Christiana’s Got It All Figueres-ed Out

The Global Economic Governance Programme 2015 Annual Lecture by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres: “The Imperative of a Global Climate Deal”, at the University of Oxford, 26th October 2015

Let us begin by reassuring you that there is a reason we titled this post with something worthy of a tabloid newspaper. As we will hopefully show in the following few paragraphs, we think the pun is pretty accurate, as well as pretty bad. Having listened to Christiana Figueres discuss her perspective on climate change, it seems she really has got it all figured out – and by “it”, we mean a strong case for the necessity of action on climate change. The “imperative” of action, as her speech was titled.

In the first half of the lecture, Ms Figueres outlined five imperatives for climate action. She began, as seems appropriate for any lecture on climate change, with the scientific imperative. Evidence of warming of the global climate system is unequivocal, humanity is almost certainly responsible through greenhouse gas emissions, and anything over a rise of 2°C to the global temperature average compared with pre-industrial levels could spell catastrophe for large numbers of people across the world. Unfortunately, none of this is new information – which confirms that little progress to date has been made in meeting the challenge of climate change.

It was particularly interesting to us that Ms Figueres chose the moral imperative as second in her list, above both the economic and political cases for action. As scholars on the Climate Justice programme, we are always on the lookout for mentions of justice and ethics! “Thank God for the Pope”, she began by saying, citing Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” from May this year, in which the Pope emphasised the responsibility of humanity to look after both each other and the natural world. She was encouraged to see that virtually all of the world’s major faiths agree on the necessity of preserving nature as much as possible, although her interpretation of the moral imperative didn’t really go beyond a discussion of the role of religious faith in support for climate action.

The third imperative was the technological. Ms Figueres stated, quite rightly, that renewable power generation technologies are today much more economically competitive than they were a few years ago. She followed this statement by saying that she always tries to give a positive message in her speeches, which led us to wonder whether she thinks that renewables still don’t offer an economically justifiable replacement for fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it provided a useful bridge to the fourth imperative – the economic case for action. As we said, we were surprised that this did not garner a spot further up the running order of the lecture, as many of the narratives that feature throughout climate negotiations are of an economic nature – for example, questions of whether states can afford to implement certain policies, arguments over funding arrangements for developing countries, and even how climate action will affect the money in the average person’s pocket. Like Lord Stern, Ms Figueres was optimistic. She said that she sees climate change as an opportunity for global development to emerge from a “growth plateau”, because rebuilding infrastructure all over the world in order to combat climate change will “energise” the global economy. She also thinks this will result in a “brave new world scenario” in which the Global South will play an increasingly central role. Did we mention she was optimistic?

The fifth and final imperative presented was the political. Reinforcing her upbeat tone, Ms Figueres confirmed she certainly is more optimistic than she was five years ago. She said that the “saving-the-world-approach”, which could mean altruism, or perhaps the EU’s more progressive stance, “has been tried and doesn’t work”, and that countries are now motivated by self-interest. This made us wonder again quite why the moral imperative was placed so highly on the agenda. Nevertheless, she was pleased that 155 countries have now submitted their national plans for climate action. Although she did make clear that she only sees this as a stepping stone towards a more effective outcome in Paris, she argued, quite rightly in our view, that it is good to get the ball rolling.

The lecture concluded with four predictions for the future, based on what Ms Figueres has observed during her time as UNFCCC Executive Secretary. She predicted firstly that many decisions on climate action will be taken “along the lines of planetary boundaries” rather than national boundaries. She developed this with her second prediction: solutions will become more localised, but within the context of the global-level governance decisions. Thirdly, she expects new forms of public-private relationships, with TNCs moving towards the governance space, motivated by things other than profit, and the public sector becoming more efficient and effective. The final prediction was that “we are beginning to get over the disease of short-termism” when thinking about climate action. More than any of the others, we hope that this prediction comes true, as an effective and just response climate change requires an understanding of long-term effects, both on the climate system and on humanity’s relationships amongst ourselves and with the world around us.

Ms Figueres is certainly a charismatic speaker, and it was easy to tell that she is well used to speaking to the public. Her explanation of the five imperatives was clear, albeit rather glossy and slightly simplified for public consumption. It was certainly an inspiring lecture, although we wonder to what degree her optimism is genuinely based on expectation of a satisfactory outcome to the Paris COP in December rather than personal hope and the necessity of the UN’s political neutrality. After all, the IPCC has assessed current pledges and determined that at present they would only limit warming to 2.7°C, and the failure of Copenhagen, the last time the UNFCCC attempted to thrash out an all-encompassing agreement, is still fresh in the memory. Still, Ms Figueres’ optimism is admirable, and hopefully it will prove justified. Perhaps we all ought to take lesson from Peter Pan – “anything is possible if you wish hard enough.”

By Danny Waite (Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar) and Phil Coventry (PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science)

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