UN Climate Change Expert Urges Action

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

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.”


  1. Something more you can do? Specifics?


    Consequences are real and painful either way, but far less so with

  2. She brought up a very good point in the Q&A that I felt was both revolutionary and a bit lost in the bulk of her statement. When a student–presumably from MJ–asked about the divestment of fossil fuels, she mentioned that, as investors of fossil fuels, we have can place pressure on that company. Granted, companies like Exxon Mobil are very very large and Swat’s investment is a drop in their bucket. That being said, if the students and administration of Swarthmore began looking at avenues of this type of advocacy, they might be able to reach a more amiable agreement while making Swat a more environmentally place.

  3. Hi RB,

    [Disclaimer: Although I am a member of MJ, I do not speak on behalf of the group.]

    I also support using Swarthmore’s position as a shareholder to pressure various industries to be more socially and environmentally responsible. I love how we have a committee (the CIR) dedicated to that exact thing.

    What worries me is that for a climate change solution, shareholder resolutions attempting to sway oil and natural gas industries will be too slow. Some of these companies aren’t swayed by governmental regulations like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act. With the government heavily subsidizing fossil fuels compared to renewable energy, a shareholder resolution (which is non-binding for companies) can be drowned out.

    Christiana Figueres stressed the urgency of this issue. As I write, indigenous people in the North American Arctic and those in Pacific island nations are feeling the effects of climate change on their land and culture. (Yes I am using the readings from my Environmental Justice class.) I don’t have faith that fossil fuel industries will change their practices fast enough if their shareholders ask that they invest more in solar and wind.

    I, too, hope we can reach a more amiable agreement. I hope it’s amiable to the people who will be worst affected by climate change, who are poor, who are disadvantaged, and who are losing more of their heritage every day.


  4. Very inteesting article.

    According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, more than 42 million people were displaced in Asia and the Pacific during 2010 and 2011, more than twice the population of Sri Lanka. This figure includes those displaced by storms, floods, and heat and cold waves. Still others were displaced drought and sea-level rise. Most of those compelled to leave their homes eventually returned when conditions improved, but an undetermined number became migrants, usually within their country, but also across national borders. Bogumil Terminski distinguishes two main categories od this process:. 1. environmentally-induced displacement associated with long-term natural disruptions, 2. disaster-induced displacement associated with natural disasters.

  5. I’m writing to express my support for the movement, being led by Swarthmore, to focus attention on University endowment investment in fossil fuel corporations. In 1978 I helped to found a group called the South African Divestment Coalition at Cornell, and we ultimately prevailed upon the Investment Committee of the University to selectively divest.

    A couple of lessons learned: First, that arguing for selective divestment has some advantages. By picking the worst offenders – in this case perhaps companies that have actively supported misinformation on climate change – you can develop a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that is perhaps more achievable than insisting on total divestment from a sector. By giving the Investment Committee an ‘out’ to allow them to argue that they are still focused on their fiduciary duty you may be able to achieve your desired goals more quickly.

    Secondly, having an investment principle or set of principles that you are arguing FOR, rather than simply a demand about what you are AGAINST can be helpful. Cornell actually had an investment principle that basically stated “ethical issues shall be given equal weight with purely fiduciary considerations” when making investment decisions. As far as I’m concerned, they routinely ignored this principle for years, but at least it gave us an argument and it made the institution look, appropriately, bad.

    Finally, recognize that this is largely a symbolic action that you are engaged in, and therefore use symbols. Rallies back in the day were influenced by street theater and the Diggers (check ’em out!), and we created events that were fun to be part of. The main point here is that you are winning every time you draw attention to your cause, so keep it creative, fun and dramatic (and nonviolent) so the press attention you draw is positive.

    In solidarity!


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