On September 28, 2021, I conducted an online interview with Christiana Figueres, a Founding Partner of Global Optimism and author of The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. In 2010, after the failed Copenhagen climate conference, Ms. Figueres was appointed Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and she directed these conferences for the next six years, culminating in the historical Paris conference in 2015. She brought together national and sub-national governments, corporations and activists, financial institutions and communities of faith, think tanks and technology providers, NGOs and parliamentarians, to jointly deliver an unprecedented climate agreement in which 195 sovereign nations agreed on a collaborative path forward to limit future global warming.
Ms. Figueres has spoken about the imperative to shift from despair to determination and from confrontation to collaboration, and thereby to change the course of climate work from impossible to unstoppable. In my interview, I asked her about the mindset she thinks was required for her to have been able to shepherd the achievement of the Paris Agreement. Her answer surprised me: rather than the purely serial, linear, expert-led, rational approach I had assumed had been involved, she said what had actually occurred had been more parallel, synergistic, stakeholder-led, and relational—and that only this latter approach could achieve the breakthroughs required to address our climate crisis. In this, she is outlining a radically unconventional orientation that is relevant for all of us involved, in our own spheres, in facilitating breakthrough. – Adam Kahane
Here is an edited transcript of her remarks.
How to Approach Complex Issues
Food, health, poverty, justice, gender: all of these issues are actually completely interconnected. They are part of the planetary, social, economic, and political system that we have built, and nature is our best teacher about this. You can’t take one process in nature, one ecosystem, one growth pattern, and say, “This is individually separable from the rest of the ecosystem.” That’s completely impossible. If we look at nature and how she operates, we understand that all of this is interconnected.
What that actually means is that it allows us to be able to approach this complexity of issues through whichever approach is best for the skills we have. If your approach is best for social justice, go at it that way, but know that by going in through social justice, you will be positively affecting soil, oceans, food, health, poverty, et cetera. For me, I chose climate as my approach to this complexity, and I know that climate affects everything else.
So the fact that everything is mutually reinforcing means that, because of these interconnections, we can actually aspire to and implement exponential progress as opposed to linear progress. We have run out of time if we look at things in a linear fashion. But we still have time if we understand that change and transformation can and must be exponential.
Options for Leadership
You cannot lead by title. Forget what’s written on your little card, on the door that you go through: it’s just so empty. This is not leadership by title or by institutional-given authority. That gets you actually nowhere. It is also not leadership to tell everyone what to do, because to begin with, in a complex system you often don’t know what to do yourself, so don’t even start telling others what to do. Those two options for leadership, let’s just take them completely off the table right from the start.
So what’s the other option? Hard to find words for something that was intuitive, but I think there were several guiding lights that enabled me to contribute as I did, and I wouldn’t even know how to put them into order of priority. I could start with being genuine, being authentic about what we’re facing and how we’re facing it. This was a very important pathway to connect with myself and to connect with other people, because then I am not talking head to head: then I’m talking heart to heart, and working from the heart, from my heart to your heart, and his and her heart.
This is a completely different quality of work that allows us all to put our lack of knowledge, our lack of experience, our lack of solution on the table, and humbly say, “We don’t know, but can we figure this out together?”
The Starting Point
That to me was absolutely the starting point, and then to have what we call in my Buddhist practice a “beginner’s mind.” Always ask the questions. Always know that you don’t know anything. If there’s one word that I frankly would love to delete from all lexicons and encyclopedias and Wikipedias is the word expert. Who on Earth is an expert on anything? That is such a fallacy, because things are changing all the time, and we’re learning things all the time, so yes, you can be knowledgeable in your field, and we all should be and have that responsibility, but expert? No, I don’t think so: beginner’s mind is much more important.
For the work on climate change, you also have to have a sense of justice, because ultimately, unaddressed climate change is the mother of all injustices. What the Global North has done is unjust to the Global South. My generation is unjust to future generations. Climate change is unjust to women and children. It is unjust with respect to socioeconomic standing in every country. And on and on and on. So you’ve got to be standing very firm on your sense of justice.
And that is not an academic understanding of justice. No, this has to be in your blood, and it is in mine, and several people have commented on how often I just burst into tears in front of cameras, and I still do, when climate injustice is raised because justice is my passion, and I see so much injustice. I stand very firm on that. People need to know, where do you stand? What gives you the energy, and the oomph to get up every morning and go at it again? And for me, it’s justice. It doesn’t have to be the same purpose for everyone, but we all have to know, what is the firm ground that we start on?
How to Support Progress
And what was helpful, so many times, was humor. Humor is such a lubricant for when you’re sitting there, with a Gordian knot, and nobody knows the way forward, and if you can find the humor in that situation, it actually loosens that knot. I never lost my passion, but I also never lost my humor.
The most difficult thing for me today, as it was then, is that every day I have to balance my impatience, because I know that we have to move much faster than we are, with my patience, because I know that social, political, and economic transformations take time. I just know that for a fact. In the work that I’m doing today, my greatest challenge is balancing patience and impatience? Because I’m 100% of both.
But you also have to know your stuff, right? I mean, we had 67 issues being negotiated at the same time, in five negotiating tracks, with 195 different positions on each of those 67 issues on five tracks, all at the same time. So you have to know your stuff: you have to know exactly what each issue means, exactly what every country position is on each of those issues, exactly how a change in one comma in one track changes a verb in the other track.
I wonder if the training that we have had in our education and in social interactions that leads to binary thinking is helpful in the 21st century. I wonder if we still want to hold on to what I think is a fallacy: that polarities are mutually exclusive. I actually think that given the complexities and the interconnections that we have in everything, we can recognize that there are polarities, but also that these are not mutually exclusive—that polarities are actually two realities that we often have to hold in equal standing, and then examine the space in between, because it is that space between polarities that provides the fruitful ground for coming together.
So I’m pushing back on binary thinking and polarities. I think we have to both support the progress being made and to encourage that momentum, and also hold people accountable, because both are true, and they’re not mutually exclusive.
They’re stronger combined with each other than isolated from each other. What I call the tapestry has to be woven with many, many different threads, of all different colours, because otherwise it’s a very boring tapestry. And so it has to be woven by many people, but if you are in a position of responsibility (which is different than authority) then your responsibility is actually to reflect the beauty of that tapestry to everyone who has contributed to it, because most people are still hanging on to their little thread: “Here’s my red thread, here’s the blue one, here’s the golden one.” So your responsibility is actually to say, “Right, you’ve all contributed to this, and here’s what the tapestry looks like, and you can see yourselves represented in that tapestry, but it is not only your red thread or your green thread. It is the threads of everyone.” That, to me, is the responsibility of someone who’s holding the space for a collaborative