Restoring Hope

Former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres reflects on the success of the Paris Agreement, the essential role of the UN, and the future of multilateralism.

The United Nations was founded 70 years ago in the turmoil and trauma of World War II with the firm conviction that a better future was possible, and it was ours to create.

Much has been achieved in the intervening years that has certainly kept the world on a safer trajectory, but today, only 16 years into the new millennium, we seem beset on all sides by impossible problems. Terrorism, inequality, environmental degradation, financial crises, wars, forced migration. There is a growing sense that our problems have changed and become more complex but also that they have become too large for us to solve. As a result, we have become used to not really addressing the fundamental issues but lurching from one crisis to the next, just getting by.

People have lost trust that their lives can get better and that institutions are on their side. This in turn is leading to apathy, depression, despair and in some cases to the development of radical views.

This cycle must be stopped, before it consumes our collective future.

The truth is that the problems of today can only be addressed through working together, using multilateral dialogue to find common ground and take collective action. The last years have seen a discrediting of multilateralism as agreements on issues such as trade and the refugee crisis have proved elusive. These failures themselves further feed the narrative that our problems have grown beyond our control.

It does not have to be this way.

I joined the UN Climate Secretariat after the disaster of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 and left in 2016 on the back of the most ambitious climate agreement in history. The Paris Agreement was not an accident — it was strategy and attitude. It was the culmination of six years of patient rebuilding of a broken system that had lost all trust and confidence, into one that was capable of entering an upward spiraling of commitment and ambition. It was the result of a shared commitment that arose from the collective realization that we would all be losers if we did not find a way to win together. It was the harvest of years of careful listening that enabled the elusive common ground to emerge.

Paris can be an anomaly or it can become the norm for multilateralism in the 21st century. We must ensure it is the latter, so that we can rebuild the world’s confidence in the ability of the UN and its Member States to work together and solve the most difficult problems of our times.

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