just asking questions

Former U.N. Secretary Christiana Figueres: ‘We Have a Conceptual Lag’ on Climate

Christiana Figueres. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, will sweep through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Christiana Figueres was the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change beginning in 2010, when the organization had just failed to deliver any meaningful progress at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen, through 2016, when it had, under her leadership, produced and then seen ratified across the globe the landmark Paris Agreement. In other words, while the Costa Rican diplomat wasn’t the “author” of that incredibly complicated diplomatic agreement, she may be the most well-positioned person in the world to describe the political complications of bringing such an agreement about — and then putting it into action. I spoke to her by phone just before the next wave of U.N. activity on climate.

I want to start by asking how you see things, big picture, because to me an enormous amount depends on one’s perspective. We’re talking on the eve of the U.N. Climate Action Summit, when the countries of the world are expected to arrive in New York with more ambitious pledges to combat emissions. But we’re also talking three years after the signing of the Paris accords, which you helped bring about. And just three years later, of all the nations of the world, only Morocco and Gambia are on track to meet the commitments they made in Paris.
I’ll tell you why I think that that is the case. We have a conceptual lag. There were way too many years where we thought of decarbonization as being a burden to the economy — a moral obligation. As long as we keep on thinking that way, then we will not unleash the drive we need.

Countries need to understand that decarbonizing is the way to enter the 21st century. It is the modernization of their energy systems, the modernization of the transport system, the modernization of their land-use policies, right? It is so ironic that climate change is so urgent and is so threatening and on the other hand, at the same time, it is the best thing that ever happened to us — pressing for climate action is the best thing that we can possibly do.

That calls to mind a second conceptual lag, which is about the fact that we’re in this together. When you look at what happened in the fight between Macron and Bolsonaro over the Amazon, some of that conflict was about the role of borders and national sovereignty in a time of climate change. We’re probably not ready to discard that idea, but we may need something like the framework that evolved after World War II, placing human rights and to a lesser extent markets and free trade as principles to be defended or advanced even against assertions of national sovereignty. In fact, there’s kind of a stronger case for that view when it comes to climate than human rights, because while human-rights violations are a kind of moral crime there is not a material effect on the lives of people living elsewhere on the planet. When you open a coal plant, there is a material effect.
Yeah, absolutely. The simple way of explaining that is, is if you are in a large boat and there’s a hole in the bottom of the boat, it doesn’t mean that only that part of the boat sinks. It doesn’t matter where the hole is, right?

So how can we bring about that sense of shared fate and cooperation at a time when nations are generally retreating from international frameworks and international agreements — when even the most progressive, liberal countries in the world are experiencing waves of populism and nativism.
I think it boils down to focusing on the — let me call it the egotistic goal. You have to appeal to their self-centered interests, what benefits a country can accrue from responsible policy. Those doing nothing — you’re not going to win an argument with them on global need and global responsibility. But if they can at least be moved to do the things that are in their own self-interest. I think that is where you can get some movement.

Is that why the state of the Paris Agreement is what it is? That the case wasn’t made clearly enough to nations that there was an immediate self-interest in climate action?
Yeah, I think so. I think so. If you focus only on the burden and the cost and the obligation, of course then countries look across to each other and go, Well, you know, so-and-so’s not doing it, so I’m not going to do it because it’s still considered a burden and obligation. As soon as we understand that this is actually so much better, it’s so much better for agriculture, so much better for public health. Once we understand all of those benefits, then I think that we will begin to see the race to the top because people understand that that’s the best investment they can make.

Is there a way to accelerate that?
Well, I think there are lots of studies that are coming out. The New Climate Economy report was the first great one. The Stern Report actually was the first one. I think what we need to do is to take all of that analysis and break it down into country by country and have country-by-country analysis of how much better and how much stronger the economy can be if it’s decarbonized in a reasonable time.

But that’s a bit knotty, right? I mean, if the globe isn’t decarbonizing in a unified, coordinated way, then it’s harder to make that case to any particular country, right? I think now you can make the argument with a lot of confidence that if the world decarbonized rapidly everybody would benefit, and every individual nation would see those benefits. But if we’re thinking of a geopolitical environment in which nations are making much more erratic progress, then it’s harder to say to India or Indonesia or even to the U.S., for that matter, that action within your borders will result in benefits within your borders — isn’t it?
There is definitely a lot more difficulty tracking the impacts, but you can do it. You see the difference in livability in cities and air quality in cities, efficiency of transport, agriculture and food productivity in rural areas, water availability in rural areas. We’re so used to looking at global data on warming, but the fact is that all of that data is local data — local and national data. And that’s what we should be looking at. We should be looking at the fact that frankly, in most cities and most countries, investing in decarbonizing will save you public-health costs.

It’s one reason emphasizing public-health impacts seems so important, to me. The effect of carbon emissions is global, but the effect of particulate pollution is very local.
Yeah, I agree. And it seems to me that that understanding is growing quite rapidly.

In general understanding is growing pretty rapidly, I’d say.
I think there are two tracks where things are accelerating exponentially, and one where things are more complicated. The first that is accelerating exponentially is the understanding of science, not only on climate change, but on biodiversity, on oceans, and the interrelationship among all of us. All of the reports that have come out — the 1.5 plus the biodiversity plus the ocean one that is coming out very soon. They’re all pointing toward the fact that we’re on the verge of a living system catastrophe. I think understanding of that has advanced exponentially in the past six to nine months.

The second track that has advanced exponentially is civil society’s tolerance for lack of action. So whether it is the climate strikers, or Extinction Rebellion, or Sunrise, there is more and more of what I classify as civil disobedience. We’re very similar, I think, to the days of civil disobedience around the civil-rights movement, where there are people taking to the streets because the injustice that they perceive is just completely unacceptable. And I think this is going to continue to grow exponentially. And I think the civil disobedience is there because we now understand the science so much better.

And then you have the political break on those movements, if you will. We should not lose track of the fact that there are only a few leaders really resistant to climate action — it’s not the majority. Of course there’s Brazil, the United States, Australia. But those are 3 out of 195 governments. Luckily, there are many other governments that understand that all of this.

That’s true — at least at the level of rhetoric most nations of the world are willing to acknowledge that there is a problem.
And I should add, the other track that is fast-forwarding, very quickly and exponentially, is the development of the solution technology: Everything to do with renewable energy, everything to do with electric vehicles, with battery, with storage, all of that is moving forward very, very quickly.

That’s true, and yet the timeline is so, so short. If we need significant conceptual political leaps to be made, and significant innovation, and then global deployment — can we do that in the time we have?
Well, let me put it differently. Can we not?

What option do we have? We don’t have any other options and that needs to be very, very clear. The next ten years are absolutely critical, absolutely critical. What we do in the next ten years is going to determine not just quality of life. If we’re not at one-half our emissions by 2030, there’s no way they were going to be at net zero by 2050.

What worries you most about what would happen if we don’t?
What worries me the most is the mass migration that would occur because you have huge swaths of land that are just north and south of the equation that could easily become uninhabitable because they just don’t have any food productivity, they don’t have any water, and the heat is so intense that nobody can actually survive outside.

I’m very concerned about millions of people being forced out of that whole equatorial belt — forced to migrate up either north or south to other areas that have a little bit better temperature, with the attending stress on food, on water, on just survivability.

For me, given the small-scale refugee crisis that we’re living through now, it’s hard to imagine the world handling that kind of pressure. I like to imagine that we’re going to pass through the nativistic moment and into something that is much more empathic and warmhearted, but I also worry that if we’re trying to be, if we’re trying to deal with really dramatic transformations of the climate and really take control of that system at the same time that our politics are being scrambled as they likely will be by migrations of people in the tens of millions or even hundreds of millions … It’s hard for me to remain optimistic.
There’s actually a choice. It’s a decision. I decided to be optimistic because optimism is an input, it’s not the output of a success. You aced your exam or whatever — well, that’s a celebration, that’s not optimism. Optimism to me is a decision that we all have to say that we are in front of the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced and are going to face and we’re going to be able to, even though we don’t know exactly how, we don’t have visibility into all of the details. We have to have a positive, optimistic viewpoint that allows us to search for all of the solutions and bring them down to the floor. If we go into this with a defeatist attitude, I guarantee you that we’re not going to do it. Optimism is the only choice we have.

From a moral perspective, I think that’s totally right. But even if I’m imagining a world that’s evolving in that more positive direction, it’s probably not going to evolve uniformly in that direction, and there are certain countries that are going to be slower, certain countries that are going to take a more revanchist position. In that context, how do you see conflicts over things like the fate of the Amazon, or maybe even more pointedly the proposed new coal infrastructure in China, playing out? How can a world that is mostly but not universally committed to climate action bring along those nations that are reluctant?
I think there are several things at play. One is the shift of capital. More than $6 trillion that our shifting away from high carbon into low carbon, and the coal industry is now completely capital starved. The oil and gas industry is already feeling the pain of our capital flight. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a cent in their pocket, but it’s much more difficult for them in a world in which the major financial institutions are saying, We’re not going to find the finances anymore, and the insurance companies are not going to offer insurance. So you are already beginning to see a lot of pressure.

The other pressure of course is the civil-society pressure — a growing intolerance of coal, and now demonstrations against the oil and gas industry. All of that will grow.

So you still see a plausible path, not just to keep us below two degrees, but to get us to something like 1.5 degrees?
Yeah, but that’s not coming from me. That comes through in the IPCC 1.5 report. It says the window is now very quickly closing, but that it’s probably not yet too late. And of course they are pointing quite vigorously to both reducing emissions but also increasing the capacity that we have to sink CO2 in huge reforestation. Because you’re going to need a reduction of emissions as well as negative emissions of carbon. They came to the conclusion that we can still make it, but every day counts. Every day counts, every month counts.

Right — the science says it’s possible, but the politics makes me considerably more skeptical.
That’s the fight that we’re in.

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