Crib Sheet: Christiana Figueres, Climate Change Chief of the U.N., Not Trashy Romance Novelist

Christiana Figueres


She has described her new job as “thankless,” but all hail Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s new climate chief. The 53-year-old Costa Rican is a surprise appointment, as everyone was expecting Ban Ki-Moon to offer Marthinus Van Schalkwyk the post. But politics is in her blood–her dad, Jose Figueres Ferrer, three-times president of Costa Rica, fronted the country’s 1948 revolution, and her mom was a New York-born student activist. Plus, one look at her résumé, and it’s not so surprising she’s on track to beat the South African, nicknamed “short pants” for his lack of political experience, to the job.

In many instances, a nomadic early life is the catalyst for an individual choosing to have a career at the United Nations, and Figueres can certainly lay claim to that. Brought up in the farm community her father founded, she attended a German school in San José and completed her education in the U.K. before going to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to study anthropology. A career in diplomacy followed, before she and her husband, World Bank bigwig Konrad von Ritter (they met at the LSE), moved to D.C. to bring up their two daughters.

Sources cite Figueres’ homeland as one of the main reasons for her appointment. Although Van Schalkwyk was seen as having “more clout,” Costa Rica’s status as a small and environmentally aware country means it is more at risk from climate change. Small island and developing states will have lobbied long and hard for her, arguing that she will put their interests first. Described as “well liked and a competent negotiator,” a source at the U.N. said, “If they wanted a technical bureaucrat, she’s probably as good as you’ll get.”

Adopting R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” as a campaign song: “You need to be able to provide a sense of inspiration and motivation to get over this ‘thankless’ thing. I think there’s a sense of hopelessness, that we’re not getting anywhere, and we really need to turn that around. We really need to create an ambiance of ‘Yes, we can do that.'”

Can we? Yes we Cancún: “I would say that there is an opportunity to take some of the elements that are in the Copenhagen accord, such as fast-track financing, such as the whole thing with deforestation, such as a framework for adaptation, and begin to focus on delivery. I think it’s going to be really critical, what is done over the next nine months. Are we actually going to be able to go to Cancún and say, OK, this is the end of the year 2010, here’s what has been delivered on fast track?”

So, working with the world leaders, then: “What we don’t need is any more political guidance. High-level heads of state, political guidance, we got that.”


Ah, so, not working with the world leaders, then: “The role of civil society is to say, excuse me, that’s not enough. The science says that’s not enough. That’s not going to guarantee my children’s and my grandchildren’s quality of life.”

How does she get on with the chairman of the U.N.’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajenda Pachauri?: We-ell. The man who works “16-17 hours a day, seven days a week,” is under fire for his consultancy work for financial institutions. Figueres, who has said she would cease her outside consulting work if she got the job, was diplomatic about Pachauri’s moonlighting. “Doctor Pachauri I believe is at freedom to allocate his time as he sees fit,” she said. “That would not be my choice.” Once Figueres’ appointment is official, the doctor may find himself with more time on his hands, the perfect opportunity to write a companion to his recently published novel, Return to Almora, about an “aging Indian scientist [who] flies around the world bedding young followers.”

Would you like to read a quote?: Okay then. “He enjoyed the sensation of gently pushing Susan’s shoulders back a few inches, an action that served to lift her breasts even higher. He was excited by the sight of her heaving breasts, as she breathed in and out deeply.”

No, I mean a quote about Christiana: “I have been truly inspired by her. She is the kind of person who replies to a random student’s email asking about the Clean Development Mechanism with loads of helpful information and guidance. How far she went to help each of us was incredible, and I believe it shows her dedication to youth development and her belief in the significance of a sound civil society.”

Oh, go back to Doctor Pachauri’s book: Oh, okay, then. “Sandy, I’ve learned something for the first time today. You are absolutely superb after meditation. Why don’t we make love every time immediately after you have meditated?” OKAY!

About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.