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2018 Parliament Awards | Christiana Figueres, Individual Commitments and the Work of the Global Climate Action Movement

July 24, 2019

Christiana Figueres is an internationally recognized leader on global climate change. She was Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-2016. Assuming responsibility for the international climate change negotiations after the failed Copenhagen conference of 2009, she was determined to lead the process to a universally agreed regulatory framework. Building toward that goal, she directed the successful Conferences of the Parties in Cancun 2010, Durban 2011, Doha 2012, Warsaw 2013, and Lima 2014, and culminated her efforts in the historical Paris Agreement of 2015.

Throughout her tenure, Ms. Figueres brought together national and sub-national governments, corporations and activists, financial institutions and communities of faith, think tanks and technology providers, NGOs, and parliamentarians, to jointly deliver the unprecedented Paris Climate Change Agreement. For this achievement, Ms. Figueres has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy. She is currently the convener of Mission 2020, a global initiative that seeks to ensure the world bends the curve on greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 in order to protect the most vulnerable from the worst impacts of climate change and usher in an era of stability and prosperity.

At the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions, her outstanding commitment to climate action was recognized by the 2018 Award committee with the Parliament’s Ecological Flourishing Award, which honors an individual or organization whose commitment to interfaith cooperation has demonstrably advanced the Earth’s sustainability. Watch her address below!

Ms. Figueres was kind enough to sit down with us for a special post-Parliament interview on her experience at the Parliament and the critical role of faith communities and individuals in the climate action movement.

Greetings Christiana, you are incredibly connected to the global climate movement but was the Parliament the first big interfaith convening that you have attended and do you have previous experience with the interfaith community?

No, no. I’ve worked with quite a few of the faith communities and interfaith communities throughout the years. This was the first time I went to the Parliament of the World’s Religions but it’s definitely an area that is quite familiar to me.

That’s wonderful to hear, what is the most memorable experience from your first Parliament?

I was impacted by so many of the speakers. The memory that I took with me most warmly is sitting on the floor having lunch in the [langar], I thought that was just so beautiful to just sit there along those long lines with so many other people and you know have delicious lunch, it was just very beautiful and very much a sense of community.

Community is a big part of the Parliament experience. You were also honored with the Ecological Flourishing Award at your first Parliament. What does it mean to be selected as the award winner?

It might come to you as odd but I don’t place that much of an importance on winning an award because I don’t think it’s about putting one person above or it is not about the medal or anything like that.

It’s certainly not one person, it’s more about the recognition of the work that is underway, so it’s not about a person. And I feel very strongly that that moment in which I was there and that recognition doesn’t have to do with a person it has to do with a very clear commitment to align myself internally with the work that I want to see happening outside.

It doesn’t have to do with a person – it has to do with the internal alignment.

That’s a beautiful way to think of this recognition, how do you think the award reflects the mission of your ongoing work?

I think what was meaningful to me is the recognition that the world that surrounds us, i.e. the natural world and the world that we humans create for each other is so clearly interlinked with our inner world and how much of our daily experience is determined by our thinking and our feelings.

And the alignment that we have of our inner world inside of us that helps us to align our experience outside. And that was definitely true for my work toward the Paris Agreement, continues to be very fundamentally true, that the challenge of doing something that seems as far away as climate change actually boils down to individual alignment with those truths that we hold so dear.

That actually connects to my next question, you shared with the attendees some great ways in which people can make a difference but I think our network is very interested in knowing what are some great projects or activities that we as individuals can do to support your work at the local level.

Yeah, so I have thought about this and come up with five different things that every individual can do.

The first is to be very mindful about what we eat, starting with meat. And you know my call is if there is someone who is still eating red meat 7 days a week that is something that we can all improve on. Move on down to  6 or 5 or 4 or 3, gradually move out of the consumption of meat, as well as being mindful of consuming foods that are being flown three times around the planet.

Secondly, it’s our own homes and buildings and unfortunately, we have way too many homes and buildings that are not properly insulated and hence we end up warming the entire neighborhood in the winter or overcooling in the summer, and totally irresponsibly wasting energy because of that. So just energy efficiency of the built environment but also energy efficiency of all appliances that we use and just much more responsible use of every time we use any amount of electricity is a second for me.

The third is transportation in particular in the United States. To those who are still transporting themselves and being the only occupants in a [large] car, that is wasteful with respect to the fuel that it consumes. Sharing cars, moving to public transport, walking as much as possible or biking in cities is really important for us to move to more responsible mobility while electric vehicles are being developed as they are, which is very good news.

The fourth is, where is our capital? People who are already of a certain age who have some disposable capital available to us, we should know where that capital is invested. And it should not be invested in high carbon but rather in low carbon goods and services and assets.

And finally, certainly, voting. We should be voting at both national and local levels. We should be voting for those leaders that understand the responsibility that we all share on climate change right now and for those leaders that are courageous enough to enact the necessary policies.

Those are great individual initiatives, are there any specific projects at the United Nations or led by organizations that you are involved in that you feel people of faith should be involved in?

I never recommend a specific project because I feel that all projects that are actually contributing to either reduce emissions or increase resilience should be supported.

And in fact each one of us should be involved in something that is within our sphere of influence. So there are just gazillions, literally millions of projects around the world and in addition to being responsible for our own personal behavior in the five ways that I just said, we can all participate in a voluntary way or any other way in a project that is within our own sphere of influence and perhaps the most important project that we can all do is actually to speak in compelling ways to our family members, to our neighbors and to anyone we meet so we help to educate everyone.

Finally, on a macro-level what are some of the trends or maybe some of the progress that you see in the faith-based and interfaith climate action community as a whole and how do you think we can leverage those trends or that progress to have an exponential effect in the next decade or two?

The most impactful thing I’ve seen from the interfaith or spiritual communities is actually the pressure that the various churches or asset holding spiritual communities have asserted as shareholders. Many of the organized churches are actually owners of very important sums of money and they are very clearly using their capital to engage and direct decisions in corporations.

And the latest one I was just incredibly impressed with, was faith-based communities using their representation as shareholders to obligate Glencore, that is the largest coal mining company in the world, to stop all new mining and not open any more coal mines. And I’m hoping that the second pressure point is to start closing all coal plants, because one thing is not to open any more coal mines which is very excellent, but we also have to start closing coal plants.

That is the latest example but the fact is that there are organized churches, Church of England comes to mind, that has been incredibly helpful as active shareholders in really pushing for [green] corporate decisions. That is by far the most impactful thing that I’ve seen.

A special thank you to Christiana Figueres for sharing her expertise with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Keep up to date with Ms. Figueres on Twitter at @CFigueres.