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A dynamic leader charted the path to a new global climate agreement

Hours after the world’s governments adopted a landmark climate accord this month, Christiana Figueres was all smiles on the dance floor of a boisterous night club in Paris. As the leader of the United Nations climate convention, she had spent five long years travelling the world to rally support among environmentalists, businesses and govern­ments for the accord, in which 195 countries pledged to keep global warming to well below 2 °C. But now here she was, leading conga lines and dancing to the Village People’s classic ‘Y.M.C.A.’.

Asked whether she ever had any doubts, she flashed a smile, pulled her hands together as if in prayer and pointed skyward. “The stars are guiding us,” she said.

Nature special: The year in review

Born into a politically powerful family in Costa Rica, Figueres came by her activism naturally. Her father led the republic’s 1948 revolution and served as its first president. Her brother followed suit, with a term as president in the 1990s, and her mother served in the congress. Friends and colleagues credit Figueres for breaking out of her comfort zone in Costa Rica and jumping into the international environmental arena.

“In this country, being a Figueres means something,” says Monica Araya, a former climate negotiator who founded Nivela, an environmental think tank based in Heredia, Costa Rica. “She built a whole career outside Costa Rica, and in a very important way she chose climate change as her activity.”

Figueres attributes her environmental activism to the demise of a toad that disappeared from Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. She saw one when she was young, but her daughters missed the chance. “That was a real awakening for me,” she says, because rising temperatures have been linked to the toad’s extinction. “I started reading into the topic, and before I knew it I was devoting my life to climate change.”



Christiana Figueres

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