that it is not a question of “reframing” anything. It is an objective fact that, if we continue on our present course, humanity will suffer while the planet will continue to exist.
But, she concedes, that’s not how most people think about the climate crisis.
“I think bridging this perception gap on the consequences of climate change is very useful.”
Moving the UN from failure in Copenhagen to success in Paris
After 15 years of representation Costa Rica as the country’s climate change negotiator, Figueres was appointed UN climate secretary in July 2010. Her appointment came following the failure of the Copenhagen Summit (COP15), where the talks took place. collapsed without any significant commitment from the countries concerned.
Figueres spent the following years re-establishing negotiations, eventually paving the way for COP21 in December 2015. It was there that the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties, bringing each nation together in a binding agreement to combat the climate change.
“[It] was not a consensus agreement, âsays Figueres,â[it] was a unanimous decision agreement, which has never happened before at the UN. It was the only agreement that was unanimous, and they all decided they would go to net zero by 2050. â
A criticism sometimes leveled against the Paris Agreement by activists is its alleged “lack of ambition”. The heart of the deal is a goal of keeping global warming below 2 Â° C, preferably 1.5 Â° C, in line with pre-industrial levels.
During COP21 itself, Nicaragua took steps to oppose its adoption because it considered it insufficient (although this never materialized). I ask Figueres if she feels that any ambition was sacrificed to reach the unanimous decision.
“No, actually. I think the Paris Agreement is still on the horizon as being incredibly ambitious because it [does] three things.
âIt establishes the finish line … which is net zero by 2050. It establishes the fact that there are very different starting points for each country, and each country will move differently at a different speed.
âAnd then set the 1.5 Â° C – below 2 Â° C, with a 1.5 Â° C suction. It’s actually pretty futuristic!
It can sometimes be easy to forget how quickly climate science has developed as well. But Figueres explains that in 2015, the importance of 2 Â° C and 1.5 Â° C was not fully known.
âWe didn’t know that when we were finishing the Paris Agreement. We thought the 1.5 Â° C was there for political reasons – but thank goodness it’s there, because there is a scientific imperative behind the 1.5 Â° C that we weren’t aware of.
When the deal was made, says Figueres, the science hadn’t evolved enough to support that goal. But since then, the level of detail in IPCC reports has improved, highlighting the consequences if we don’t follow them.
“We really understood the huge difference we would live under if we were above 1.5 Â° C.”
Stay stubbornly optimistic
The COP26 to come is the next major diplomatic step to achieve the Paris goals and – like the August IPCC report clearly exposed – we are far from the target. Figueres has not been UN climate secretary since the end of her second term in 2016, but she remains a prominent figure in the movement with high expectations for Glasgow.
âOn the contrary, COVID-19 should actually help make them more ambitious,â Figueres said of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that all parties to the Paris Agreement are required to submit before COP26.
But having worked in diplomacy for many years, she also understands better than most of the challenges negotiators will face next month.
âI struggle within myself to work on climate change because I am sitting on two chairs,â says Figueres.
âI am sitting in the chair of impatience, for the science is extremely clear, irresistibly clear on the urgency we are facing.
âBut I am also sitting in a chair of patience, because I personally know how long it takes to change policies. I also know how long it takes to change financial decisions.
Figueres is full of hope. In fact, âstubborn optimismâ is at the heart of his philosophy – and it’s an infectious state of mind.
His point of view is completely and totally grounded in reality – there is no concealment of the truth about what is going on around us. Figueres does not wish to paint a rosy picture of the climate chaos we all face. Instead, his optimism grew out of this brutal sense of realism.
“It is precisely because of reports like [the IPCC one]. Precisely because of the melting ice in Greenland. It is precisely because of all the destruction we have seen this summer that we have stay stubborn and optimistic.
Honor our anger
This does not mean that Figueres approaches everything with glee. Our conversation takes place right after we visited the ever-shrinking Greenland Ice Cap. While there, our group witnessed some of the only precipitation ever on the ice sheet – a direct result of global warming.
âI was at the ice cap and had to get away from everyone and face my grief and my own anger,â says Figueres. “The anger against my own generation … it is [my] generation that caused this.
âAnd our inability and stubbornness not to engage in timely climate action is what brought us together here today. No longer face climate change, but face the climate emergency – climate chaos! “
But it highlights technical progress – such as the development of Electric SUVs for Extreme E – as proof that humanity has what it takes to face the current situation.
Shortly after we finished our interview, Figueres reappeared. She wanted to address the pessimism she detected in another journalist. An automotive journalist had asked a few questions about whether the behavioral patterns of our species were incompatible with the change we need.
In a touching moment, Figueres explained how much she can relate to that feeling of cynicism and hopelessness – emotions we all need to honor. Because, she said, there is a bus coming towards our children, and we have no choice but to jump in front of it.
As an environmental journalist, I sometimes feel the same cynicism and the same pessimism. But speaking with Figueres, I have renewed hope, perhaps stubborn optimism.
As she puts it, âWe have basically two options.
“Either we can sit down and say ‘Okay, well … you know we’re too late.’ Or we can say âoh my God, we are totally out of time and we have to get up! “
“And in my book, we have no other option.”