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Stubborn optimism: Christiana Figueres

At the end of last year, Christiana Figueres – former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and architect of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement – visited Triodos Bank’s Head Office and shared some inspiration on how to be a leader of the change you want to see.

Figueres is a prominent leader with remarkable experience of bringing together a global agreement from 195 countries. Reflecting on leadership, Figueres believes that, in the same way that we have more distributed knowledge (through digitalization) and are increasingly seeing more distributed energy, so too shall we move towards a world with more distributed leadership. She summarized the core principles that she lives by:

  • First, determine the goal. Develop a clear vision deeply rooted in morality and values, rather than what is perceived as being pragmatically realistic. By definition, the climate vision is not incremental, but transformational and guided by values. For Figueres, it was essential for all countries to agree on doing what is necessary (not ‘possible’), to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
  • You have to not only speak to who is necessary to have the discussion, but also to who can be helpful. For example, in the climate talks, including religious groups, indigenous people in vulnerable island states, a broad coalition of scientists from different fields, women’s movements, NGOs and others as part of a broad coalition, helped to frame the discussions in a way that was much more powerful. This breadth and diversity has also ensured the agreement has much more resilience.
  • It is important to connect the dots to achieve radical collaboration. Such collaboration requires multi-level alignment: allowing everyone, no matter what their starting point, to make a positive impact with small individual initiatives. Impact will be felt if they are all pointing in a common direction.
  • Figueres suggests that you first need to build trust by “embracing the distrust and giving it space”. Any deep change process requires bringing together people who have differences; recognizing that fact is something that should be embraced in order to really learn from it. By using deep listening in order to truly understand others leads to collaborative and the gradual building of trust necessary for transformation.
  • Exercise stubborn optimism. In order to confront the challenges we should never think that they cannot be faced. People should be deeply convinced that they have got what it takes to solve the problem. In responding to the challenges in store for the Paris Agreement from the US elections and other global events, Figueres used the analogy of the difference between tides and currents: “the tides will go in and out, but the current goes in one direction – and that needs to feed your optimism”. It is important to consider the long-term aims: “You need to be able to tack from left to right in order to go forward – so even when it may seem you’re changing directions all the time, that’s not the case.”
  • Call forth our inner wisdom into our decision making. Using the analogy of the transformation of the butterfly, Figueres describes the way in which each caterpillar has ‘Imaginal’ cells: cells which hold all the information on the future state of the butterfly. As humans, we can also call forth the wisdom inside of us pointing towards what we want to achieve. We should keep teaching children not to lose their ‘imaginal cells’, as they are wks1jbu9profoundly inspirational and help us to realize our deepest desires.

In relation to the current progress of climate action, Figueres points out that the next 5 years are critical. To ‘delay and catch up later’ would lead to increased levels of aggregate emissions which threaten to take us towards the worst impacts of climate change. “In these next 5 years, the challenge is really for the energy sector and financial sector,” she said. “We need you to share solutions, work towards new ones, and collaborate to change the mainstream financial system so that we can make the dramatic progress we need. How capital is allocated in the next 5 years will determine the quality of life for people on planet earth for the next 300 years – so please don’t delay”.

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