We all need inspiration

Christiana Figueres visited Oxford recently to deliver a lecture in the beautiful old Sheldonian Theatre. She came at the invitation of the Oxford Martin School of the University of Oxford who are running a series of events around the topic of ‘Planetary Health’. Christiana is the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and is widely recognised as the individual who persuaded 195 countries to sign up to the 2015 ‘Paris Agreement’. They all agreed to keep global temperature growth to “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. It will be no surprise that her topic was “Next Steps on Climate Change” – and her purpose was to inspire us to optimism and action.

It’s not just the message, but how it is delivered too

Interesting though the topic of Christiana’s lecture was, it was the spirit of the messenger that interested me, and clearly many others in the audience. This was present throughout, but particularly evident during the extensive period she generously spent answering questions after her talk. During the lecture she spoke of many topics that were familiar to all of us present:

  • the need to move away from fossil fuels powering our lives,
  • the need to invest in renewable energy and
  • the need to think about the personal actions that we as individuals can usefully take to do our bit to address climate change.

Although these were familiar topics it was the way in which Christiana addressed them, and spoke to us in the audience, that meant it lives on in the memory.

Firstly, she exuded passion and knowledge of her subject, and she peppered her talk with many positive examples of change already underway, whether this be from forward-thinking businesses, or governments making pledges to speed up positive change. But many others do this too…

Second, and I felt this was crucial to the attainment of the wider Global Goals, she is always thinking about how to ‘incentivise’ action in the right direction. She is not just an idealist – she is a business and political realist. She recognises that unless we can get the economic incentives aligned with our goals then change at the pace we (and the planet) need will simply not be forthcoming. On this one she had an interesting example from Costa Rica, her own country, which she proudly said was the only country in the World with more forest cover now than 30 years ago – and this was because they had got the incentives right. The poor of Costa Rica are no different to the poor in other countries – they need food and fuel as basic requirements. But in Costa Rica they have long set a high priority on forest preservation, knowing the climate, and wider ecological value it has. In Costa Rica, instead of people cutting down trees to plant food crops, or to use as fuel, they are paid to preserve the trees. Christiana says that this policy puts money in people’s pockets which can be used to buy food and alternative fuels for cooking, and is having a very positive effect on a wide range of fronts.

A philosophy for 21st century living

Ultimately, I think that the key to why we in the theatre with Christiana remember that day so vividly, and came away both inspired to take action, and with a renewed sense of optimism and possibility, was because of her personal philosophy. She described it as “the only way to live in the 21st century”. Clearly this philosophy had been grounded in the extraordinarily difficult processes, over several years, that led to the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. All of us can learn something from that. Christiana’s philosophy as she described it has three interlinked elements:

  1. Passionate Engagement – with whatever you do in life
  2. Radical Collaboration – she described this as working across ALL boundaries, no matter how high or how seemingly difficult, this must be the way forward
  3. Stubborn Optimism – She described this very specifically and it is the keystone element of her philosophy. This is not about being optimistic about outcomes, this is about optimism as the INPUT to any challenge. Everyone needs a vision and an optimistic and total commitment to get there.

To bring it all to life for us, there was a very interesting, and vivid, example of Christiana living out the philosophy in her answer to one of many questions from the audience. The questioner started by saying that they lived on a houseboat and was, as a result, still a user of coal. Before they had time to complete their question, Christiana was telling them that to just say that was unacceptable and challenged the questioner by asking how long they thought it would take them to convert to a clean energy alternative. After a brief conversation between them they had set a deadline and created a plan in front of the whole audience. We all witnessed the sense of “stubborn optimism” being transferred to the questioner from Christiana. I have no doubt that the houseboat will be fuelled by clean energy by the agreed date in early 2019.

A lesson for us all

Reflecting back on the visit of Christiana Figueres, I think there are things all of us can learn who are working to help deliver the United Nations Global Goals by 2030. The goals set a path to a better future, but achieving them is a huge ask for all of us and can, at times, feel overwhelming. With the application of passionate engagement, radical collaboration, and particularly stubborn optimism, that better future is within our grasp.