Photo by Tom Hawk
Watching the golden toad disappear from Costa Rican rainforests had a lasting impression on Figueres. Photo by Tom Hawk

An Expert Opinion: Christiana Figueres

Hailing from a family with two former presidents of Costa Rica, Christiana Figueres was primed to tackle daunting political challenges, head on.  Figueres first found her footing as the founder of the Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas.  Now, as the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, she travels internationally helping countries agree upon strategies to limit greenhouse gas emissions. On a recent visit to San Francisco, she attended a carbon market conference to talk about California’s cap and trade program, which went into effect last year.

Figueres profile resized
Figueres has been the executive secretary of the UNFCCC since 2010

What is your role with the U.N. and what are in you in town for?

[My role is] to support governments in their ongoing efforts to reach agreements with each other about how they’re going to address climate change. I’m in California to recognize California’s leadership with their cap and trade program because it is quite unique for the U.S. that a state has moved forward with a market-based solution to their climate policy. Covering 85 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and second in size only to the European Union system, the robustness of California’s program cannot be denied.

What is the value of California’s leadership if there are so few followers? Isn’t there a danger that it’s all going to be too little too late?

Yes, there is that danger but that’s not the only possibility. We have so many more extreme weather events that are really making this issue no longer a debate. Every single country is being affected and every single country is realizing that—in their own interest—they need to address this. There is no more compelling evidence of this than the joint working group between the United States and China. If you had asked anybody four years ago, three years ago, two years ago: will the United States and China ever come to the table on climate change to try to find joint collaborative solutions, it would have been a hard sell to say yes. Here we have a joint working group of the United States and China, not because they necessarily are looking at the global benefit, but because they are motivated by avoiding the national impacts that they are already seeing.

So you think cap and trade can work as a policy? 

Last seen in 1989, the golden toad is thouught to be extinct due to climate change and disease. Photo courtesy of Conservation International
Last seen in 1989, the golden toad is thought to be extinct due to climate change and disease. Photo courtesy of Conservation International

Absolutely, it has been proven to work in the European Union, that is the oldest cap and trade system, and it is a model that is being experimented with in many other countries as well. So yes, I think it is a policy of choice that will be used by many countries, and many subnational governments.

Many would suggest that with the pace of climate change, that there’s just no way we’re going to reign in warming at the two-degree level, what’s your take on that?

There have been, over the past 12 months, at least four studies that have looked at this issue and looked at the fact that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and that should this continue as a business as usual scenario, that it would be impossible to reach that two-degree target. However, every single one of those studies also says that there is no reason why we have to continue along that business as usual route. Every single one of those studies says we have number one, the technology, number two, the capital and number three, the human ingenuity to change business as usual and make a serious dent in addressing climate change. So I still am heartened that we will be able to do that.

Was environmental sustainability something that you remember discussing around the family dinner table at an early age?

At the dinner table–no, because I don’t think the concept of sustainability was something that was around in the 1960s and ’70s. That came later. What was always a discussion at the dinner table was how do you structure societies and economic systems in order to benefit those that are most vulnerable. That is not very different from what we’re doing in the climate arena. It’s very clear that there are a group of countries that are least responsible for climate change and they are the most vulnerable. The low-lying island states are those that have the least responsibility and they are the most vulnerable because of sea level rise. And so our progress and our success in meeting climate change needs to be measured against how well are we protecting the future of those that are most vulnerable.

Climate change is unlike other environmental issues because it’s intangible. What’s—

[INTERRUPTS] Intangible? It is anything but intangible. Tangible is [Hurricane] Sandy, tangible is sea level rise that is completely swamping populations. Tangible is the fact that the farming belt in the United States went bankrupt last year and that had a huge spike in food prices across the world. So it’s very tangible, it’s just very distributed across the world. In that sense it’s difficult to pinpoint with one single finger because the effects are not just seen in one single country, they are seen everywhere. 

When was first time you feel like you really saw the impact of climate change?

I was about 12 or 13 and my parents took me to a rainforest in Costa Rica where there was an endemic golden frog that was a beautiful species. By the time I was married and had children, the species of frog had disappeared because of the increasing temperatures [caused by climate change]. The fact that I have seen the disappearance of a species in my lifetime has left me marked. I now realize that the planet I am leaving to my children is visibly diminished from the planet I inherited.

To that point, what would you say to students—the generations that will inherit the problems we’re facing now?

They’re going to have to finish fixing this problem. The only things we oldies can do right now is identify the possibilities of what the solutions will be, but there is no doubt we’re handing over a very serious problem to the next generation and they’re going to have to step up and be the ones that finish the solution.

*This interview has been condensed and edited.  Science Editor Craig Miller contributed to this story.

Debate Over on Climate Change, Says Chief UN Climate Negotiator 6 June,2013Lindsey Hoshaw

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Lindsey Hoshaw

Lindsey Hoshaw is an interactive producer for KQED Science. Before joining KQED, Lindsey was a science correspondent for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Scientific American. On Twitter @lindseyhoshaw

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