Christiana Figueres: There Will Be No ‘Big Bang’ Climate Pact

The Wonk Room is covering the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City.

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday, new UN climate chief Christiana Figueres criticized the failures of the Copenhagen talks and said that a comprehensive “big bang” global climate treaty is not possible. Figueres, who was chosen to be the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary after Yvo de Boer stepped down following Copenhagen, discussed her expectations for the next round of talks that will take place this December in Cancun, Mexico. “What went wrong at Copenhagen,” her brother, former Costa Rica president Jose Maria Figueres asked, “and what are you going to make Cancun better?” After saying that she intended to avoid the logistical chaos civil society groups encountered in Copenhagen, Christiana declared that there will never be a comprehensive global climate treaty to follow the Kyoto pact, which expires in 2012:

I think that one of the major mistakes that we all bought into, because all of us bought into, was the myth of the big bang theory in climate. Maybe the universe was created by a Big Bang. But what is clear is that this planet is not going to be saved by any big bang agreement. Not in Copenhagen, not this year, not next year. The fact is that it’s unreasonable to expect that there is going to be one large comprehensive agreement that will address all issues and will miraculously change the way that we’ve been doing things for a hundred years.

Watch it:

Figueres then outlined her vision for the Cancun talks in the context of the non-binding Copenhagen Accord: a “realistic” and “probably sane” “progressive approach” that achieves the “politically possible,” recognizing this would be “only a step” in the right direction:

So the big lesson learned for us this year is: let us be realistic, let us really make a very concerted effort — and governments are doing so — to see what is politically possible, what is achievable in Cancun. Let’s focus on that and let us ensure that what we’re doing here is taking one step at a time, ensuring that Cancun is going to be a firm step in the right direction, but only a step. That’s there’s going to have to be much more work going forward.

Now this progressive approach is probably a sane approach, but it is in stark contrast to the urgency of the matter. That’s the problem: that we can only go in incremental steps but the matter is really very urgent, particularly for low-lying states.

This is the essential challenge of climate diplomacy — by definition only the “politically possible” can be achieved by the UNFCCC, but global warming is governed by the laws of physics, not of man. The timeline to reduce greenhouse pollution is not governed by treaties but by collapse of a livable planet. Because of the inevitability of long-term sea level rise, it may already be too late to save low-lying states from extinction — so they have little sympathy for “incremental steps.”

Figueres hopes to tackle this challenge by changing the “psychodynamics” of the negotiations from the cost of climate destruction — and the moral and economic culpability of the developed world — to the “opportunities moving into the future”:

Which is why we need to change the psychodynamics to exactly what you said when you started, Jose Maria. The psychodynamics right now in the negotiations is focusing on the cost. Who is going to pay for what when because of the debt that we have incurred with each other over the past x number of years. That’s an important part of the conversation. But we should also focus part of the conversation on: what are the opportunities moving into the future? And that part of the conversation is not present.

As the life story of CGI’s organizer, Bill Clinton, proves, there is indeed great political power in hope, no matter how ephemeral it may often seem.