Christiana Figueres is the Puerto Rican diplomat whose job as chief of climate action for the United Nations is to save the planet. Or at least extract a global agreement from the world’s governments that they would try their best to do so.

So she needs to have a firm grasp of the complex information this requires. She also needs to be superior diplomat. Both qualities shone through on Tuesday night at the Sydney Theatre Company event she addressed; the diplomacy in spades.


Figueres called for a major change in our attitude. What did she say about Tony Abbott, some people asked of the event?

What she said was that we should break away from the blame game.

“Blaming doesn’t work; it just doesn’t work. Take a look at your personal life to show when you got the result you wanted by blaming.”

Speaking of her teenage daughters, she said, “I always got more out of them from incentives than punishments.”

“Government can set the goal, but it will depend on what everyone will do.”

We need the climate issues to evolve to a bipartisan issue.

“This is not about politics. It’s about evolution of womankind and mankind.”

It’s also not about the states against the feds.


Figueres also needs to inspire and provide hope.

When Ian Dunlop, the former coal chief turned climate campaigner and irritant in the eye of the BHP Billiton board, fielded the toughest question, on how we can speed things up because the evidence is we need to stay below 2 degrees warming, Figueres didn’t flinch.

“This is a race against time,” Dunlop said.

In a new paper, Recount, it’s time to do the math again, by David Spratt, Dunlop wrote, “Climate change is happening faster and more extensively than officially acknowledged and sensible risk management requires far more stringent action.”

“This is absolutely right and it’s among the many things that keeps us awake at night,” Figueres said.

“But governments are increasingly understanding this and none have opted out of climate agreements. Not Australia with its huge coal reserves, not Saudi Arabia with its oil reserves.


“China is still focused and still working diligently and if we look at the timetable they gave themselves, they’re actually ahead of schedule.”

Dunlop’s argument is frightening. But what Figueres is counting on is not the robust science and analytics that proves the case (and we absolutely need those solid foundations) what she’s looking for is to ignite that viral-like explosion of like-minded thinking that can shift things much faster than anyone imagined.

It’s within our grasp, she made the audience feel.

Is it magic? Not really. Call it politics or the power of the people mixed with modern technology, hyper awareness and the harnessing, finally, of that amazing tool called money, that is finally starting to “get” where the action is.


Behind this potentially fast transformation that we might now be banking on are decades of insanely hard work by the grassroots people. Hundreds were there on Tuesday night to listen to Figueres and show solidarity. There were the people who organised the event and devoted huge, if not the most important, chunks of their personal lives without ever drawing attention to the fact. People such as Blair Palese of and the divestment movement, Natalie Isaacs of the 1 Million Women campaign, Tim Buckley working at the financial levers, James Lorenz from Holdfast Communications working the messaging, Phil Vernon running establishment outfits such as Australian Ethical, but with…ethics, architect Caroline Pidcock on the built environment front, and so many thousands of others.

Figueres reckons we’re at the cusp of the most incredible revolution, the third of this scale in the history of humanity. But unlike the industrial and the technology revolutions, which were organic, this one will be deliberate. And there won’t be anything stopping it because it is hitched to technology (and the drive to survive).

“This is the first time we as a society intentionally brought about such a massive transformation,” Figueres said.

The potential was for the corporate sector and the government to get their act together and that we’ll live in completely different world, where “all the cables are underground and buildings will produce more energy that they consume”.

It will be a revolution that will make the idea of liquid fuel in cars look as redundant as a mainframe computer does now.

But “you are the demand,” she warned. “You need to demand low carbon products and low carbon policies,” she said.


Figurers said this year would be the most crucial for climate action.

Key will be the Paris meetings later this year, a chance for the governments of the world to set a course for climate action.

Governments set the course, Figueres said, but again she reminded the audience that it was up to everybody to follow the direction and take action.

As a Costa Rican Figueres said she had a few Latino traits to share. On seven key questions to identify the best ways to take action the answer in typical Latino fashion, was often both.

“Latinos don’t like to choose,” she said.

For instance, on what was the best course of action: top down or bottom up?


On carrot or stick? Both.


Figueres certainly promoted a kinder, inclusionary approach. And one based on fairness.

Although the developing countries were not responsible for the 150 years of fossil fuel extraction that drove the west into wealth and the earth into disaster, it was imperative they were at the negotiating table so they could be part of future action. After all, in perfect synchronicity with the inequity, it would be the poorest countries that would suffer the most. (This is evidenced by looking at where the rich live – always the most environmentally benign places, financed, often, by things that destroy the environment for others.)

Some weather events were wiping out 30-40 per cent of GDP in one year for some countries.

To get agreement diplomacy will be crucial because “every economy is different”.

In the next couple of months many countries in the OECD will have a carbon management plan. Australia would be coming into this in July, “so that’s the deadline”, not December.

Most of the countries already committed were “impressive”, she said.

Ian Dunlop
Ian Dunlop

China says it’s going to reach peak coal use by 2020 and then peak all greenhouses gases by 2030.

“But the sum total of that won’t put in the pathways to keep us to a maximum of 2 degrees.”

It’s a long-term process “and all governments will have to agree”.

Key to the carbon management plans was regular reporting and a constant set of new targets that would ramp up commitments over time – not a set and forget formula.

Figueres admitted that in Paris in December the targets and commitment would be “way off base”.

“But over time that gap needs to narrow so there will be a process over time that monitors the closing of the gap.”

Australia was in the firing line.

“Every person in Australia is the highest emitting person in the world. So every effort you take is absolutely key.”

The issues of energy and buildings or transportation may or may not apply to all, she said, but here’s something that applies to every person. Fifty per cent of the world’s women still cooked on open fires. So that’s kids getting burned, women walking for three or four hours every day to find fuel, facing potential abuse on the way and cooking indoors, to the detriment of their health and that of their families.

Providing fuel efficient stoves was a simple way to improve the lives and the carbon emissions of the most needy on the planet and something that applied to every person in the room.

Aunt Millie who gave the Welcome to Country and is pictured below second from right, said we were all custodians of this land now, and we should all join and take this fight for the land together.

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  1. She’s a terrific talker. Sadly she’s not delivered any environmentally productive results. $1 billon ‘clean funds’ under her watch were provided to support new Japanese coal powered plants in Indonesia. Another reason why all political agencies should be disqualified from attending future COP gatherings. Put environment for species before these political types.
    More posturing, stretch limousines and 5 star hotels to provide comfort in Paris while temperature stays just above freezing in mid December!
    Next COP could be held in open desert environment to promote a change?