June 16th, 2015


Former Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Former U.S. EPA Administrator; Co-Chair, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill


Paris is called the “City of Light,” a nickname that many assume refers to its nearly 300 illuminated sites. But the name actually came about during the Age of Enlightenment, when Paris was known as the center of intellect, education and ideas throughout Europe.

Let’s hope that ideal holds true when leaders from nearly 200 countries gather in Paris this December for the 21st United Nations Conference on Climate Change. The goal: to hammer out a country-by-country agreement that will put the world on the path to cutting carbon emissions and halting – or even reversing – global warming. Past efforts during major summits – Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009 – have failed, begging the question: is such a thing as worldwide consensus even possible?

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations climate negotiations, believes that this time around it is. The difference? At past conferences, the implicit assumption was that climate change was many years away. What has fundamentally changed, she says, is that “the problem is no longer in the future; the problem is in the present. And furthermore, the solutions are in the present.  

“We do have the technologies, we have the capital…and we have a very interesting good mood developing internationally that is basically saying, okay, actually, we are going to get to an agreement.

“It’s not the possibility of a climate deal that we’re going to get in Paris,” said Figueres. “We are going to get an agreement.”

Her statement brought applause from the Commonwealth Club audience, who had gathered to hear from two central figures in the climate change fight.

Bill Reilly, a member of the Climate One advisory council, attended the 1992 conference in Rio as head of the EPA under the first President Bush. He also sees a fundamental change in attitude since then. The difference, he says, is evidential.

At that time, “we had the preponderance of scientific opinion predicting climate change, predicting warming and all of the associated issues, drought and excessive rainfall and all the rest,” Reilly remembers. “We didn’t, however, have the experience of it.  Now we do.

“The evidence is all around us that it’s no longer a theory, it’s no longer a matter of models – it’s upon us. And it seems to me now it ought to be much easier to create the consensus that gives us serious policy.”

Despite his optimism, however, Reilly does see speed bumps along the way. He predicts there will be opposition, mainly for economic reasons, from fossil-fuel dependent states and those committed to coal, such as South Africa, India, China and Australia. However, he adds, “I think that the example of the United States has got to be compelling …if you look at how rapidly we have transitioned from a 50% to somewhere in the 30% dependency on coal-fired power for electric utilities, it shows it can be done. And now is a very good time to do it.”

Figueres is also hopeful – nevertheless, she reminded the audience, “this is about avoiding abrupt changes…these companies, these countries, want to have time to transition” to other energy sources and economic models.

“It’s about the collective good and the collective wisdom about organizing, setting a new direction now, so that we can then begin to transition in a thoughtful planned way – instead of having abrupt changes that are of no interest to those countries, to those corporations, to anyone.”  

Still, Figueres marvels, the level of agreement among countries going into the summit this time around is remarkable. “You know, the fantastic thing about this – and it’s honestly nothing short of miraculous – is that there is not a single country, Russia included, that is not playing ball.

“Yes, they’re all playing the ball to their own interest,” she admitted, “but there’s no country that has said they want to be exempted from this agreement. In fact, all of them understand that it is in their interest to cover everyone.”  

This time around, it seems, many countries are bringing new urgency to the negotiations based on environmental and economic concerns.  What about a moral imperative? Pope Francis recently published an encyclical that directly addresses climate change. In it, he states unequivocally that it’s up to all of us to repair the harm we’ve inflicted on the earth and its poorer nations. With Catholics comprising half of the world’s Christian population, and 16 percent of the population overall, how will the Pope’s action impact the negotiations?

“I think it’s a very important contribution to the conversation,” Figueres says. “It sort of shakes the ground that you stand on. You cannot be untouched by a call like that.   

“We all look at ourselves in the mirror, and the first question we should ask ourselves is, what do I really want to do with my life?  What do I really want to be my legacy, what kind of a planet am I turning over to my kids, my grandkids?

“He’s saying, okay, ask yourself that question and answer.”

Wherever we are on the road to Paris, individual action is still an important part of the journey. Bill Reilly reminded the audience that it’s crucial everyone is engaged – both on a personal level and in the public policy process, “at least to the point of creating expectations for their representatives that this problem be taken seriously.  

“We cannot solve the problem alone in our lives or our families,” Reilly continued, “but we do expect that there will be a socially agreed solution to this, that we’ll all change the compact. And that this problem will matter much more than it has mattered before, and that there are moral reasons why it should.”


Related Links:

COP21 – United Nations Conference on Climate Change 2015

Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change

United Nations Climate Change Conference - Wikipedia


- Anny Celsi
June 16, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Ed Ritger