Who saves the world: girls

Last night Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, gave an impassioned speech at the Grantham Institute. It was easy to see why she had achieved the impossible in Paris last December, bringing the world to a unanimous agreement to act on climate change. From the back of a packed room, her small stature was barely visible above the lectern, yet she gave a rousing address.

Figueres could easily have discussed her role at COP21, the challenges of the negotiations, the politics and policy, but instead she chose to focus on what next. Far from resting on its success, she was unequivocal that the Paris Agreement came 10 years too late. The pressure is on, she said, and the world needs to feel it. Success at COP21 is the easy part, now we need to be proactive in our daily lives to make the right choice – towards less carbon and more growth.

Her speech covered the causal relationship between carbon in the atmosphere and poverty levels, and the directional relationship between climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. She stressed the economic, social, moral and physical urgency of action; and the benefits, from improved energy access to resilient infrastructure to healthier and wealthier societies.

Even for those in the audience not naturally in her awe, it would have been hard not to be swept up in her vision of the future, where every surface is a latent power plant, and cities are built and retrofitted with human need at the core.  Figueres pulled examples from the insurance industry to give weight to the argument that even if you took the science away from climate change, just for economic stability, business as usual is impossible. And it was encouraging to hear that she believes unprecedented conditions currently exist to make change possible.

None of this was new information, but it was powerful to hear in person. I’d enjoyed Pilita Clarke’s dinner interview from last November, and of course watched her at the negotiations closely, but hearing her speak last night was a reminder that this is a woman who had the right skill, position and passion the world needed at a crucial moment in time, and has truly made her mark in history.

However, of all the points she covered, what struck me most was her response to a question in the audience that touched on something I’d not previously considered.

Why, she pondered, is it that there are more men in energy roles and more women in climate change roles?

It could be that women are more focussed on the solutions, she joked. Keen to stress the generalisation, Figueres considered that the answer may be because women naturally tend to focus on long-term thinking and be more collaborative – two essential skills to having the world act together, no matter what the issue.

A VICE article from last year goes so far as to suggest that women may be more affected by climate change. It quotes research from LSE which suggests women are impacted more by natural disasters and are responsible for more of the jobs that are made harder by a warming world (e.g. finding water in the developing world).

Regardless of what you think of these points, it’s impossible not to agree with Figueres' assertion that until recently the world has relied on the collective brainpower and imagination of only half the population. So it’s encouraging this morning to read that about the launch of a campaign to enlist women in boardrooms to take up the climate mantle. ‘Two Degrees of Change’, spearheaded by Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, will encourage woman to raise climate issues with their company boards and demand that investors take action.

Of course it’s not just women who should – and are currently – raising the issue to the board level. There is increasing swaths of research showing that business leaders are taking the threat (and importantly the opportunity) of climate change seriously. A recent Forbes contributor article noted that sustainability can no longer be “compartmentalised”; it impacts every facet of every business, and C-suites need to be ahead of the curve if their businesses are to adapt, survive and indeed thrive.

Along with the need to change comes the need to communicate that change. The behavioural shift presents a huge opportunity for businesses, and for those not yet talking about their actions today and ambitions for tomorrow they are missing a chance to improve their reputation, and ultimately their bottom line.

The business world should take note from Christiana Figueres and boldly, passionately and steadfastly beat the drum for change.

Suzy Greenwood

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search