Saturday 12 June 2021

Christiana Figueres: the woman tasked with saving the world from global warming

UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres: ‘We are going to get an agreement [in Paris], because there is enough political will.’ Photograph: Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Costa Rica’s own and currently UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres: ‘We are going to get an agreement [in Paris], because there is enough political will.’ Photograph: Alexander F. Yuan/AP
QCOSTARICA – Costa Rica’s Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen is the UN’s climate change chief is in charge of the world’s response to global warming, a threat potentially more catastrophic than any disaster yet seen, but one which is so slow-burning that governments and the public have been able largely to ignore it for more than three decades since scientists began to prove incontrovertibly the dangers that greenhouse gas emissions pose to our planet’s stability.

On Monday, governments will meet in Paris at a make-or-break conference in an attempt to forge a new global treaty, hopefully as effective and far-reaching as the Marshall plan, that would limit future carbon emissions and bring financial assistance to the poor who will be worst-hit by the effects of warming.

The stakes could scarcely be higher. It is now more than 20 years since governments made their first joint attempts at controlling emissions and dealing with climate change. Since then emissions have continued to rise strongly in nearly every year, the exception being those scarred by financial crisis. In 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was signed, binding countries to avoid dangerous levels of warming, the carbon content of our atmosphere was about 356 parts per million (ppm), most of that poured into the air since the Industrial Revolution. Now, it stands at 398ppm – not far short of the 450ppm that scientists estimate as the threshold beyond which our climate will change drastically and irrevocably, bringing extremes of weather, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and rendering swaths of the globe virtually uninhabitable.

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[su_pullquote class=”H2″]Born: Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen, August 7, 1956 (age 59), San José, Costa Rica. Her father, José Figueres Ferrer, was President of Costa Rica (Don Pepe), considered the father of peaceful modern democracy in Costa Rica. Website:[/su_pullquote]The history of international efforts on climate change has so far been one of ineffectual and ignored treaties, unseemly wranglings over which nations should bear the greatest “burden” – as if saving the only planet we have can be so described – and political grandstanding laced with vicious recriminations. Progress, if measured in carbon output, has been nil.

Figueres is deeply aware of all this.

Born into a politically well-connected Costa Rican family, she is the daughter of the man who led his country’s transition to democracy and served three times as its president, José Figueres Ferrer, and younger sister of  José Figueres Olsen, who was also President of Costa Rica (1994–1998), and after training as an anthropologist has spent her life in public service. As a member of the Costa Rican climate negotiating team from 1995, she helped write the Kyoto protocol and subsequent agreements.

Asked why she chose to work on climate change, she tells a story about the once common golden toad that went extinct in Costa Rica in 1989. Figueres has illustrations of the toad on the wall of her office.

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“I saw this species when I was a little girl, but when I had my two little girls the species no longer existed,” she said. “It had just a huge impact because I realised that I was turning over to my daughters – who were very, very young, they were born in 1988 and 1989 – a planet that had been diminished, by our carelessness, by our recklessness.” It was this realisation that led her to work on the climate problem.

The impact of Paris attacks will be felt
If the UN negotiations are to succeed this year, Figueres will play the pivotal role. She has three main tasks: to ensure countries stick to stringent targets on emissions; to provide developing countries with financial support from the rich world to develop green energy and adapt to global warming; and to produce the draft text that can be signed into a watertight legal instrument.

But a deep shadow now hangs over the Paris talks. The attacks that killed 130 people and left scores more critically injured have scarred France, and Europe. For many French people, the long-term problem of climate change may be seen as an irrelevance to their present danger.

Figueres was quick to respond to the atrocity. “In deep pain. Standing in solidarity with Paris and the whole of France,” she wrote on Twitter. It has been her only public pronouncement.

Stepping Down
For Figueres, Paris also marks a personal legacy. When the summit is completed and, the UN hopes, a new process of future talks under way, she will step down from her post. Her future plans, she shrugs, are up in the air. By then, she hopes to have achieved what no one before her has done: a legal and binding agreement that will be enough to cut emissions in line with scientific advice, and that will be adhered to by governments around the world for the next decade and beyond.

Normally quick to respond to questions, the only time in our conversations that she hesitates is when asked about the fate of poor countries if the Paris talks fail. “I hope we don’t fail,” she eventually says. “They will be the ones that suffer.”

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She looks away. There are tears in her eyes.

The above is an excerpt from Click here to read the entire story.


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