Paris Climate Agreement lead negotiator Christiana Figueres discussed the need for timely action to fight the climate crisis at the Kennedy School’s annual Robert S. McNamara Lecture on War and Peace on Thursday.
Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf and Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at HKS, moderated the event, which was co-hosted by the JFK Jr. Forum, the Institute of Politics, and the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment.
Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat who served as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016, said she feels optimistic about current progress in the fight against climate change. She noted that a “a critical mass” of countries have begun to take steps to curb their carbon emissions and that many wealthy institutions, including Harvard, have agreed to reach a net-zero carbon portfolio by 2050, consistent with the timeline of the Paris Agreement.
“We are beginning to see that we're turning the page on the understanding that acting on climate change is no longer a huge burden,” Figueres said.
Still, Figueres said that progress against climate change has been undermined by humanity’s prolonged “war with nature” in the industrial age.
“We're accelerating the pace of that war with the result that the last six years have been the warmest on record," Figueres said. "The concentrations of greenhouse gases have continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. 2019 saw the highest ocean heat level on record.”
Figueres outlined three phenomena that continue to exacerbate the consequences of climate change.
First, she said that targets and regulations “take a long time to translate into actual emissions reductions.” Second, the concentration of carbon will continue to increase in the atmosphere, even if emissions fall, due to its “cumulative nature.” Finally, she said that the global economy is in a period of “evident transition,” clouding the future trajectory of the climate crisis.
Figueres said she believes that the crisis has reached a critical point at which countries will have to decide whether to take action.
“Do we want to walk down a path of constant destruction and human misery, the likes of which we have never seen?” she asked. “Or do we actually want to wake up and say we're not condemned to that future?”
“My prediction is that we will look back at 2020 as the year in which we reached a turning point on emissions, the year in which we changed the trajectory from one of constant increase to one of decisive decrease in emissions,” Figueres said.