In 2009, 195 governments convened in Copenhagen under the banner of the United Nations to establish a climate-change agreement. They failed miserably, primarily because of the deeply entrenched divide between the northern and southern hemispheres. Six months later, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres was called to assume the responsibility of the failed global climate-change negotiations. At her first press conference, a journalist asked whether she thought a global agreement would ever to be possible. “Not in my lifetime,” she replied.
In Figueres’ TED talk about the inside story of the Paris Climate agreement, she says, “I was actually horrified at the consequences of what I had just said, at the consequences for the world in which all our children are going to have to live…I thought, well, no, hang on, hang on. Impossible is not a fact—it’s an attitude. It’s only an attitude. And I decided right then and there that I was going to change my attitude, and I was going to help the world change its attitude on climate change.”
And she did just that. Serving as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), from 2010 to 2016, Figueres is widely considered to be the mastermind behind the 2015 Paris Climate agreement—a unanimous decision to, in her words, “intentionally change the course of the global economy in order to protect the most vulnerable and improve the life of all.” This agreement is now signed by every country in the world—except for the US. (Barack Obama signed an executive order during his presidency committing the US to the accord, but because he didn’t submit it to Congress to approve, now-president Donald Trump was able to reverse the decision in mid-2017.)
While Figueres admits she was panicked on her first day at UNFCCC, she ultimately forged a new brand of collaborative diplomacy by capitalizing on her unique ability to transform anxiety into hope. “I realized I have no idea how we’re going to solve this problem, but I do know one thing: We have got to change the tone of this conversation. Because there is no way you can deliver victory without optimism,” she explains in her TED talk.
To Figueres, optimism means courage, hope, trust, solidarity, and the fundamental belief that we humans can come together and help each other to better the fate of humankind. As an internationally recognized leader in a field heavily dominated by men, Figueres remains an invaluable role model for women passionate about climate science and politics.
In an interview with Quartz, Figueres explains the importance of relentless optimism, how listening releases her from anxiety, and her father’s career-shaping advice.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
I have devoted most of my professional life to the challenge of climate change, recognized as the most serious global challenge of this century. The world has taken an important step by adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015. That step was necessary, but not sufficient. I am now dedicating my energies to ensuring that we deliver on the Paris Agreement in a timely fashion in order to avert the worst effects of climate change. That means bending the global curve of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and descending thereafter until we reach a decarbonized economy. This is the only way to eradicate extreme poverty and set the course for an economy that thrives in the long run and for everyone.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I am a stubborn optimist. Nothing gets done without optimism. Have you known a breakthrough that started with pessimistic thoughts about its potential? But our optimism cannot be naïve and ignorant: We must acknowledge the many challenges along the way, not as road blockers, but as challenging invitations to find a better path.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
Support should start with women at home. I have two daughters. Having come from a dysfunctional family myself, when they were born I was determined to shower them with love—and, when needed, tough love—and always encourage them to develop healthy positive images of themselves and of the sources of wisdom within themselves. Too many women today think they are only battling against outside challenges at the workplace or in society. Actually, most of us still need to develop our deep sense of ourselves as the beautiful human beings that we are.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
I am grateful for all the challenges and all the opportunities that life has given me. I am appreciative of all the decisions I have made. I have no regrets and would not change anything. I have relished the joys and worked through the pains—or, rather, I am still working through one of the deepest of pains of my life.
After much digging, I have come to understand that we always have the choice between succumbing to the crisis/pain/betrayal/injustice of being a helpless victim, or using it as a learning opportunity. The choice is easier in some cases, at some points in our lives, than it is in others. But it is always there.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I have been blessed to enjoy most of my professional life. The same cannot be said for my personal life. It is there that I have struggled, but it is there where perhaps I have grown the most. It is there where I am still learning to listen to my inner voice, so often silenced by the many noises we create inside our head.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I listen deeply and sincerely to my colleagues, and to those who are not my colleagues. Listening is one of the most underrated yet transformational skills.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I received was from my father: There is no obvious difference between dinner with a queen and king, or tea on the floor of a peasant’s home. It is the quality of the human being that differentiates.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Respect every woman. Period.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is clean energy for every person around the world.
I wish people would stop saying… that addressing climate change is too complex. We can do it if we are intentional about it.
Everyone should own… a grateful, loving, forgiving, flowing sense of themselves.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.