Conversation with Christiana Figueres, Refugees International McCall-Pierpaoli Awardee 2020

Refugees International’s annual Awards Dinner has traditionally celebrated individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership and commitment to humanitarian action. This year, due to COVID-19, we’ve transformed the event into a virtual presentation to honor leaders who have significantly contributed to combatting climate change and displacement.

We are proud to present Christiana Figueres with our 2020 McCall-Pierpaoli award for her global leadership in combatting climate change. The McCall-Pierpaoli award is Refugees International’s highest humanitarian award. Watch the acceptance remarks of Christiana Figueres and her conversation with Refugees International President Eric Schwartz.

Eric Schwartz: Christiana, it is a real honor for us to present you with our 2020 McCall-Pierpaoli Award for your global leadership in combating climate change. We at Refugees International continue to be inspired by your courageous leadership, your tireless advocacy, and your deep commitment to climate justice.

Christiana Figueres: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate this and I am fully aware of the efforts that are going on to continue with life during this shutdown. So thank you very much for this. However, I must say that the crisis that we’re in means that this is no moment to be resting on any laurels of the past. The fact is that we may be standing before the worst humanitarian crisis we have ever faced as a humanity in terms of lives lost in terms of health conditions and in terms of livelihoods and economic safety.

We are being ravaged by COVID-19, particularly in the Global South. What we’re experiencing is part of a scenario that many climate scientists had foreseen for a few decades, if we were not able to address climate change in a timely fashion. However, COVID-19 has actually painfully fast forwarded the misery and the injustice of climate change. How we treat the most vulnerable today will mark who we are as human beings. Our adherence to the values and the principles of justice and solidarity are really on the line right now. How will we emerge from this crisis? We’ll define what awaits those who come after us.

We cannot be too late on the next crisis. We were too late in properly assessing the risks of COVID-19 allowing it to paralyze the economy and to amount to untold deaths and injustice. As we expeditiously deal with this emergency, we have to do so in a way that decreases the risk of the next emergency, which is climate change, one or two orders of magnitude worse than what we’re seeing right now. Let us learn very quickly from this lesson, let us be guided by the highest values and principles, because if we do not do that, if we do not act with responsibility, we will no doubt be committing a crime against humanity. 

Eric Schwartz: Thank you for that. The point that you made, I think in large measure is that this represents a failure, the COVID response, a failure in preparation, and we can’t replicate that failure in so many areas including the area of climate change. Perhaps through our inadequate efforts to address mitigation and adaptation we’ve missed opportunities at building resilience that created greater vulnerabilities with respect to displaced communities impacted by COVID-19.

Christiana Figueres: Yes, this is absolutely true. Not only did we underestimate the risks of the disease itself, chronically underestimate that, but on top of that we actually are unprepared. We are literally unprepared for this kind of a health crisis by allowing the health impacts and the humanitarian impacts of climate change to continue to deepen the inequality around the world. Had we done a much better job at both reducing emissions and increasing adaptation measures, we would have had a much more resilient society, a much more resilient economy that could have held this crisis in a much better way. But basically it took us lying on the ground, lying on the ground because we have done exceedingly little about increasing the social and the economic to say nothing about the health and resilience in particular of the most vulnerable.

Eric Schwartz: It’s very hard to ask any question and not go right to the global pandemic and so that’s why it’s actually very comforting to me to hear how extensively that pandemic is part of your thinking and part of what you’re saying. So now if I may, I’m going to ask a couple of questions that are more focused on the climate change issues and displacement issues with a keen awareness that the current pandemic impacts everything. But, if I may, as the executive secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, you just played such a critical role in bringing together governments, international financial institutions, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector to deliver an unprecedented agreement to limit global warming, the Paris Agreement. And I want to ask you a question which is relevant to the current circumstances, which is, how did you do it? What tools do you bring to bear that ought to be being brought to bear today?

Christiana Figueres: Well, it’s a very important question and of course I’ve been thinking about that. And what strikes me is that the fundamental logic of the Paris Agreement was I would say a two tier logic where the bottom tier was the self-enlightened interest of every single economy who was asked very pointedly by me and by others, “What kind of a reality do you want to see in your own country, 10, 20, 30 years down the line? What is your development vision? And in the context of that development and growth vision, then how do you want to contribute to the global need?” So at tier number one, there was a motivation that emanates from the national circumstances, from national analysis, from the national conditions of the economy of the natural resources and social conditions.

And that was fundamental because if a country is not self-motivated, even if it’s enlightened motivation, but self-motivation is always much more powerful than altruism, sadly, but that’s the way that we function. So it was very important to get every country to identify where their self-interest actually had a nexus with the global need. And that was the sweet spot that we then collected and harvested, if you will, into a global agreement. So, that was the second tier.

The first tier is national self-interest. But the second tier is how do you then harvest all of that into a global agreement that points toward the global need, the common good, the horizon that we all know that we need but that nobody feels individually responsible for. So I’ve been thinking how does that apply now to where we are in this crisis? And the application is rather interesting because we do see that the first reaction that has been recommended by scientists and by health professionals is actually to close borders, to shut the doors of your home, to isolate, to have this mentality of hunkering down, whether that is by family, by community, by country.

And that has been recommended and has been proven to be effective. So let that be the parallel to national or local self-interest, right? Our national interest right now, our family’s self-interest is to hunker down and to deal with this just within the boundaries of ourselves. All very well. However, there has to be a second tier to this. And the second tier is, where is the international corporation to develop the vaccines, to bring down the cost of vaccines, to ensure access of those vaccines to every human being, not just to the Global North. What about the testing that we have to do? What about all of the other measures that we know need to exist? That cannot be a country-by-country effort, because we know that there are growing inequalities, there were inequalities before COVID, but there are even more inequalities now.

So in a way there is a repetition here in a strange way. There is a repetition of the paradigm that you need both a national enlightened self-interest which most countries are already pursuing, but that you also need a tier two. What is the global need? What is the global commons here that we all share which is health and the understanding that as long as one person is vulnerable, we’re all vulnerable. That is true for COVID and it’s true for climate change and hence we need the two tier approach.


Eric Schwartz: The Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International is over a decade old. Obviously we are strong supporters institutionally of significant mitigation efforts and the Paris accord, but I should say that our stock and trade, really the work that we do day in, day out, is much more focused on climate change as a driver of displacement, of people on the move and disasters that are exacerbated by climate change and the humanitarian suffering that results. Our view is that whatever progress there is on mitigation, displacement will continue. Hopefully if there’s significant progress at much, much lower rates and certainly at lower rates with respect to climate induced disasters, but in light of the fact that this is really the sum and substance of our work, I’d be interested in your perspectives on what more must be done by governments of the world to address, I guess what you could say are two sides of the same coin, disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation.

Christiana Figueres: Well, you’re absolutely right that even if we were to miraculously bring down emissions down to zero right now, the long life effect of the emissions that we already have in the atmosphere would cause such natural disasters that we would continue to have odd displacement and that is in and of itself a tragedy. If you understand that these two things are cause and effect, that the emission concentration in the atmosphere is causing the changes in nature that make it impossible for people to derive their livelihoods from their home, and that therefore they have to displace themselves and they have to migrate either within their own countries or across boundaries in order to eke out a living. That’s the effect, the cause and effect. And that’s why climate change is a humanitarian issue ultimately because of the very, very close nexus between cause and effect.

“Unfortunately because we’ve taken so long to get climate under control, we’re now forced into basically changing the tires of the airplane as we fly it.”

Christiana Figueres

Now, I also agree with you that we actually have to deal with both at the same time, because while you and your team and so many other very, very important organizations are dealing with displacement, with forced migration, with all of the humanitarian issues that come with this, and that has to be done because there are millions of people already in that situation today, yesterday, not just tomorrow. However, the cause also has to be dealt with because otherwise it will be impossible to manage the social, economic, and political pressures of forced displacement. Unfortunately because we’ve taken so long to get climate under control, we’re now forced into basically changing the tires of the airplane as we fly it. Right? We have to both deal with the cause and with the effect because if we don’t deal with the cause, the scale of the effect will be completely unmanageable.

Not that it is so manageable now, but add an order of magnitude and what are we going to do? We have boxed ourselves into a very, very difficult situation here. But the conclusion, the sad conclusion is that we have to do both. We have to do both. And that is why it is so important to have agencies and organizations that are certainly listening to each other and working with each other, but that are focusing on both of those in parallel, in consonance but in parallel because we cannot divert the full attention of the world to either the cause or to the effect. We need actually to draw the attention of the world to both if we want to keep this within manageable conditions. And even that is already a huge stretch today.


Eric Schwartz: You have recently written a book, “The Future We Choose,” which one review described as, and I quote, “A practically minded manifesto for personal action.” Is that a fair description and what would you want readers to take away from the book?

Christiana Figueres: Well, far be it from me to comment on reviewers, every book stands on its own and everyone will derive what they wish from any book. But what I can tell you is what we intended to do. We intended to do two things. First, we intended to paint a very visceral picture or rather a visceral experience of two worlds that are standing right now side by side. Both entirely possible, a world of constant misery and destruction and much more forced displacement and migration, if we don’t do our job in climate change and contrast that to a much better world that we can create, entirely possible, but that requires intent and political will. We wanted to paint those two realities, quite viscerally for the reader because we find that the positive world, the better world that we can create doesn’t really get much attention.

“In the COVID world we have realized that actually we need both government guidance as well as individual behavior changes. … Same thing goes for climate.”

Christiana Figueres

There’s much less information about it and much less analysis. And interestingly enough, when we were writing those two, the better world was the more difficult to research and to write because there’s less about it. But we do want to infuse people with the idea that we’re not condemned to a future of misery. We actually have a choice here and it’s a choice that we’re making right now. So that was the first, and the second purpose of the book is to dispel this myth that there’s nothing that individuals can do, that climate change is so complex and so varied that there’s nothing that the individual can do, that this is all up to governments. Well, in the COVID world we have realized that actually we need both government guidance as well as individual behavior changes. If you and I weren’t sitting at home behind our four walls and everybody else who’s reading this, those are behavior changes.

And if we hadn’t done that, we would be in a much more drastic situation. So let it be clear. Behavioral changes and individual engagement and solutions are definitely necessary. And they always contribute to the solution and that is what we wanted to do in the book to say, don’t think that just because you were one human being that you have no impact on this. Actually the collection of human beings just like half the world is now in lockdown, and we are standing a chance to control this. Same thing goes for climate. Everyone needs to contribute at the individual basis.


Eric Schwartz: Your organization is called Global Optimism. What keeps you and what should keep us all hopeful and what advice do you have for future generations of climate leaders?

Christiana Figueres: We define optimism in a very specific way. We don’t think that optimism is denial of the facts, it’s not naivety, it’s not sticking your head in the sand. Optimism has to be very well-informed, really understanding the facts, the drivers of the challenges that we’re facing. So number one, inform yourself and educate yourself about the challenge that you’re dealing with. But do not let all of the bad news on whatever the particular challenges that you’re dealing with, whether it’s climate or COVID or anything else, don’t let that put you into a hole of helplessness. The information and the education that you derive on any challenge is actually what you can choose to make that information and that knowledge tools with which you then go out there and act as a powerful agent to bring about change.

“Inform yourself, learn what’s going on, and decide that you are a powerful agent and that you can make a positive difference.”

Christiana Figueres

And that’s where the optimism comes from. From the realization that we’re not powerless, that we actually can individually and collectively influence what happens here in our world and what decisions are taken. And we certainly have full control about how we behave, how we think and how we feel, and we have full responsibility for that. And the collective way of thinking actually ends up in policy decisions down the line. Inform yourself, learn what’s going on, and decide that you are a powerful agent and that you can make a positive difference.


Eric Schwartz: Well, Christiana, we were very disappointed that we didn’t have the chance to meet with you in Washington to hand you the award, but I will be honest and say that our disappointment has been tempered by the opportunity to hear your passion, your thoughtfulness, and your commitment to issues that are so very important to the future of the planet. So our heartfelt thanks.

Christiana Figueres: Thank you. Thank you very much.