Christiana Figueres reflects on the emotionally charged climate debate that riveted TED

Tough questions.
Tough questions.
Image: Ryan Lash / TED
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In 2019, the organizers of the TED conference series announced their intent to make the group a global convener for the many disparate factions working to contain climate change. The role, as the most recent TED conference demonstrated, involves staging difficult encounters.

For 55 minutes, a discussion—no, a confrontation—between the CEO of a big oil company, an activist investor, and a youth activist riveted the audience at the ideas conference held in Edinburgh this week.

TED knew that Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden’s appearance would be controversial. The Dutch corporation, along with along its partner Siccar Point Energy, has recently come under fire for pushing to build the Cambo oilfield, a new offshore drilling facility, some 75 miles west of the Shetland Islands.

On the morning of the Oct. 14 panel, activists were handing out flyers by the doors. Security tightened around the Edinburgh International Conference Centre; bags were banned at the auditorium, and guards asked attendees to lower face masks to verify their identities. Several invited protestors occupied the front rows, usually populated by TED’s loyal coterie of Silicon Valley elite.

Van Beurden spoke first; Engine No. 1 co-founder Chris James, whose hedge fund recently won board seats at ExxonMobil, followed. Next was Scottish environmental activist Lauren MacDonald, whose bottled up rage was palpable from the back of the room. When it was her turn to speak, MacDonald castigated Van Beurden directly.

“Mr. Van Beurden, I think you should absolutely be ashamed of yourself for the devastation that you have caused to communities all over the world,” MacDonald began, trembling. “Already you are responsible for so much death and suffering.”

“We will never forget what you have done and what Shell has done. I hope you know that as the climate crisis becomes more and more deadly, you will be to blame. I will not be sharing this podium with you anymore,” said MacDonald. She stood up from her seat and began removing her microphone headset. Ignoring the moderator’s plea to stay, she stormed off the stage and out of the auditorium, along with fellow activists who were chanting “Don’t just watch us, join us. Don’t just watch us, join us.” Several attendees walked out with them.

By many accounts, what transpired that morning was the most bizarre, uncomfortable, and consequential conversation they’ve ever witnessed at TED.

Host Christiana Figueres, Ben van Beurden, Chris James, and Lauren MacDonald speak at Session 4 at TED Countdown Summit on October 14, 2021. TED Countdown Summit. October 12-15, 2021, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
Activist Lauren MacDonald addresses Shell CEO Van Beurden.
Image: Ryan Lash / TED

In the thick of the melee was moderator Christiana Figueres, the formidable 65-year-old Costa Rican diplomat, widely celebrated as the hero of the COP25 Paris Agreement. Steering the TED panel was a tall job, even for someone who got 195 nations to agree on climate goals in 2015. Figueres spoke with Quartz the day after the panel and reflected on what happened.

Quartz: How is friction and that kind of debate useful at this juncture of the climate change movement?

Figueres: There are many theories of change; many ways of engaging. For people who are truly and deeply engaged—no matter how—there’s not only a space for them, but there’s a need for them. You call it friction. I think that’s a very, very good term. I think that it’s a very constructive type of friction.

It will take all us coming together and pushing each other to find the solution. Nature is the best teacher of this idea. Look at an ecosystem: It has bushes and has palm trees; it has all kinds of different animals, some that crawl, some that are underneath the soil, some that fly. That’s the diversity that we need.

To insist on one particular approach is almost like one bird saying, “Well, I’m the superior bird and no other species matter.” It just it doesn’t make any sense. This is no longer a walk in the park, we are now in very turbulent waters.

The only intolerance I have, frankly, is for indifference and apathy. But I embrace everything else.

From the Paris agreement to this TED panel, you’ve found a way to wrangle opposing interests. What’s your approach for steering difficult conversations?

I think about it as holding a safe space for many different views, feelings, and levels of intensity.  If I could do it physically, I would just embrace that messiness—all of that is rich soil.

There was a moment in that room [at TED] where everyone touched their vulnerability. For me vulnerability is the space of possibility and strength. Yesterday was about holding that space and inviting everyone to consciously touch that place, and be able to move forward with renewed strength and with renewed sensitivity.

When a conversation escalates as it did, what can a moderator do?

It’s about moving the energy—holding it where it was, deepening it, and then allowing everyone to move on. If you  deny it, then you don’t harvest the richness of that moment. That was a hugely teachable moment for everyone. And it has to go from the head to the heart.

Where do we connect? What do all of us have in common? Pain. To acknowledge that is incredibly powerful. That place of vulnerability is where our strength comes from and the possibility of doing something different arises.

Host Christiana Figueres speaks at Session 4 at TED Countdown Summit on October 14, 2021. TED Countdown Summit. October 12-15, 2021, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED
In control.
Image: Ryan Lash / TED

You’ve spoken about a recurring nightmare that involves the eyes of seven children staring at you. How did you sleep after that panel?

It’s such a kaleidoscope of feelings and thoughts right now. There is definitely a lot of pain that comes with understanding the science and how much irreparable damage we’ve already caused and how much more damage we could cause.

Yes, there’s a lot of grief that comes with that, especially if you are a mother; especially if you’re aware that we are the ancestors of everyone else coming after us. This is not a legacy that we would want to leave for our descendants. We have the responsibility of turning over a planet that’s not going to hell in a hand-basket.

For me, those two feelings go hand in hand. It’s both the pain plus the responsibility. These two things together give us the power to really do what we need to do.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.