During a weekend of spring-like weather in December, I’m thinking about Christiana Figueres as she’s making her way home from COP21, the UN climate conference where the historic Paris Agreement was just achieved. Christiana has been the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change since July 2010, a year after the convention’s failure to reach an agreement in Copenhagen. After that huge disappointment, one could easily wonder why anyone would take on the role of trying to help 195 countries agree to meaningful action on climate change. I knew if anyone was going to lead a shift – and a very big shift at that – it would be Christiana.
Christiana is one of my heroes, having had the privilege of working with her after she founded the Center for Sustainable Development of the Americas back in 1995. She also guided me to the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland where I immersed myself in programs that literally changed my life. Christiana personifies what I learned there – how your presence has power when you’re present to all that is around you: in other words, when you are curious and nonjudgmental. With Christiana’s urging, I also learned to understand and appreciate the Gestalt concept of “self as instrument,” which tells us that with a heavy dose of self-awareness and a finely-tuned sense of what’s happening “in the room,” we can be an instrument for change – whether that’s in a team meeting, a training session for civil society organizations or at COP21.
In an August 2015 article in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert offers many examples of why Christiana is such an effective instrument for change. She shares a classic Christiana quote: “I don’t want to put people into a black box and say, ‘You’re the culprits,’ and point a blaming finger. It just helps absolutely nothing. Call it my anthropological training. Call it whatever. But I always want to understand: what is behind all of this?”
I knew from the moment she took on this herculean job of executive secretary Christiana would put together a team that would “never give up,” as one of her recent tweets exclaimed. She would stay curious and figure out what was “behind it all” in order to help move it all forward.
There were activists around the world who never gave up too. As reported by the New York Times, “World leaders who met here [Paris] credited ‘civil society’ for keeping up the pressure.” As Christiana enthusiastically stood at the podium in Paris with her thumbs up, she was simultaneously pointing out to the cheering crowd and applauding them. (Classic Christiana). More than 1,800 nongovernmental organizations representing millions of citizens were represented at COP21.
Here at Counterpart, our work in more than 20 countries on climate resiliency, health and nutrition, access to education, livelihoods and governance depends on a partnership between civil society, governments and the private sector. The agreement reached in Paris should give us a bit more hope that we can succeed in moving those big boulders up the mountain. As of today, the #ParisPledge is endorsed by 10 million people and can help to remind us that in all our work here at Counterpart to help people improve their lives and build more durable futures, We Can. We Must. We Will.