Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Episode 10: Roya Rahmani interviews Christiana Figueres

In the 10th episode of the series, Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Afghan Ambassador to the US, interviews Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Co-Founder of Global Optimism about her experience working to combat climate change at the international level.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. Today we are celebrating our 10th episode of the series. In this inspiring conversation, Ambassador Roya Rahmani, Afghan Ambassador to the United States, interviews Christiana Figueres, Former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Co-Founder of Global Optimism about her experience working to combat climate change.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Welcome to this episode of changing the face of politics podcast series. My name is Roya Rahmani and I am the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States. I'm delighted to introduce my guest, Christiana Figueres, who is former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and co-founder of global optimism. Christiana is one of those powerful women who has set new norms, broken many barriers, and not given up because the tasks seem impossible. She has mastered the art of consensus building and demonstrated the power of persistence and inclusivity and addressing difficult tasks. For this work, she has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy. Christina knows that women in particular have the power to bring people together and has leveraged us during her work on climate change. She is also cohost of the podcast Outreach and Optimism, and is the co author of the recently published book, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. Christiana, thank you for being with us. I am so pleased that you are participating in this conversation.

Christiana Figueres: Thank you. Thank you, ambassador. Thank you for the invitation to the episode and the podcast. Thank you for being here with me. It is truly an honor and a delight to be in conversation with you.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Likewise. Well just to kickstart, your work on climate change took highly skilled political crafting to bring governments at the national and subnational levels together and to build consensus. Looking at all of your work and achievements, I wanted to ask, what motivated you to get politically involved in the first place? Was there a personal connection to an issue, a political party or your family? Over to you!

Christiana Figueres: Well, thank you. There was a personal connection, but it is also, I would say a historical connection because the two are part and parcel of the same. My personal connection is that I very quickly realized when I began to read myself into the topic of climate change, I realized that there was a huge generational injustice here, and that those of us who are currently adults have a historical responsibility vis-a-vis those generations that are yet to come. I have two daughters who are currently in their early thirties, and it's very clear to me that they will be subjected to impacts of climate change that I will never see. But my daughters represent for me, in addition to being the two great loves of my life, they represent future generations. And this is the worst injustice that we have ever, ever brought upon the planet.

It is unjust toward future generations. It is unjust toward vulnerable populations, today's vulnerable populations, and there are vulnerable populations in every country. Although some countries have a greater proportion of vulnerable people. It is unjust toward women because women are disproportionately negatively affected by climate change. And it is certainly unjust toward people under the poverty line because they have not contributed at all and yet they will face the highest and deepest impacts. So climate change above all is a justice issue. It is a social justice issue. It's a gender issue. It's a generational issue. It is a North-South justice issue. It cuts across many different levels of justice or injustice, and I was raised by my father to actually take up the mantle of justice. And hence, here I am

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Beautiful. Absolutely. I can't agree more. Speaking of justice, what challenges you have faced during your political career, being a woman? What have you seen work to increase the number of women in political leadership and advocacy? We don't see that justice is fully served still at this century when we are talking about women equality and their leadership. 

Christiana Figueres: No, very true ambassador. And I'm, I'm sure you experienced that in your daily life and in your professional performance as well. I was very grateful to see that throughout the years that I served the United Nations, there was an increasing participation of women in many different areas. More and more. Since I sat up on the podium, I had the full hall--the negotiating hall in front of me--and every year I saw more women participating in national delegations. I saw more women participating in the stakeholder teams that surround the national government delegations. I have seen more and more women enter into the professional space of renewable energy. Energy was typically a profession that was a sector that was reserved for men, and now that we're moving into renewables, I see more and more female renewable energy engineers, which is quite delightful.

I see more and more women moving into climate finance. I see certainly more women in activism. In fact, let me say, I have been delighted to notice that the activism of young people in the streets is led by young women. Almost every single young activist, millions of which have been on the streets except for the COVID year, but almost every single one of them is a young woman, starting actually at age 11. So, you know, you could say, well, that's a child, but given the responsibilities that those girls have taken on, I would say, you know, they're already adults in my book. And so I'm quite delighted. I'm quite delighted at the progress of leadership and a recognition of female leadership. And at the same time, we are definitely not at a 50-50, definitely not there yet. Moving in the right direction, but not where we need to go.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: How do you assess the pace? The pace that this issue is traversing, moving forward, or toward, hopefully equality.

Christiana Figueres: Numerically, 50-50. 50-50 is our goal, and so with every meeting that I am in, if there's not at least 50% female participation, I've actually made it a habit, ambassador, to start the meeting by just saying,  “good morning, how are you all and what's wrong with this meeting?” Or, you know, sometimes these photo ops, right? Of people who go to conferences or whatever, and I'll say, “Hello, everyone, wonderful to be in this photo. What's wrong with this photo?” And just ask the question, “what is wrong with this meeting? What is wrong with this conference? What is wrong with this photo?” Just ask the question, and everybody begins to, you know, look around and try to find something, you know, that is wrong in the text or in the whatever in the meeting papers or something. And you just let them stew a little bit to find out.

And then eventually you say where's the 50-50, you know, gender participation here. And then people start to make excuses: “Oh...well”. So that's a good thing. It is no longer acceptable.  Generally, as a norm, in most countries, not in all.  But in most countries, it is no longer acceptable not to have 50-50 participation. But it is our responsibility, our responsibility, us women who do sit at the tables of decision to constantly constantly raise the issue, not in an attack form, not in a critical form. Just a statement of fact: “what is wrong here?” It's just wrong. So, and obviously it can't be corrected in that moment, but people begin to think about it, and for the next time, they probably will make much more of an effort to have a 50-50. So that's my little contribution to that. Just ask “What's wrong with this conference?” “What's wrong with this meeting? what's wrong with this photo?”, and let people think about it.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Do you think there's a relationship between gender equality and democracy?

Christiana Figueres: What an interesting question. Let me say this, since there are at least 50% women on this planet and in general, 50% women in democratic countries, then the absence of the voice or the decision power or the professional development or the education of women is an attack on democracy. It just is, it just--numerically because democracy is all about representing a hundred percent of the constituency within the boundaries of that democratic system. And so if those representing do not mirror the gender equity that already exists in our, in nature in human procreation, then it is an attack on democracy. Yes..

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Wow. Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the facts is of course, that we live in a very rapidly evolving world with incidences and events happening at the pace that we may or may not be prepared for. One of such that has presented itself over the past year has been this COVID 19 pandemic, which has put a lot of structures and norms of how we do things to test. Given your wealth of experience in the multilateral settings, has the COVID-19 crisis influenced or changed your political viewpoint? If so, can you give us an example of that?

Christiana Figueres: Well, I don't think it has changed my political viewpoint. It has deepened my political concerns. Because as I said before, I was imbued with values and principles by my father who was one of the top protectors of democracy in Latin America. And not only was he one of the top protectors, but he was always guided by social justice. The fact that COVID has hit those who have the least financial resilience to survive the disease worst, is again a deepening of social injustice. Those who--the informal sector that depends on their daily income to be able to feed their children or those who have very occasional opportunities to earn a living. Those are the ones that have been hit the most, and those are the ones that have the least capacity to survive the economic crisis, to be able to support their families. So that to me is just, again, you know, a deepening of injustice. So COVID, hasn't changed my politics. It has deepened my politics or deepened my concerns of how something that was as unpredictable as COVID has actually, sadly, predictably deepened the gaps that we already knew.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Unfortunately, yes, indeed. Of course, as you rightly said, the vulnerable have been hit the hardest. Given your passion about all these issues and that you have demonstrated the added value that women's leadership can bring to the political scene, what will you do to accelerate the pace of change on women's political empowerment in the next 10 years?

Christiana Figueres: Well, let me first say that the next 10 years of the critical, right? So thank you for putting that on the table. Because the fact is that the next 10 years, this decade that we have just started is what we call the decisive decade. It is the decade in which we are going to determine the quality of life of humans on this planet, and that is no exaggeration. That is very well understood and by scientists, by climate scientists and planetary scientists. And so our challenge here is to certainly rise to the exigencies of climate change and global emissions, and do so in a gender responsible way. Those two things have to come hand in hand, have to go hand in hand, because we can't just address one crisis while leaving the other unattended because it will come back to bite us.

And furthermore, ambassador, it's very, very interesting that study after study after study of what can be done to have the most impacts on climate change, they all conclude that it has to do with gender. They all conclude that it's all about educating girls, giving professional opportunities to women, putting more women to sit at the decision tables, putting more women in leadership. That is fascinating to me that those two things are so intricately linked. So what am I going to do? I shall continue my very ardent advocacy for fighting rising emissions and making sure that we begin to descend emissions while giving more and more opportunity to women. I'm also at a personal level, quite delighted to be helping out several brilliant rising women leaders who are still studying. And I do think that those of us--I'm going into my 65th year of age this year--and I think those of us who are at that point have a huge responsibility to lend a helping hand to much younger women who are coming up in the ranks and who need and deserve a top-notch education and opportunities so that they can move into their roles of leadership.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Wonderful. You mentioned how you started so many meetings with that nudging question, by asking what was wrong when you did not see the gender equality around the tables. Give us one of those questions. Specifically regarding gender equality and climate change so that if anybody cannot understand it still fully, that how crucial it is for addressing that issue, that are nudged.

Christiana Figueres: I remember so many times, especially while I was at UN in which I had the privilege and the honor to travel to so many countries, because that was my job, to understand what every country and every government wanted out of a growing-- in the process toward a  global agreement. And I just remember so many times when I walked into a room and I was very often the only woman or there was one or two other women only at the table. And I really did start with that question. I remember one time we were at an international energy conference and there were, you know, as usually is done all speakers and all presenters are then put up on the stage and you have a group photo. And so we were all called up and I looked around me and there were about a hundred people on stage. I was the only woman. I was the only woman and I was appalled, right? Absolutely appalled. I was about to walk off the photo and then I thought, no, I'm going to stay here because I'm going to make a lesson out of this. And I did then immediately go to the conference organizers to the, you know, everyone who had some decision over that conference. And I said, what was wrong with that photo? And what was wrong with this conference? And, you know, first they didn't understand, well, what topic did we not cover that would not go into uniform detail? Was there anything else that you wanted to bring into discussion? I said, yes, women. And it takes a while for people to understand that because here's the thing, ambassador, no one intends to leave women outside the door. The problem is that for thousands of years, it's not even tens or hundreds for thousands of years, we, the human race have been investing in the education and the professional opportunity of men.

And it has become a mental norm for us. We don't even realize that it's there because it's such a mental norm. It's just part of our mental DNA. So in order to break that mold, you have to be incisive about that question you have to say, what is wrong here? And then people, when they figure it out, then, you know, they're startled at themselves. They are startled that they did not realize that. And in the case of these conference organizers, I cannot tell you the extremes to which they went for months after to write to me and say, dear Ms. Figueres, you know, we want to reassure you that the next time, the next year that we have this conference here are the women we're going to invite...dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And I see that process of including women honestly, actively in many, many different arenas. But we can't stop nudging. We have to ask, “what is wrong with this occasion?”

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: Yes, absolutely. The challenges are huge and still remain. And as you rightly pointed out, it is nothing new. It has been a buildup of not decades, but centuries of the practice and internalization of beliefs and ideas and practices. So given all of that and where we are, we also know that hope is always what leads the way. What are you most optimistic about?

Christiana Figueres: Actually, I am optimistic by decision because I think it is our responsibility to be optimistic. I'm not optimistic about one thing or the other, I am optimistic about life. I am optimistic about the future of this world because that's our responsibility. If we were pessimistic, we would actually be giving up hope precisely to use your word and saying, well, you know, future generations will just have to deal with this disaster that we're planning and executing here. That's not the terms of reference of any mother. We all want to have a better world for our children, our grandchildren, and everyone, else's children and grandchildren. And so I just decided many years ago that it's my responsibility to be optimistic and to wake up every morning and say, right, there are many things that are wrong, but we have the ingenuity we had in the case of climate change, which is my area.

We have the technologies, we have the capital, we know what the policies are. We just have to get this together. We have to get the political will to actually rise to this challenge. So optimism for me is not naive, it's not denying that there are many challenges. It's not saying, okay, well, you know, things will take care of themselves, even if I don't do anything about it. No, my optimism is a stubborn optimism. It's determined. It is an absolutely iron clad decision everyday because to be optimistic takes courage. It takes courage because we have a lot of bad news every day. So for me, optimism is really the daily decision that we are going to harness  everything that we must harness in order to forge a better world and that we can do it! That's the important thing! We have to be there in the realization, the firm conviction that we can do it.

Ambassador Roya Rahmani: We can do it is the word that we need to end this conversation on. And it has been such an honor and pleasure talking to you. Thank you for spending this time with us and all the very best. We can do it.

Christiana Figueres: Wonderful ambassador. Thank you very much. Thank you for the conversation.

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. Tune in on March 8th for a special episode of the podcast to celebrate International Women's Day, in which Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia, will interview Madeleine K. Albright, former US Secretary of State and NDI Board Chair, about her decades long experience in politics and diplomacy. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at

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