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.
After the recent talk by Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres ’79, Nick Gettino ‘13 and a reporter for Swarthmore’s Alumni Magazine sat down with her to ask a few questions.
Reporters: You come from a socially active family, and seem to have been interested in issues of social justice even before you studied at Swarthmore, but how did you find yourself involved in climate negotiations?
Christiana Figueres ‘79: You know, when I was very small, my mother took us to a national park in Costa Rica where there was an endemic species called the golden toad, a little wonderful species, and then, by the time my children were that age, the species had completely disappeared.
I was so astonished and I asked the scientists who worked in this national park, how come this species has completely disappeared? And they said, “We’re not sure, we’re doing our research and our suspicion is that they got—their skin is very sensitive—and they got some kind of a skin disease that was due to the rising temperature of the soil, the ecosystem in which they live,” and they said—this was way, way back—“We don’t think this is only Costa Rica, we think this is something actually going on everywhere.”
And I was so impacted by the fact that, in my lifetime, I had seen the disappearance of a species and I thought, “Wow, so that means the planet that I got form my parents is visibly and measurable diminished in my lifetime and it means the planet that I turn over to my kids is a diminished planet.” I was so impacted by that, I thought, I have to do something about this, and so I started getting involved in this issue.
In the beginning, there were very few people; I remember my first climate negotiations were in New York and there were only a hundred people there, that’s it, and today we have anywhere between twenty and twenty-five thousand people who come to the negotiations.
Reporters: Do you have advice for students who are interested in getting into environmental work? Can you recommend any way of making yourself marketable in this field?
CF: One fork in the road is deciding whether you want to work on local environmental issues or global environmental issues because they’re quite distinct. The global environmental issues for climate change—biodiversity, ozone—are those issues that require the cooperation across nations, and that brings in a whole other aspect to the work. Whereas local environmental issues, you work at a community level, you work at a state level, at a national level, but you don’t have to cross boundaries of countries, so that’s one sort of fork in the road: you need to decide what kinds of environmental issues you want to deal with.
Then, I really encourage people to do internships, or any way to start getting into the organizations that work on this, and it’s very much of a Catch-22 because nobody wants to take anybody who doesn’t have experience and you can’t get experience because nobody wants to take you, right? But I think Swarthmore students have such a good reputation, and particularly if you work through alums, that you would be able to get experience.
So, the combination of being exposed to how you work on these issues and certainly getting an advanced degree is absolutely key. I got away with just having a masters degree but I’m not sure that that’s enough anymore, I think you need to get quite a solid academic background and practical experience behind you.
Reporters: What role do you see environmental groups on campuses playing?
CF: Like anywhere else, they can help to raise awareness. My recommendation there is for them not to view this as a huge burden that you have to pay, a huge cost that you have to pay, because certainly on climate, that’s not necessarily the way it has to go. There’s a huge opportunity here to jump into new technologies that are actually very exciting and should be the way that we move forward, so emphasizing the opportunity and the excitement of new technology is a better way to go than to hit people over the head and say you have to make a huge sacrifice, that doesn’t get you very far.
Reporters: Is there more that you think could be done at this college, environmentally, from what you’ve seen?
CF: I visited two of the green roofs, which are really cool, but I don’t have any idea what the energy efficiency is of any of these buildings. I’ve seen some of the lighting but I’m sure one could do an energy audit of all of the buildings and find, because you always do, find all kinds of possibilities to bring down the energy use, which is a huge opportunity. You bring down your energy bill, your power bill, well, that’s a huge opportunity for the college, so I’m sure there are opportunities to do that. Any building has those opportunities. Some of them are very expensive, so you go with the ones that are the cheaper, on the left-hand of the curve, and you start there, and leave the more expensive ones for later, but I’m sure there are opportunities.
Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College.