“I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,”
August 19, 2015 5:52 AM   Subscribe

The Weight of the World: Can Christiana Figueres persuade humanity to save itself? by Elizabeth Kolbert [New Yorker]
Of all the jobs in the world, Figueres’s may possess the very highest ratio of responsibility (preventing global collapse) to authority (practically none). The role entails convincing a hundred and ninety-five countries—many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy—that giving up such fuels is a good idea. When Figueres took over the Secretariat, in 2010, there were lots of people who thought the job so thankless that it ought to be abolished. This was in the aftermath of the fifteenth COP, held in Copenhagen, which had been expected to yield a historic agreement but ended in anger and recrimination.
posted by Fizz (33 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Figueres is five feet tall, with short brown hair and strikingly different-colored eyes—one blue and one hazel. In contrast to most diplomats, who cultivate an air of professional reserve, Figueres is emotive to the point of disarming—“a mini-volcano” is how one of her aides described her to me. She laughs frequently—a hearty, ha-ha-ha chortle—and weeps almost as often. “I walk around with Kleenex,” another aide told me.

Elizabeth Kolbert, please tell me you'd have written that had Figueres had been a man.
posted by Foosnark at 6:02 AM on August 19, 2015 [12 favorites]


Had the aides of Figueres' predecessor, Yvo de Boer, told the journalist that they were walking around with kleenex for him, I imagine that would have made it into the article as well, yes.

It would certainly have come in handy at times. (If you understand Dutch, don't read the description of that video.)
posted by brokkr at 6:25 AM on August 19, 2015


A typical New Yorker profile of a powerful man actually goes even more into depth than that. In addition to versions of all these details, it will, unlike the Figueres profile, explicitly comment upon whether the man is handsome or ugly, looks older or younger than his years, and the extent to which his speech or manner typifies or departs from the circumstances of his parentage and upbringing.
posted by MattD at 6:28 AM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Good to see we're focused on the author's and publisher's potential sexism, and not unimportant things like whether our planet will be doomed by humanities inability to commit to reducing fossil fuel consumption.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:35 AM on August 19, 2015 [32 favorites]


"I asked what would happen if the emissions line did not, in fact, start to head down soon. Tears welled up in her eyes and, for a moment, she couldn’t speak."

Emotive seems to be a remarkable feature of this person's character and not so much of an editorial slant, but you see what you want to see.

"Humanity saving itself"

*ha-ha-ha-chortle*

It seems way too self-righteous to portray this as people refusing to act in their own self interest when it's people acting in their own self interest which is in fact the problem. Expecting a large part of humanity to make significant and painful sacrifices today to lessen the sacrifices some people might have to make in the future?

If I was betting on that I'd be crying too.
posted by three blind mice at 6:40 AM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


No motivation from bad news? There's a hungry bear behind you!
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:47 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Now try running from the bear for 20 years.
posted by brokkr at 6:51 AM on August 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Now try running from the bear for 20 years.

Now try running when you're surrounded by bears and there's a bear falling on you.

Motivation like that works -- and works *really well* -- when there's hope of escape. But when there isn't, what happens is the person in the middle just gives up, because when there's no chance in hell of getting away, spending the effort is just a waste of time.

And there is, of course, the time where acting in your own self interest actually is bad over the long run. Yes, you threw your enemy to the bears and escaped. Yay! But now the bears ate him, and found they really like eating people, and now they're eating lots of people. You turned the bears into a greater threat to humanity.

That's sort of like climate change, really. You had a better life. All of humanity is paying. But we're all throwing our enemies to the bears.
posted by eriko at 6:59 AM on August 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


'Bad Zoo Bears'
By James Paterson.

Bear analogy not good, cougar work better.
posted by clavdivs at 7:02 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Good to see we're focused on the author's and publisher's potential sexism, and not unimportant things like whether our planet will be doomed by humanities inability to commit to reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Is a world that contains institutionalized sexism worth saving?
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:06 AM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


The concern may be that diminishing Figueres might reduce the effectiveness of her vital work. Rather than firing her and replacing her with a man, it might be argued that we would prefer her to be covered differently, so as not to set climate action back even further.
posted by Mogur at 7:11 AM on August 19, 2015


There's a hungry bear behind you!

I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.
posted by Bringer Tom at 7:11 AM on August 19, 2015


I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.

I see someone has been reading their Ayn Rand.
posted by Fizz at 7:12 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I mean, say what you will about YE Wenjie, but sometimes I kinda agree with her.

Instead of holding up one half of the sky without so much as a thank you, she decided to cast it down, with the hope that what she'd wrought would change humanity for the better.

Because neither she nor I are convinced we'll do it ourselves.
posted by qcubed at 7:12 AM on August 19, 2015


But the embedded message, 'We're all murderers. Our children will have vastly poorer and more challenging lives.' is so unpleasant, and so orthogonal to the dominant paradigm ('Our lives will be better and better forever') that you can expect to sound basically like an Adult in a Peanuts comic strip to most people.

The rather sad narrative about the failure of they Kyoto Protocol and the ongoing mess around the DAI is... business as usual? Bureaucrat's gotta bureaucrat.
posted by mrdaneri at 7:13 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


No motivation from bad news? There's a hungry bear behind you!

'The bear is going to catch up to us no matter what you do and actually it already bit off your foot, you just haven't noticed it yet. Also, your unborn children are going to have fifteen bears chasing after them. I myself will be dead by the time the bear catches up to us but it is important that I tell you how much the bear is gaining on you so that you can run really fast before being eaten alive. I feel responsible for attracting the bear in the first place so I think it's important that you have a good idea of what is coming so you can be sufficiently paralyzed with dread.' /recurring conversation I have with my dad translated into bear analogy/

/The conversation I wish I could have with my dad translated into bear/ 'The bear is gaining on us but look at this nifty bear barrier that your cousin put in the way. It will slow the bear down. You should support your other cousins in their bear barrier building. Maybe if we build enough bear barriers and we all run really fast, the bear will just bite off your arm instead of eating you and your children alive.'
posted by geegollygosh at 7:14 AM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


An interesting figure and not a person I knew anything about beyond being vaguely familiar with the name from following the dismal news of the efforts to rouse any sort of proportional global response to our anthropogenic mass extinction project by our toothless international agencies.

I envy people like this with the knack for getting back to optimism, 'cause I sure ain't got it any more. I feel like this article skips the usual dual elephants in the room: "find on page: population: 0/0 results. Find on page: capitalism: 0/0 results.". Invoking the Montreal Protocol is very apt, because it is still the model we are listlessly pursuing, and it is so evidently and egregiously inadequate to our current reality - like, bringing a switchblade to a tank war scale inadequate.

Nothing could stop this except global, universal buy-in, serious pain carbon caps with teeth, which business as usual capitalism will never permit (if it were even feasible under the most optimistic assumptions of everyone suddenly waking up to the true necessity of enlightened self interest). As just the most basic starting point, still leaving massive possibly intractable problems to solve.

Under capitalism, with population still expanding (and most sharply in the poorest places on earth) fossil fuel dependence is not going to stop until alternative energy renders burning fossil fuels economically infeasible. I don't actually think that's àn impossible state - but we'll never get there in time under current policy. Honestly I can't believe in getting there period any more. The wholehearted embracing of fracking killed my lingering optimism.
posted by nanojath at 7:18 AM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Interesting subject, badly written article.
posted by dazed_one at 7:24 AM on August 19, 2015


Has Elizabeth Kolbert ever spoken about how her (excellent) reporting on the climate change crisis makes her feel? Because whenever I read her work, I feel existential despair and I'm reminded again how glad I am that I don't have children (not to say that I don't worry about my nieces and nephew and all the other people out there, but I know my concern is not equivalent to a parent's).
posted by longdaysjourney at 7:27 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Figueres works out of a spacious office in Bonn, in a building that used to belong to the German parliament. On the wall by her desk there’s a framed motto that reads, “Impossible is not a fact, it is an attitude.” On another wall there’s a poster showing the Statue of Liberty waist-high in water, and on a third a black-and-white photograph of Figueres’s father, José, who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. He served as President of the country three times, pushed through sweeping political and social reforms, and abolished Costa Rica’s army as a stay against dictatorship. Figueres grew up partly in the President’s House and partly on her father’s farm, which he called La Lucha sin Fin—“the struggle without end.”

Oh, it gets better.

“I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’ ” Figueres told me. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

How positive? She's really positive!

Then she brightened: “You know, I think that this whole climate thing is a very interesting learning ground for humanity. I’m an anthropologist, so I look at the history of mankind. And where we are now is that we see that nations are interlinked, inextricably, and that what one does has an impact on the others. And I think this agreement in Paris is going to be the first time that nations come together in that realization. It’s not going to be the last, because as we proceed into the twenty-first century there are going to be more and more challenges that need that planetary awareness. But this is the first, and it’s actually very exciting. So I look at all of this and I go, This is so cool—to be alive right now!”
posted by notyou at 7:32 AM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Under capitalism, with population still expanding (and most sharply in the poorest places on earth) fossil fuel dependence is not going to stop until alternative energy renders burning fossil fuels economically infeasible.

This is noted in the article, and is a key part of Figueres' strategy:

“Where capital goes over the next fifteen years is going to decide whether we’re actually able to address climate change and what kind of a century we are going to have,” she said. She urged all those present to take this into account when making their own investment decisions, and to do so publicly: “What we truly need is to create a ‘surround sound’ where, no matter what sector you turn to, there is a signal saying, ‘Folks, we are moving toward a low-carbon economy. It is irreversible; it is unstoppable. So get on the bandwagon.’ ”

[....]

In some parts of Europe, what has been called “conscious uncoupling” is already well along. Sweden, one of the few countries that tax carbon, has reduced its emissions by about twenty-three per cent in the past twenty-five years. During that same period, its economy has grown by more than fifty-five per cent. Last year, perhaps for the first time since the invention of the steam engine, global emissions remained flat even as the global economy grew, by about three per cent.

Figueres maintains that global uncoupling is not only possible but obligatory. “We frankly don’t have an option,” she told me. “Because there are two things that are absolutely key to being able to feed, house, and educate the two billion more family members who will be joining us. You have to continue to grow. And, particularly, developing countries need to continue to grow. But the other sine-qua-non condition is that you can’t continue to grow greenhouse gases, because that kills the possibility of growth. So, since you have those two constant constraints—you have to grow G.D.P., but you cannot grow G.H.G.s—what option do you have?”

posted by notyou at 7:37 AM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


So, since you have those two constant constraints—you have to grow G.D.P., but you cannot grow G.H.G.s—what option do you have?”

Option 1) Die
posted by I-Write-Essays at 7:56 AM on August 19, 2015


3) Sweden, one of the few countries that tax carbon, has reduced its emissions by about twenty-three per cent in the past twenty-five years.
posted by sneebler at 8:01 AM on August 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Meanwhile, in Canadian Election Land, a prominent NDP candidate suggests that maybe some of the tar sands will have to stay in the ground and even the leader of her own party won't have her back.

It's like we are all a bunch of junkies who just robbed a dealer, and one of the group is like, "Whoa, hold on, maybe we shouldn't shoot all this at once. I think it's too much." And everyone else is like "Fuck you, I wanna push off. More is always better."
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:27 AM on August 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


I can not imagine how she remains optimistic, when we are so very clearly doomed. Scientists now talk of climate change being something to which we can not adapt. There is no technology suited to fixing the damage we have caused. And we are many years past the time we should have acted.

I really wish I knew what to do with myself, to best survive this.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:30 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Meanwhile, in Canadian Election Land, a prominent NDP candidate suggests that maybe some of the tar sands will have to stay in the ground and even the leader of her own party won't have her back.

Yeah, and all that at a time when the tar sands are in the shitter as an investment, anyway.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:37 AM on August 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


five fresh fish I'm lucky enough to live in a major metro area, but certainly joining a talk therapy group has been helpful for me, personally. I imagine that they will become more numerous as things progress.

I'm more afraid of what happens whenever any society hits declining standards of living. Which is typically an explosive series of wars, the rise of violent and xenophobic ideologies, and widespread religious fervor.
posted by mrdaneri at 8:40 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


many of which rely on selling fossil fuels for their national income and almost all of which depend on burning them for the bulk of their energy

One particular insanity that needs to stop immediately is flaring: the burning off of natural gas "by-product" at oil production sites. In Nigeria millions of people struggle to gather fuelwood for cooking, while the foreign oil companies that own the drilling rights burn more BTUs there in a week than all those people can gather in a year. It's one of those perversities of our energy economy that simply beggars speech; your jaw just works like a fish while you try to find temperate language to express how stupid it is.

Meanwhile Iran is the largest gas-flaring country in the world; in part -- I have heard it argued -- because sanctions impede their ability to capture, transport and export it. Currently they burn off the equivalent of one-quarter of South Korea's consumption, and more enough to render their largest proposed nuclear power plant superfluous.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:46 AM on August 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


3) Sweden, one of the few countries that tax carbon, has reduced its emissions by about twenty-three per cent in the past twenty-five years.

Yeah, but Sweden's communist or whatever, if the rhetoric here in the US is to be believed. Can you imagine an entire country willing to conserve, live with relatively high taxes, and give more or less free healthcare to its citizenry? Insanity! It'd never work!

Currently they burn off the equivalent of one-quarter of South Korea's consumption, and more enough to render their largest proposed nuclear power plant superfluous.

Yeah, the gas flares make no sense to me. This is very usable fossil fuel, and it's just wasted. Nobody's going to be able to use it, nobody's going to convert it to usable energy, and decades from now when we're hurting for it...
posted by qcubed at 8:49 AM on August 19, 2015


Yes, can you imagine what would happen if the US were to reduce their per capita emissions by 75%? It would like Switzerland or Sweden, but well-known failed states where impoverished citizens eke out meagre existences under the shadow of totalitarian governments. The horror of a Swiss lifestyle is simply unimaginable. Maybe borders should be opened to refugees.

It seems like they picked the right person for Figueres' job. You need someone relentlessly positive, because any normal person would probably get really depressed or flip out and lose their cool with these idiots. So that's good, but I don't think it matters. The international process as it stands now is pretty clearly not going to yield results. Does anybody expect anyone but the Europeans to make any real, credible promises to significantly reduce emissions in the next round?

At least here in Canada, it's more a convenient excuse to avoid any action than a real consideration.
posted by ssg at 9:21 AM on August 19, 2015


Here is another profile of Christiana Figueres, and the global warming fight - which she characterizes as both her passion and purpose in life.
posted by latertater at 10:14 AM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Her father did amazing things for Costa Rica, I can definitely see where that would be an inspiration to draw upon.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:37 AM on August 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I worked with members of the Secretariat when the Kyoto protocol was being implemented and their optimism is indeed breathtaking. I expected to think of them as poor deluded fools yet all my cynical, annoying bastardry could not dampen their enthusiasm. Even my plans at goading them into admitting it was pointless by indicating the huge United States* shaped hole in the plan failed and they replied it's still better than if we did not attempt it.

They think about the things which I do not want to think about and they refuse to yield to despair.

I'm still worried they are deluded but if anyone can do it then it is those particular fools.

*China wasn't even a mainstream concern at the time which shows how long ago it was and just makes me feel old.
posted by fullerine at 1:43 PM on August 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


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