Christiana Figueres: “We live in a truly exciting moment in the history of our species, with a great capacity to improve the world around us for each other.”

Chair of the board

6 min read

Christiana Figueres steered the diplomatic efforts that culminated in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, in her position as Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She chairs the Earthshot Prize Foundation, and is the founder of Global Optimism, a co-presenter of the podcast Outrage + Optimism, as well as a member of the B Team. Christiana is also the author of The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis.

Climate change has been on the board radar for years, yet we find ourselves in a climate crisis. Do directors need to think about it differently?

Humanity faces a choice of the gravest consequences. We can think about it as choosing between two doors:

  • Door one is to be completely overwhelmed and paralysed by the scale and the depth of the crisis and do nothing about it, following a BAU path. This leads to economic disaster and untold human misery.
  • Door two is to stand up and understand that this is a moment that is infused with more opportunities to make a difference than ever before, precisely because of the crisis.

Frankly, we have no choice but to take door two. If we don't make a choice to contribute to solutions right now, we are, by default, choosing misery and destruction. I would hope that every responsible board member would make the right choice.

The Earthshot Prize is a good example of fostering and encouraging this innovation to happen. In 1962, the “moonshot” was a challenge set by President John F. Kennedy to reach the seemingly impossible goal of landing a man on the moon within ten years. Inspired by this stunning achievement, Prince William established The Earthshot Prize to uncover and scale the innovative solutions that will repair our planet within the next ten years.

However, innovation requires the right regulations and incentives for the private sector to invest in such ideas. This is happening right now with the first ever significant climate legislation passed in the US, supported by an estimated $369 billion investment. We have finally seen what serious industrial policy for climate change looks like.

What can directors reading this do to take a step forward in protecting the planet?

  1. Before they aspire to protect the planet, all directors have a fiduciary duty to protect their company and its assets. Therefore, the first thing directors should do is get a serious in-depth assessment of the climate risk to their company. It is absolutely at the core of a director’s duty to get a handle on the risk that is already present, whether it’s a policy risk, physical risk, financial risk or any combination of the above.

    I can’t think of a single company that could honestly say they have no climate risk. You’ve got to identify the risks, begin assessing the value of that risk, and start asking your executive and management team what they plan to do to mitigate them. You should disclose the risks identified to the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which provides clear guidance on how to go about assessing climate-related risk.

  2. Recognise the opportunities. I work with a lot of young people who repeatedly tell me they’re simply unwilling to sell their brains to irresponsible companies that aren’t and have no intention of doing their best when it comes to environmental and social issues. We also see that consumers are becoming much more discerning about the products and services they buy. It’s therefore crucial that companies undertake best practice around climate, as otherwise available talent and consumers will choose to work for and deal with companies that do.

  3. Adopt a net-zero goal and plan for it. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in, or what products and services you offer — every company needs to have a net-zero goal and a clear plan of how they will get there. In the corporate sector, environmental and social responsibility is no longer a “nice-to-have” — it’s a must-have.

“It is absolutely at the core of a director’s duty to get a handle on the risk that is already present.”

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You once said the power of feminine leadership lies in its ability to view the world as being more than just a zero-sum game. What should leaders take from that today?

Broadly speaking, I think most women tend to be more collaborative than most men; their thinking trends more towards looking at the longer term, meaning they can thrive in stewardship roles. Most of the young climate leaders I’ve met have been women, and they’ve been hugely successful in mobilising other young people into action.

Most of us have grown up with the belief that someone must always win, whether in a personal or corporate setting. Therefore, by definition, someone always has to lose. Combined with a competitive and individualistic culture, this has led us into a mentality of scarcity that fuels intense competition by implying that there isn’t enough to go around.

This mentality has led to the “tragedy of the commons”, an ill-fated paradigm that has shaped western thought and action since it was coined in 1968. This describes a situation where people act according to their own self-interest with no regard for our shared resources, which end up being depleted with devastating consequences for our land, water, and atmosphere.

We’ve got to shift away from a culture of competition towards one of collaboration in which we recognise that what’s good for you is good for me — and ultimately is good for us all. The tragedy of the commons must give way to the “necessity of the commons”, whereby we truly understand that we all depend on our surrounding environment for our very survival, and therefore it is in our common interest to protect the web of life.

What do you think of the role played by nominations committee chairs in the context of choosing leaders whose values match those needed to build a sustainable future for our species and the planet?

Nominations committees have to look for leaders who are focused on the profit capacity of the business and growth potential. However, it doesn’t stop there — they need to look for people who have a much more holistic approach. If they’re only looking at the company’s profits, then this 20th-century paradigm will drag the company back and they won’t meet 21st-century expectations of clients, consumers, and potential employees. They certainly won’t be ready to anticipate and prepare for upcoming regulations.

Ultimately, nominations committees need to be searching for people who thrive in holistic thinking and understand there is a triple bottom line — people, planet, profit — and they need to contribute to all of these, as they are mutually reinforcing. In fact, that needs to be a policy that pervades through the company’s culture as well as through the products and services they take to market.

“Nominations committees need to be searching for people who thrive in holistic thinking and understand there is a triple bottom line — people, planet, profit.”

What defining moment led you to your lifelong dedication to protecting the planet?

I never consciously chose any particular path, but in 1990 it became abruptly clear to me that our planet was under existential threat, and that the impact this would have both on people and other species would be catastrophic. I’ve mentioned before having the realisation that my daughters would never be able to see the golden toad — the first species in my native Costa Rica whose extinction was linked to climate change — which spurred me to act.

The next step was to start working on climate change at a domestic level in Costa Rica. By 1995 I was Costa Rica’s representative to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. One thing led to another until I was in Copenhagen as vice president of the Bureau of the Climate Convention for COP15 in 2009. At that conference, I was asked to chair sessions the Convention’s president was unable to attend, and the sheer pain and despair that came up in those sessions were evident. Shortly afterwards my government nominated me for the role of executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. As per the decision of the UN Secretary General, I remained in that post for six years.

Your podcast is called Outrage + Optimism. What should board directors feel outrage and optimism about today?

How about self-outrage? I think every board of directors should feel outraged at the fact that none of them has done enough. For too long, there has been a blindness to or denial of the responsibility they have here — it's not good enough to just export that responsibility and assume someone else will take care of it. There should be outrage that most corporates just haven’t been actively engaged when it comes to climate.

“Every board of directors should feel outraged at the fact that none of them has done enough.”

I think there should be optimism about the fact that, if we make the choice and are truly intentional about it, there is a huge amount of good we can do. We live in a truly exciting moment in the history of our species, with a great capacity to improve the world around us for each other. The best thing you can do is to go from apathy — where most people are — towards engagement, where you can make a real, lasting impact.

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