Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Christiana Figueres: Quarterback, Cheerleader, Play-by-play Announcer

I began writing this blog to sort out for myself (and any readers who happened by) what I thought was a pretty arcane though mightily important business: the UN's FCCC process leading up to the Paris Climate conference (aka COP 21). Not that the Paris event itself lacked coverage, but the whole 25 year process from Rio to Kyoto, Dubai, Lima, and so on, with dozens of international bodies and jargon terms like the infamous INDCs... all this needed sorting out in my own mind, and possibly, I thought, in the minds of others.

Though the climate question has taken on a much bolder profile over these past 8 months--thank you, The Guardian, and many others--the process is still a little arcane, but much, much less so since the eminent science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert chose to outline it in the current issue of the New Yorker, while profiling the UN official, Christiana Figueres, who presides over the whole thing. Now, for anyone who is still wondering, the process of how we got from then to now is readily available, spelled out in useful detail in Kolbert's precise prose.

But the article still raises more questions than it answers, including The Big One: will this process succeed in averting the worst of the climate disaster? Much leads up to that question: the erratic progress of the 20 previous COPs including the failure at Copenhagen 6 years ago, and the dogged, indefatigable optimism Figueres brings to her role as interpreter, champion, and nudge. It becomes her task to send out cheery announcements as countries submit their individual proposals (INDCs), loaded as they may be with prevarication, inertia, and outright obfuscation. Her mantra:"I've never met a single human being who's motivated by bad news."

But bad news there is: many of the participating parties have chosen to dress up the status quo and submit it. Irregularities of measurement, loopholes for allowances, and a general tendency of governments to protect parochial interests have caused many observers to conclude that this round of agreements--even if the conference reaches them--will be far from adequate to keep within the somewhat artificial bound of 2 degrees C temperature rise, beyond which lie unknown but frightening perils. And no one can say how the wealthy nations will reach the $100 billion annual contribution that they promised to help poorer countries adapt and mitigate. Without some resolution of that question, the conference could end as badly as Copenhagen.

The one faint hope Kolbert cites is a general move toward a "progression clause," an agreement to meet regularly after this year--maybe every 5 years--to review progress and press for stricter greenhouse gas controls. Though this year's agreement will certainly not be good enough, an ongoing process to improve it might give us a fighting chance.

Still I have to think that Kolbert, whose warnings on the climate question went unheeded for many years, has slipped out of her mask of sympathetic neutrality at the end of what is otherwise an admiring, at times effusive profile. She reproduces a 'graph' Figueres sketches, with two lines: one a straight, rising diagonal, showing the unbroken growth of the world economy. Midway sits a dot--the present--and from that point an ellipse bloops downward toward '0': that's the arc of diminishing greenhouse gas emissions. In its childish simplicity the graph sits on the page like a stinging rebuke to all simplistic, childlike optimists. And indeed, through her tears, Figueres backs it up with a ringing injunction against failure: "We just can't let that happen."

Maybe the against-all-odds positivism of Christiana Figueres is necessary to her as she performs her formidable task of keeping up COP 21's momentum. Maybe hers is the only attitude we can take to this conference and stay sane. I frankly admire her devotion, her preternatural energy, her faith. But the numbers don't lie--they have to change, the wishful curve has to get real. Someone--not Christiana Figureres, but someone--needs to say so to the Paris delegates.

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