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Christiana Figueres: Passionate – and impatient – about climate

Rachel Idzerda for the globe and mail

Christiana Figueres mourns for the golden toads of the Monteverde cloud forest.

As a child in Costa Rica, Ms. Figueres would visit Monteverde with her family, and marvel at the brilliantly coloured amphibians that were found only in the high-altitude rain forest. Years later, she returned with her own daughters, only to discover the golden toad was extinct.

The species was victim of a warming planet, she was told, the first extinction that scientists attributed to a human-induced climate change. It's a conclusion that has since been debated.

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The United Nations' climate chief nonetheless draws inspiration from the golden toad as she works tirelessly to lead 194 nations to conclude a global agreement that would avert the worst impacts of climate change while fundamentally changing the way we produce and consume energy.

"I was so impacted, that in my lifetime, I literally saw the disappearance of one species," Ms. Figueres says over breakfast at Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

"I witnessed that, and I was deeply impacted because I saw that the planet that I had received from my parents – which included the golden toads – was very different from the one that I was giving my children. … It was a diminished planet that I was giving them."

That realization propelled her into a 25-year career as a climate diplomat, initially for Costa Rica and for last four years as executive secretary at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which is driving the effort to conclude a global climate agreement next year in Paris.

A deal in Paris would not just be a environmental accord but would represent "the biggest economic and technological transformation the world has ever seen," she says. Failure in Paris would set climate policy back 10 years – and make the eventual reckoning far more expensive economically and far more disastrous for the world's most vulnerable citizens.

Ms. Figueres landed in Montreal the night before we met, still buzzing from the week-long climate summit hosted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that had just concluded in New York City.

She was speaking later that morning to an international meeting on responsible investing held by pension funds and other financial institutions and then to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations, before flying back to her home in Bonn, Germany.

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She arrives at the table desperate for some strong English breakfast tea, confessing to feeling a bit groggy after a brief night's sleep. At one point, as she was getting ready in her hotel room, she recounts with a laugh, she had to search for her cellphone and had an instant of panic thinking she might have dropped it in the toilet. She laughs again, a disarming self-deprecation that brings you into her confidence.

After the tea arrives and the conversation turns to the need for climate action, there's no hint of fatigue.

A petite 58-year-old with short brown hair and luminous brown eyes, Ms. Figueres has the stamina of a long-distance runner – she completed a half marathon last year – and the calm intensity of a Buddhist environmentalist – she tries to meditate daily.

She is the daughter of an elite Costa Rican family that taught her public service is a "sacred obligation."

Her father, Jose Figueres Ferrer, was a revolutionary coffee rancher who served three non-consecutive terms as president after a civil war installed a fledgling democracy in 1948. It was her father who disbanded the Costa Rican army and was instrumental in making the Central American country a leader in ecological preservation.

Her mother, U.S.-born Karen Olsen Figueres, served in the Costa Rican Congress and as ambassador to Israel. Her brother, Jose Maria, was also president for a term while her half sister, Muni, is now the country's ambassador to the United States.

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Christiana Figueres trained as an anthropologist. She spent time in Samoa – in the footsteps of trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Meade – and a year in an aboriginal village in Talamanca, Costa Rica, writing a literacy textbook in the native language.

That early exposure keeps her focused on the world's poorest citizens, who will ultimately bear the brunt of climate change impacts in the form of flooding, rising food prices and dislocation.

Ms. Figueres certainly acknowledges the enormity of the challenge in reaching a global deal. But she draws some comfort from the growing engagement of average citizens and global businesses.

In New York, she marched with more than 300,000 people – including her two adult daughters and a niece who arrived from Costa Rica – who gathered prior to the UN climate week to demand governments act to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

That same week, companies such as Apple Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., IKEA AB and McDonald's Corp. made public commitments to reduce their GHG emissions.

She took over as the United Nations' top climate diplomat cum bureaucrat at a low point, when the secretariat was hugely dispirited. She succeeded Dutch diplomat Ivo de Boer who resigned in early 2010 after the collapse of the much-touted Copenhagen summit.

There had been hopes of reaching a global agreement at that 2009 meeting, but negotiations broke down as rich countries and major developing economies bickered over just about everything. In the end, negotiators concluded a weak accord in which developed countries set non-binding targets for emission reductions by 2020.

Since then, countries have remained largely at loggerheads, patching over fundamental differences each year at the annual UN summit with just enough common ground to keep the process lurching forward. But Ms. Figueres is cautiously confident that there is a groundswell that will carry politicians into deal making.

The job of UNFCCC executive secretary is something of a two-headed beast: She is the senior bureaucrat, in charge of ensuring the secretariat provides all the logistical and analytical support that will be needed by about 20,000 attendees at the annual Conference of the Parties summit. It will be held this year in early December in Lima, Peru.

But she is more than a UN functionary; she is the world body's chief climate ambassador who works to build consensus on the path to urgent action.

Ms. Figueres relies on two qualities that sustain her when the hurdles seem overwhelming: optimism and impatience.

"I'm optimistic because I have a fundamental belief, an unswerving belief, in two things: that mankind, humankind, does know the difference between right and wrong, and that ultimately when we are confronted with the choice, we do choose the right," she says. "Second, I believe in human ingenuity – that when we decide on a task to be done, no matter how daunting it may seem at the beginning, we are able to unleash human ingenuity and human innovative capacity that was unknown, and takes us to a solution."

She is also impatient: While progress is being made, it is not enough to stop the growth of global emissions within 10 years and then reduce them, as many climate scientists say is necessary to keep warming below 2 C compared with preindustrial levels.

At the conference where she spoke after breakfast, the determined Costa Rican urges pension fund managers to adopt responsible investing "on steroids" to ensure capital flows to low-carbon projects, and to get political by "scrubbing the lobbying practices" to ensure their organizations aren't opposing progress on climate policies.

But on her second visit to Canada, Ms. Figueres is diplomatic on the Conservative government's much-criticized approach to international climate talks and the warnings that Canada will not meet its 2020 emission-reduction targets, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper adopted in Copenhagen.

She regretted Ottawa's decision two years ago to pull out of the Kyoto protocol, and said so at the time. But she observes that Mr. Harper committed in New York last month that his government would work toward a universal agreement to be concluded in Paris.

Still, as the federal auditor-general reported this week, Canada is currently on a track to seriously undershoot its Copenhagen targets, and the UNFCCC is looking for new commitments – to be publicly announced by next March – on how countries will cut emissions beyond their Copenhagen targets before and after 2020.

"The call is definitely for deepening commitments because GHGs are still on the rise," she says. "And that [Paris] agreement must be the blueprint to reaching global peaking over the next 10 years and then starting a very, very marked decrease in global emissions."

In the high-profile march during climate week in New York in September, Ms. Figueres was joined by a large contingent of American and Canadian activists who took direct aim at Canada's oil sands, and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver that oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Over breakfast, the UN climate chief won't comment directly on those hot political issues, but she does lend credence to the activists' arguments. Investments in energy infrastructure are long-term ventures, and should be carefully screened to ensure they are consistent with the goal of reducing GHG emissions, she says.

"What I know for sure is that the shift to low carbon is by now irreversible. It may still be challenging to figure our way through, but it is irreversible," she says.

"And because it is irreversible, one really has to ask whether the investments today in infrastructure and extraction industries that belong in the old economy, whether those are the safest and most wise investments. Or whether investments shouldn't be moving into the economy of the future."

***

To earth, with love

Christiana Figueres is never far from her well-worn copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's Love Letter to the Earth; it is on her night table in whatever city she happens to find herself.

Mr. Hanh is a Vietnamese monk who combines ancient Zen Buddhist teaching with modern environmentalism; his book urges readers to respect the Earth as a living organism and source of all life, and to form an "intimate relationship" with it.

Love Letter to the Earth doesn't mention oil sands, or coal-fired power planets, or even climate change. It deals with first principles – positing not Man against Nature, or Man's dominion over Nature, or even Man's stewardship over Nature, but rather, Humankind's fundamental connection with Nature.

It does carry endorsements by Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist, founder of 350.org, and fierce critic of the oil sands and the pipelines needed to get its crude to market, and by David Suzuki, the Canadian biologist, broadcaster and activist who campaigns against our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

From Love Letter to the Earth: "When you realize the Earth is so much more than simply the environment, you will be moved to protect her as you would yourself. There is no difference between you and her. In that kind of communion, you no longer feel alienated."

From Mr. Hanh's teaching, Christina Figueres draws on themes on ideas of interconnectedness and mindfulness, as she pursues a global agreement to reduce emissions: "We have the responsibility to create our future. This is not about sitting back and just by default letting the future happen.

"This is about a future by design and by intent, by collective intent perhaps even more importantly."

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