What Climate Change and COVID-19 Have in Common, According to Environmentalist Christiana Figueres
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“I do not accept that the world is going to hell,” says Christiana Figueres, co-founder of Global Optimism, an organization dedicated to social and environmental change. “Not under our watch.” This tenacious attitude served the Costa Rican diplomat well in her previous post as the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, she was responsible for overseeing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which united 195 countries in a global fight to lower emissions and stabilize the planet. A lot of work remains to be done, but there is still time, as Figueres points out in The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, which she wrote with Global Optimism co-founder Tom Rivett-Carnac. “This decade will determine the rest of human life on this planet,” she says. “This is our last chance, and it’s actually a fantastic opportunity to choose a much better future for this generation.”
United Front: Persuading nearly 200 nations to tackle climate change was a gargantuan feat, which Figueres says required intense open communication and collaboration. And even though the Trump administration announced in June 2017 that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris accord, the eco-advocate has soldiered on, emboldened by states like California and New York that rejected the federal decree as well as by other efforts being made across the globe. “Five years before that agreement, nobody, including me, had a blessed idea of how it was going to work,” Figueres says. “We tend to think that individuals make a difference, and they do. But it is only by listening and by gathering collective wisdom that we can actually make a difference.”
The Next Gen: Figueres says that she is most proud of raising her two daughters, Naima and Yihana (pictured above), to know their worth and stand up against injustices. “I remember while I was putting my youngest to bed one night, she said, ‘Mom, do you think Dad is really sad?’ I asked, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because he’s a man, and the world belongs to women.’ She was 5!” Her girls, now in their 30s, are climate advocates in their own right. “I am so thrilled about the 21st century because it’s going to be very different thanks to — to use your term — badass women who are unafraid to take on the world,” she says. “This is the century for us to step forward. We need women who don’t put up with bullshit.”
Taking Charge: To start fighting climate change, Figueres suggests first figuring out your own carbon footprint with a carbon calculator from any trusted organization’s website. “[Reacting to climate change] doesn’t mean going back into the caves. It doesn’t mean going naked. It means changing the way we do things,” she says, adding that she is encouraged by eco-conscious leaders in the fashion industry like Stella McCartney and Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri. Figueres had met with Bizzarri to discuss calculations of his company’s carbon footprint as part of his ongoing promise to make Gucci’s operations and its supply chain entirely carbon-neutral.
Lessons Learned: In the wake of the coronavirus, Figueres says, community is more crucial than ever. “It’s always better to prevent rather than to have to cure. That is true of the virus and of climate change,” she says. “It is much better to reduce our emissions and prevent the worst impact than to try to run behind it and figure out how to survive.” While protective measures to combat the pandemic, like sheltering in place, have resulted in lower emissions, Figueres does not want it to be an either-or proposition. “We can’t look at clear rivers with big smiles on our faces because they have come at a huge human cost,” she says. “But one thing I hope will stick with us is this newfound sense of solidarity with one another.”
For more stories like this, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 22.