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UN official: Climate change should not be about politics

In a matter of weeks, the world's governments will gather in Paris to address climate change.

In a matter of weeks, the world's governments will gather in Paris to address climate change. Many have called it a do-or-die moment for the planet, our last chance to cut emissions or consign ourselves to an overheated doom. And it’s Christiana Figueres' job to make sure it all works. 

She’s the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which basically means she’s in charge of protecting the Earth as we know it. She’s working to convince 195 countries to quit fossil fuels and commit to a path of clean, renewable energy. 

As the calendar flips toward the most important climate meeting in years on November 30, the 59-year-old Costa Rican paused for an interview with MSNBC. Figueres predicted success in Paris, carrying the weight of the world with humor and good cheer, while also wincing at Republican denials of climate science.

“This is a discussion that is about the fate of humanity. It should not be about politics.” '

For Figueres to help billions of people she’ll first need to satisfy a few hundred, most of them Republican members of congress. 

“Honestly, it almost makes me laugh. I really think it belongs in the humor box," Figueres said. “This is a discussion that is about the fate of humanity. It should not be about politics.” 

Republicans have tried to scuttle a deal in Paris by pledging to stall American promises. But Figueres said other countries are proceeding as though the GOP does not exist. 

“They’re not concerned about that because the United States administration has already given such a very, very concrete proof that they are serious about this,” she said. “It’s a matter of actually of economic competitiveness. Whether you believe in climate change or not, I think you want to protect your economy.”

Republicans aside, Figueres believes that humanity—after decades of wavering—is finally ready to get serious about global warming. 

“There barely is a country that has not already suffered the impact of change in one way or the other: whether it’s droughts, or wildfires or the disappearance of lakes,” she explained. The cumulative suffering is “much more existential” than it was for the last major climate gathering in Copenhagen in 2009.

Like Paris, Copenhagen was billed as a historic event. But it ended with all-night negotiations and only modest success. Instead of an agreement to slash carbon emissions, officials merely agreed on a goal for Paris: a deal to keep the rise of global temperatures within two degrees Celsius. 

So are we on track to accomplish that goal in Paris? Not exactly.

About 130 countries have sent Figueres their plans to reduce emissions. Add them up, however, and the world is still on track to blow past its limits, suffering at least three degrees of warming, according to Figueres, and as much as six degrees, according to other estimates. 

That's enough to unleash a plague of extreme weather that’s bigger than our ability to adapt. Figueres, however, isn’t ready to panic. She’s asking for patience. 

“This is truly about a radical transformation of the energy system,” she said. “It’s definitely not something that’s going to occur in a short period of time. It necessarily going to be a multi-decadal effort.”

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She prefers to see Paris not as a failure in the making but as a foundation for future success. 

“Yeah,” she said. “I wouldn’t say ‘fail to reach the 2 degree goal.’ Because, you know, if you’re traveling to Washington from New York, by the time you get to Philly, you haven’t failed to get to New York—you’re on your way to New York. And that’s the logic that needs to be applied here.” 

She expects progress because there’s been a break in the supposedly unbreakable link between booming emissions, and a booming economy. For 150 years they moved in tandem, but in 2014 the economy grew—and emissions did not. 

“To take the global energy system from where it is now, which is so heavily dependent on fossil fuels, so carbon intensive, to a really, very dramatic de-carbonization of the energy system,” she said, “requires a transformation that is not short of a revolution.” 

The word revolution may be an understatement. Fossil fuel is the force behind modern society. It’s a power that’s present in every skyline, tucked inside every wallet. Even Figueres is willing to give thanks for the blessings of hydrocarbon. 

“Truly, we owe them a lot,” she admitted. “We wouldn’t be sitting here without them.” 

That’s why it’s been so hard to quit them. Almost every country depends on fossil fuels for their energy or national income. And yet most of the fossil fuel in reserves today must remain unburned, a stranded asset of incalculable value. 

Figueres brightens at the idea of ditching all this carbon, "cozy" underground: "They are wonderfully kept way down there where they are,” she said.  

But how to convince a Saudi Arabia or an Exxon to walk away from so much wealth? That's still unclear to Figueres.

Perhaps so-called geoengineering, the intentional tweaking of the atmosphere, will become safer, she said. Or perhaps carbon capture technology will improve. If so more carbon could be burned.

But Figueres is optimistic. She believes in the motivating power of hope, not fear, and chooses to emphasize the former. 

"I think that several years ago we made the huge mistake of putting out a doom and gloom message. Unless you do this, you know, some kind of apocalypse. How is that going to get us any further?"

With that she was gone. But not without a promise.

"We are definitely closer to the draft that is going to be adopted in Paris," she said. "So stay tuned for very good news the first week in October."