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In Conversation with Decade of Change Contributing Editor, Christiana Figueres

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and leader of the COP 21 that led to the signing of the Paris Agreement by 195 nations, discusses the role of photography and the arts in understanding the climate crisis, and how the world’s decade of change is faring so far.

The golden toad, also known as the Alajuela toad, was once one of the most common creatures to be found in the cloud forest areas of Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was “endemic”. No more than 5cm in size, the brightly coloured amphibian punctuated the seemingly undisturbed, lush greenery of the reserve. Yet, for reasons that are still unclear even to scientists, the species is now extinct, with the last confirmed sighting of the tiny toad reported on 15 May 1989. The two most likely theories for its vanishing are rising temperatures and an annual decrease in rainfall causing longer dry seasons, or, the spread of an infectious fungus, both of which are linked inextricably to climate change. “These were absolutely beautiful little animals,” says Christiana Figueres, who remembers the toads fondly from her childhood. “But, by the time my children were at the age that I could have brought them [to see the golden toads], the species had disappeared. It was difficult to get an explanation for why it had disappeared. It wasn’t just the population. It was the entire species.”

Christiana Figueres is an activist, author, diplomat and director of multiple, sustainable development initiatives. She is also the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a position she held between 2010 and 2016. During this notable tenure, Figueres spearheaded a policy of inclusion and collaboration not only among international governments but key stakeholders whose participation could enact exemplary change. Her six years leading the UNFCCC’s Conferences of the Parties (COPs) culminated in the COP 21 in Paris, where the Paris Agreement was adopted by 195 nations, together forging a commitment that would limit the global average temperature increases to no more than 2℃ above pre-industrialisation levels, while striving for 1.5℃. It was a historical moment, when governments all over the world set aside their differences and united in acknowledgement of the urgency of the climate crisis and their need to act. Figueres’ official time with the UNFCCC came to an end not long after, but Figueres passionately continues her work towards that better future.

“We are human, and we’re multifaceted. Sometimes the deepest impact is a number, a speech, or a legal text, but, very often, the deepest impact is something that penetrates us to a deeper level through the arts, music, or photography.”

“In the early 90s, as a mother, I was pretty impacted by the fact that I was turning over a severely diminished planet, as compared to the planet I received from my parents,” she says. “That is why I’ve been working in climate change for decades, for two reasons: one, is the atrocities that we’re committing against nature, and the second is the price and the consequence that future generations will pay because of those atrocities.”

While Figueres spends much of her time campaigning for change on the political stage, she is also acutely sensitive to the significant role that the creative industries can play in raising awareness and inciting change regarding the climate crisis. Imagery and photography can not only surpass language barriers but can rouse empathy and emotion too. Climate Visuals, which positions itself as the world’s only evidence-based climate change photography resource, states on its website that: “images that define climate change shape the way it is understood and acted upon”, and so their authenticity is imperative. “I don’t deny the power of legal documents and policies of corporate measures and corporate decisions or investment decisions. Obviously, those are needed,” Figueres says. “But, we are human, and we’re multifaceted. Sometimes the deepest impact is a number, a speech, or a legal text, but, very often, the deepest impact is something that penetrates us to a deeper level through the arts, music, or photography.”

“There is a transformational potential that comes through the arts, the painted canvas or the power of the camera that is not achieved by other tools.”

Figueres notes the significance of war and conflict photography in bringing about a change in attitude and policy. In 1968, images of the suffering inflicted from all sides during the Vietnam War lit a fire under the American public, playing an instrumental role in the US military’s eventual withdrawal from the country. Significant photographs include Eddie Adams’ image of Nguyen Ngoc Loan pointing a gun at the head of, and executing Captain Nguyen Van Lem, and Nick Ut’s harrowing shot of a group of children running from their village, screaming in pain from the napalm burning their skin. More recently, in September 2015, it was Nilufer Demir’s image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body, washed up on the shore of the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum, which transformed the global perception of the refugee crisis. Shared virally across news platforms and social media, Europe woke up to the humanitarian crisis happening right under its nose, with an outpouring of aid policies and refugee support. 

“The same is true of climate change,” explains Figueres. “In the COPs that I had the privilege to direct, I have always encouraged artistic representations of what we are dealing with. While one side of the brain responds to political arguments and legal texts, the other side of the brain, and the heart, respond to a very different input.” She adds: “There is a transformational potential that comes through the arts, the painted canvas or the power of the camera that is not achieved by other tools.”

“We have to be able to use the power of the arts and photography, not as much to confirm the disaster that science is warning us about, but rather to access a different part of our mind. If we cannot imagine a better future, it’s very difficult to work towards it.

Though it may be a powerful medium, photography is everywhere. With each minute of every hour, with every swipe and infinite scroll, our attention spans diminish, and our ability to empathise towards the images we view on our screens is fatigued. The shock factor of news stories and the buzz-generated around photography projects comes and goes; the spotlight never rests for long. Some photography editors, such as The Guardian’s Fiona Shields, now pledge to be more vigilant in publishing images that more responsibly reflect the specific issues at hand and their impact on humanity. But do we need to be even more innovative with our focus?

“What we definitely have not done well, is visualise the better future that we can create,” says Figueres. “The written material that we have from scientists, social scientists and economists, is probably 90 to 95 per cent focused on the negative impacts of climate change, on the destruction that we are wielding against ourselves and against nature. But there is little material, either written or visual, that would inspire us, that would spark our imagination, that would unleash our creativity and our ingenuity toward creating a world that is much better.”

Figueres adds: “We have to be able to use the power of the arts and photography, not as much to confirm the disaster that science is warning us about, but rather to access a different part of our mind. If we cannot imagine a better future, it’s very difficult to work towards it. Reaching that part of the brain, where we can tap into our ingenuity and our creativity, is the challenge for the arts right now.” Many photographers are beginning to explore this vision. In our Decade of Change issue, we explore Lena C Emery’s ongoing project, Tenchi: Building A Bridge Between Heaven & Earth, where the German photographer builds a narrative around the idea of sustainable, future cities in which the natural landscape and more considered architecture flow into one another.

“The first thing that became evident for everyone in the first quarter of the year was nature’s innate resilience. How it can bounce back as soon as we take the pressure off cities and living areas. We saw nature returning to its normal level of thriving life.”

Figueres is a self-proclaimed “stubborn optimist”, something that she advocates during the interviews on her podcast, Outrage + Optimism, which she co-hosts with Paul Dickinson, founder of the not-for-profit charity CDP, which provides transparent data on corporate and urban environmental impacts, and Tom Rivett-Carnac, a political lobbyist for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The weekly show, with over 80 episodes to date, boasts an impressive list of guests, including David Attenborough, Wanjira Mathai and Massive Attack. It also quizzes leaders of large corporations such as Uber and Unilever, about the green commitments they have pledged to achieve over the critical decade that lies ahead. “You even see companies saying that by 2030, not only are they going to be net-zero, they’re going to be climate positive, absorbing more carbon than they actually emit,” she says. “So you see a very quick escalation and acceleration of ambition, as companies really begin to focus on this.”

As we come to the end of the first year of the ‘decade of change’, Figueres is optimistic. “The first thing that became evident for everyone in the first quarter of the year was nature’s innate resilience,” she begins explaining. “How it can bounce back as soon as we take the pressure off cities and living areas. We saw nature returning to its normal level of thriving life.

“The second realisation was the quantification of how many greenhouse gas emissions we were going to save this year by staying home”. In 2020, greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 8 per cent, “more or less the average yearly descent that we need from here until the end of the decade.” She adds: “Now, the problem with that is it’s come at a huge human cost. We need to be able to attain that level but qualitatively in a completely different manner, by creating jobs in the new economy and being able to contribute to human wellbeing, not to human misery.”

“Oh and, how could we forget!” she exclaims, her blue and brown eyes lighting up behind the chestnut frames of her glasses, as we speak via a video call, between England and Costa Rica. “In the last quarter of this decade we have had a major geopolitical shift.” She describes the European Union’s “green and inclusive recovery package, China announcing their new target of peaking emissions before 2030 and reaching net zero before 2060, followed by Korea, Japan and South Africa announcing their 2050 net zero targets as well,” and of course, the results of the latest US election, with the new government already guaranteeing a return to climate change commitment.

Figueres’ stubborn optimism is infectious and necessary. Given her track-record of inciting real and meaningful shifts towards progress, her call to imagine a better future, and to create visual storylines and references to make it a reality, is not to be taken lightly. For Figueres, it started with the golden toad. What will it be for you?

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Managing Editor of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.

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