UN Climate Change Expert Urges Action

Christiana Figueres '79 is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Photo credit Lily Jamison-Cash.

Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres ’79 returned to Swarthmore last Friday to speak on the urgent need to deal with greenhouse gas. Her talk, entitled “The Anthropology of Climate Change,” addressed man’s relationship with climate change and with the environment. Figueres explores what is needed both on an individual and societal to effect the kind of change that, she says, we sorely need.

 “The world cannot afford for you to wait for an invitation […] the world needs you and needs you now,” Figueres said. While Figueres was at Swarthmore, she and her friends took this literally,  once showing up at the then-president’s house in bunny suits on Easter.

Figueres pointed to recent progress in the realm of international climate change policy. At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, the target annual global temperature increase was lowered to 1.5ºC from 2ºC. All industrial countries and 49 developing countries took both voluntary pledges and legally-binding pledges to decrease emissions by 2020.

There are, however, enormous hurdles to overcome in order to reach these targets. Figueres said that the global demand for energy will double in the next two decades. She said that if “we take the path of least resistance […] there’s a good chance, in 40 years, global emissions will increase by 50 percent.” In order to meet their goals, countries would have to halt any increase and then decrease their emissions by another 50 percent.

The other path, Figueres said, is the “green path.” Some are making strides down this path as we speak: Qatar, the host of the next Climate Change Conference, has the second-largest solar farm in the world after Saudi Arabia. In 2010, wind energy in Pennsylvania supported 4,000 jobs in the state, according to Figueres. “Swarthmore has also chosen the green path, and I applaud the college’s efforts,” she said, highlighting the college’s commitment to the clean action plan by 2013.

Focusing on Swarthmore, Figueres took a two-pronged approach in an attempt to impart advice to students. She suggested that while in school, there are certain individual choices students can make that will make a difference. Later, as the “world’s leaders,” there will be even greater opportunities to effect change. The problem, Figueres said, is that “for the first time in history, we have de-linked economic growth from greenhouse gasses.” Not only have we separated the pieces of the production chain, but we have also divorced ourselves of the responsibility associated with the consequences. Figueres gave a rousing call to action.

“This is about you, your lifestyle, your energy consumption,” she said. “It’s your life, your choices.”

Students’ mixed impressions indicated that they appreciated this call, but found other aspects of the lecture to be lacking. “It was incredibly motivating,” Olivia Ortiz ’16 said. “I wish it was balanced with more hard facts,” though she acknowledged the poignant truth of Figueres’ argument.

Ben Goloff ’15 said that he appreciated the tips on what students can do while in college, but noted that “if we are empowered as students, we should do more than that.”