Can humanity be persuaded to save itself?

The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change - The New Yorker


A Reporter at Large page1image1360AUGUST 24, 2015 ISSUE The Weight of the World

Can Christiana Figueres persuade humanity to save itself ?



The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or U.N.F.C.C.C., has by now been ratified by a hundred and ninety-five countries, which, depending on how you count, represents either all the countries in the world or all the countries and then some. 150824_r26863-320Every year, the treaty stipulates, the signatories have to hold a meeting—a gathering that’s known as a COP, short for Conference of the Parties. The third COPproduced the Kyoto Protocol, which, in turn, gave rise to another mandatory gathering, a MOP, or Meeting of the Parties. The seventeenth COP, which coincided with the seventh MOP, took place in South Africa. There it was decided that the work of previous COPs and MOPs had been inadequate, and a new group was formed—the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, usually referred to as the A.D.P. The A.D.P. subsequently split into A.D.P.-1 and A.D.P.-2, each of which held meetings of its own. The purpose of the U.N.F.C.C.C. and of the many negotiating sessions and working groups and protocols it has spun off over the years is to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In climate circles, this is usually shortened to D.A.I. In plain English, it means global collapse.


The Framework Convention on Climate Change is overseen by an organization known as the Secretariat, which is led by a Costa Rican named Christiana Figueres. Figueres is five feet tall, with short brown hair and strikingly different-colored eyes—one blue and one hazel. In contrast to most diplomats, who cultivate an air of professional reserve, Figueres is emotive to the point of disarming—“a mini-volcano” is how one of her aides described her to me. She laughs frequently—a hearty, ha-ha-ha chortle—and weeps almost as often. “I walk around with Kleenex,” another aide told me.


Figueres, who is fifty-nine, is an avid runner—the first time I met her, she was hobbling around with blisters acquired from a half marathon—and an uninhibited dancer. Last fall, when her office was preparing for the twentieth COP, which was held in Lima, she and some of her assistants secretly practiced a routine set to Beyoncé’s “Move Your Body.” At a meeting of the Secretariat staff, which numbers more than five hundred, they ripped off their jackets and started to jump, jump, jump.


Figueres works out of a spacious office in Bonn, in a building that used to belong to the German parliament. On the wall by her desk there’s a framed motto that reads, “Impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude.” On another wall there’s a poster showing the Statue of Liberty waist-high in water, and on a third a black-and-white photograph of Figueres’s father, José, who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. He served as President of the country three times, pushed through sweeping political and social reforms, and abolished Costa Rica’s army as a stay against dictatorship. Figueres grew up partly in the President’s House and partly on her father’s farm, which he called La Lucha sin Fin—“the struggle without end.”


“I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’ ” Figueres told me. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”


Of all the jobs in the world, Figueres’s may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none). The role entails convincing a hundred and ninety-five countries—many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy—that giving up such fuels is a good idea. When Figueres took over the Secretariat, in 2010, there were lots of people who thought the job so thankless that it ought to be abolished. This was in the aftermath of the fifteenth COP, held in Copenhagen, which had been expected to yield a historic agreement but ended in anger and recrimination.


Figueres and her team have spent the years since Copenhagen trying to learn from its mistakes. How well they have done so will become apparent three months from now, when world leaders meet for this year’s COP—the twenty-first—in Paris. Like Copenhagen, Paris is being billed as a historic event—“our last hope,” in the words of Fatih Birol, the incoming director of the International Energy Agency—and, again, expectations are running high. “We are duty-bound to succeed,” France’s President, François Hollande, has declared.


The danger of high expectations, of course, is that they can be all the more devastatingly dashed. Figueres, who is well aware of this, is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. “I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.”


To understand how the fate of the planet came to be entrusted to a corps of mostly anonymous, mid-level diplomats, you have to go back to the nineteen-eighties, when the world confronted its first atmospheric crisis. That crisis, the so-called ozone hole, was the product of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. When they were invented, in the nineteen-twenties, CFCs were hailed as miracle compounds—safe alternatives to the toxic gases used as early refrigerants. Lots of additional uses were found for CFCs before it was discovered that the chemicals had the nasty effect of breaking down stratospheric ozone, which protects the earth from ultraviolet radiation. (F. Sherwood Rowland, a chemist who shared a Nobel Prize for this discovery, once reportedly came home from his lab and told his wife, “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”) A global treaty—the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer—was signed in 1985 and sent to the U.S. Senate by President Ronald Reagan, who called for its “expeditious ratification.” This broadly worded “framework” was soon followed by the Montreal Protocol, which called for drastic cuts in CFC usage.


The Montreal Protocol, which has been revised a half-dozen times, mainly in response to new scientific data, averted a dystopian future filled with skin cancer and cataracts. (If you’re sitting in the sun right now, in a roundabout way you can thank the Montreal Protocol.) Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the U.N., has labelled it “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”


When scientists first sounded the alarm about carbon emissions, it seemed logical to try to follow the Montreal template. In 1988, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring climate change to be a “common concern of mankind.” The following year, talks began on what was to become the Framework Convention.


The ozone treaty had divided the world into two blocs: high CFC users, like the United States, and low users, like Bangladesh. High users, who were largely responsible for the problem, were expected to act first, low users later. The same high-low distinction held for climate change; some countries had contributed a great deal to the problem, others very little. But almost immediately the blocs fractured into sub-blocs. Oil-producing states, like Saudi Arabia, split with low-lying, easily inundated nations, like Maldives. Rapidly industrializing countries, like India, saw their interests as very different from those of what are officially known as Least Developed Countries, like Ethiopia. The European Union wanted a treaty with strict targets and timetables for reducing carbon emissions. The United States—at that point the world’s largest emitter—refused even to consider such targets. On the eve of what was supposed to be the final negotiating session on the Framework Convention, the working draft of the document, according to one participant, resembled a “compilation of contradictory positions more than a recognizable legal instrument.”


The convention was rescued, at a price. The final version of the treaty, presented in Rio in 1992, called for the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” But it left virtually all decisions about how this was to be accomplished to future negotiations. Also left unresolved was how those decisions were to be reached: the convention provided no rules for voting, though it noted that such rules ought to be adopted.


This constitutive vagueness has troubled climate negotiations ever since. The parties to the convention have never managed to agree on rules for voting, meaning that every decision must—in theory, at least—be arrived at by consensus. And while a few countries have cut their CO2 output since the convention was signed, globally emissions have soared, from about six billion metric tons of carbon a year in the early nineteen-nineties, to almost ten billion metric tons today.


Figueres lives about five miles from downtown Bonn, on the opposite side of the Rhine, in the town of Königswinter. She owns a Prius but usually takes the tram to work. One evening this spring, I rode the tram home with her. She had spent the previous night in Munich and was dragging a rolling suitcase behind her. On the walk from the tram stop to her apartment, she dropped by a market to buy food for dinner. She had no shopping bag, so she decided to carry the groceries home in her suitcase.


“I’m not Alice in Wonderland,” she told me, once we got upstairs. “You and I are sitting here, in this gorgeous apartment, enjoying this fantastic privilege, because of fossil fuels.” Figueres, who is separated from her husband, has two grown daughters, one of whom works in New York, the other in Panama. Her apartment is decorated with vividly colored paintings by Central American artists, and it looks directly onto the Rhine, which, on this particular evening, was untrafficked except for an occasional coal barge.


At the time of my visit, Figueres was preparing for a trip to Saudi Arabia. Over drinks on her balcony, she described what it had been like working with the Saudis at climate negotiations when she herself was a delegate, representing Costa Rica. “They would throw a wrench in here and get out of that room in which the issue was A, then appear over in this other room, in which it was a completely unrelated issue, throw a wrench in there, and disappear,” she recalled. “I would stand there with my mouth open. I would go, These guys are brilliant.


“The Saudis are sitting on a vast reserve of very cheap oil,” she continued. “Can you blame them for trying to protect that resource and that income for as long as they can? I don’t blame them. It’s very understandable. Let’s do a thought experiment. I come from a country that has only hydro and wind as power resources. If I had been born in a country with fossil-fuel reserves, would I have a different opinion about what’s good for the world? Maybe. Very likely, in fact.


“I don’t want to put people into a black box and say, ‘You’re the culprits,’ and point a blaming finger. It just helps absolutely nothing. Call it my anthropological training. Call it whatever. But I always want to understand: what is behind all of this?”


Growing up in Costa Rica, Figueres was sent to the Humboldt School, in San José, where she learned to speak fluent German. For college, she came to the United States—to Swarthmore—where she studied anthropology. Then she spent a year working with the Bribri, an indigenous people who live in Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains.  The village had no electricity or running water.


“I have no problem sitting on the floor, sipping hot water from a dirty cup,” she told me. “I also have no problem sitting next to Prince Charles.” Figueres had brought along a camera to document the Bribris’ lives. She discovered that they loved to see photographs of themselves, and so every few months she would trek out of the village, by foot and by donkey, to get the pictures developed. Once, she also brought back a postcard showing New York City at night: “I thought, Let’s see how they interpret this. So I just showed them the photograph, and I said, ‘What is this?’


“ ‘Ah,’ they said. ‘All the little stars of heaven in rows!’ What a beautiful interpretation. They had no concept of what a lit city was. The only light they had seen at night was the stars. And then, all of a sudden, all these little stars were in rows! Now, funnily enough, I think about that response almost daily. Because my feeling is that all the little stars are aligning themselves in a different sense.”


It is Figueres’s contention that all the nations of the world are now working in good faith to try to reach a climate agreement, and that includes Saudi Arabia. She cited her invitation from the country as a sign of its new, more “constructive” approach. On her trip, she wanted to be careful to adhere to the nation’s strict dress code, so she had had her secretary call to ask what was expected of her. “I know that in Riyadh I need to wear a burka,” she told me. “Elsewhere, if they want me to wear an abaya I’ll wear an abaya.”


She also wanted to be mindful of the Saudis’ linguistic requirements. “They don’t like the term ‘low carbon,’ ” she explained. “They don’t like the term ‘decarbonization,’ because for them that points the finger directly at them. They would rather use the term ‘low emissions.’ ” This spreads the blame for global warming to other greenhouse gases, like nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons. (In an unfortunate irony, hydrofluorocarbons, which, molecule for molecule, trap far more heat than CO2, were specifically engineered to replace ozone-depleting CFCs.)


“Well, frankly, I sometimes do talk about ‘decarbonization,’ ” Figueres went on. “But certainly I won’t talk about ‘decarbonization’ when I’m in Saudi Arabia, because I understand that is very threatening to them. Why would I want to threaten them? I need them on my side. The best thing that could happen to me would be that Saudi Arabia says, ‘You know what? With all the money that we have, we’re going to invest in the best technology in concentrated solar power.’ ” 


In the lead-up to Paris, each country has been asked to submit a plan outlining how and by how much it will reduce its carbon output—or, to use the Saudis’ preferred term, its emissions. The plans are known as “intended nationally determined contributions”—in U.N.-speak, I.N.D.C.s. The whole approach has been labelled “bottom up,” which, by implication, makes previous efforts to cut carbon—in particular, the Kyoto Protocol—“top down.”


Drafted in 1997, Kyoto represented the first and, as yet, the only time that the parties managed to fill in some of the Framework Convention’s many blanks. People who attended that COP still remember it as a kind of endurance test for the soul. Figueres, who was there with the Costa Rican delegation, described it as “an absolutely harrowing experience.”


Kyoto imposed specific targets on roughly forty countries of the global North (not all of which, of course, are actually in the North). The targets varied from country to country; the nations of the European Union, for instance, were, collectively, supposed to cut their emissions by eight per cent, while the United States was supposed to cut them by seven per cent. (This was against a baseline of 1990.) Canada was expected to reduce its emissions by six per cent. Australia’s target allowed its emissions to grow, but not beyond eight per cent.


Countries in the global South were not given targets, on the theory that it would be unfair to ask them to reduce their already relatively small output. (Saudi Arabia, part of this second group, tried to scuttle the agreement in advance, by demanding that the text be circulated six months before the final negotiating session.) It was the United States that helped rescue the protocol—Vice-President Al Gore flew to Kyoto when the talks appeared to be foundering—and it was also the U.S. that very nearly killed it. The Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and shortly after George W. Bush entered the White House, in 2001, he announced that his Administration would not abide by its terms.


“Kyoto is dead” is how Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national-security adviser, put it. In fact, the treaty survived, but in a zombielike state. The U.S. ignored it. The Canadians blew past their target and, midway through the period covered by Kyoto, withdrew from the agreement. Only the Europeans really took their goal seriously, not only meeting it but exceeding it.


Meanwhile, as Kyoto shambled on, the horizon receded. In the mid-nineties, China was emitting nearly a billion metric tons of carbon a year. By the mid-aughts, its output was twice that amount. In 2005, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter on an annual basis. (The U.S. still holds first place in terms of cumulative emissions.) Nowadays, China’s per-capita emissions are as high as Western Europe’s (though not nearly as high as those in the U.S.). The more than a thousand new coal-fired power plants that went up from Guangdong to Xinjiang made Dutch wind turbines and German solar farms seem increasingly irrelevant; all of Europe’s cuts were effectively cancelled out by a few months’ worth of emissions growth in China. Scientists warned that the world was on track for an average global-temperature rise of four degrees Celsius (more than seven degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of this century. Such a temperature increase, they predicted, would transform the globe into a patchwork of drowned cities, desertifying croplands, and collapsing ecosystems. As a report from the World Bank noted, it’s not clear “that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”