Climate Change: Meet the UN’s New Top Climate Diplomat

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After I sit down with Christiana Figueres, the energetic new chief UN diplomat on climate change, she asks me if I made it to last year’s global warming summit in Copenhagen, which was plagued with logistical problems. I tell her I had, and that the first day I’d waited outside in the Danish cold with thousands of other people because the summit had been overbooked. “I’m sorry!” she blurts out—and instantly wins a few points from me.

This May Figueres, a diplomat from Costa Rica with a long history in climate negotiations, took over as head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body charged with ushering the world’s governments toward comprehensive action on global warming. It’s a job that can be, as Figueres herself has said, “thankless,” and right now it looks like it will only get tougher.

The Copenhagen summit last December was supposed to be a make or break event for climate change, the meeting that would produce a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions. It broke—the summit was poorly organized, and only the last-minute intervention of President Barack Obama saved delegates from going home with nothing at all. The global economic slowdown has sapped the energy from efforts to cut carbon, and the situation is worse in the U.S., where the Senate ultimately passed on an attempt to create a national carbon cap—and where midterm elections will likely return a Congress even more hostile to action on climate change. The standoff between developed and developing countries on who needs to take the lead on cutting carbon hasn’t been solved. The world is still adding billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, but we seem to be actually be going backwards on climate change. “It can be really quite depressing when you think about it,” says Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International.

Unsurprisingly, however, that’s not how Figueres sees it—and she may have a point. For all the angst over Copenhagen, she notes that there was still agreement and action at the summit on a number of areas—including billions that will be fast-tracked to developing nations for climate adaptation and carbon mitigation.  Avoided deforestation—essentially paying tropical countries for preserving their trees, and the carbon contained with them—is moving ahead slowly. And every year the international community gains more and more experience on managing carbon markets and adapting to climate change. “We have a much more heightened awareness of the issue,” says Figueres. “Climate change is a household term in a way it wasn’t when we began working on it.”

Still, Figueres seems to be purposefully managing expectations of what can really be accomplished at the UN global warming summit, which will be held in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year. A comprehensive global climate treaty is not on the table—Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate diplomat, made that clear in comments at the UN this week. Instead, Figueres expects work to be done on what she calls the “pillars” of a future global deal: climate adaptation, clean technology transfer, basic carbon mitigation, deforestation. “We want to create a solid foundation for the next chapter of the climate regime,” she says. “We can build on what was accomplished at Bali and at Copenhagen.”

It’s smart of Figueres to scale back ambitions for the Cancun meeting. Last year’s summit in Copenhagen might not have seemed like such a disaster if environmentalists—and Figueres’s predecessor at the UN, the Dutch diplomat Yvo de Boer—had not spent months hammering home the message that the meeting was the last chance for the world to confront global warming. Thus anything short of a treaty seemed like a total failure, even though it was obvious in the run-up to Copenhagen that a comprehensive agreement wasn’t yet possible—especially since the Obama Administration, which had been in office for less than a year at the time, hadn’t yet cemented its own climate policy.

The problem is that the science tells us that we’re long past the point of building foundations and pillars—we need to confront the climate and energy challenge now, and not at some future date. Figueres’s biggest challenge may be restoring some sense of legitimacy to the UN climate process, which was paralyzed for much of the Copenhagen summit. That won’t be easy—climate diplomacy is dysfunctional because climate change itself is such a wicked problem. Big, rich countries like the U.S. emit most of the carbon warming the atmosphere, but smaller, poorer countries like Papua New Guinea and Sudan will bear most of the damage, especially initially. Crafting a diplomatic system that can somehow accommodate both systems could be impossible. That’s why many have argued that is time to put aside the UN system and focus chiefly on the major economies— similar to an idea former President George W. Bush had in his last years in office. And China’s own ambitious green policies—spending hundreds of billions on renewable energy and energy efficiency—shows that nations don’t have to wait for a global climate treaty (one that might never come) to begin tackling the energy challenge.

Don’t expect Figueres to stop fighting, though. What might seem impossible to others is “the most inspiring job in the world,” she says. “There’s no other task where you can make such a difference for the next generation, for our children and grandchildren.” She’s right—but it’s long past time to turn rhetoric into reality on global warming, and the UN process fails again, it might be time to take a very different tack.