While some industrial sectors are making clear strides toward a cleaner world, others are not moving fast enough to adequately slow the global temperature increase, international climate leader Christiana Figueres said Thursday in delivering the 2019 Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability.

“We are facing a monumental challenge here of intergenerational responsibility,” said Figueres, who is recognized as the architect of the historic 2015 Paris Climate Accord. “We’re bookending the moment in which humans will decide if we actually improve the planet for future generations or if we actually practically destroy the living conditions.”

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More than 1,000 people were at Hill Auditorium for the Wege Lecture, U-M’s flagship lecture on sustainability. Figueres’ visit, sponsored by the School for Environment and Sustainability, the Center for Sustainable Systems and the Erb Institute, also included a visit to Mcity and a meeting with the U-M President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality.

Figueres has been credited with forging a new brand of collaborative diplomacy in her role as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016.

Photo of Christiana Figueres at Hill Auditorium
Christiana Figueres delivered the 2019 Peter M. Wege Lecture on Sustainability to an estimated 1,000 people Thursday at Hill Auditorium. (Photo by Dave Brenner)

“To the generation of the young people here today: Your generation is the first generation that is going to feel the full impact of climate change. I will not witness the full impact of climate change. The young people will,” she said.

Figueres applauded progress in the renewable energy and transportation sectors.

“We are moving irreversibly and unstoppably toward a clean world,” she said, but added the gains are not coming fast enough.

“The sectors that I mentioned are moving because we have powerful drivers of change behind them,” she said, naming technology, price descent, policy frameworks, capital, digitization, robotics and artificial intelligence.

“There are other sectors that are not moving,” she added, citing agriculture, heavy industry and construction.

The 2015 Paris Climate Accord aims to keep the rise in global temperature this century between 1.5 degrees Celsius and well below 2 degrees Celsius, but the agreement did not go far enough, she said, because the knowledge needed to go further did not yet exist.

“For the first time in climate science history, they have unpacked the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees,” she said. “That half a degree makes a world of difference.

“Two to three times as much loss in biodiversity, two to three times as much destruction of basic infrastructure, and two to three times as many people exposed to life threatening heat and drought. Inaction on climate change will cause that scenario.”

Figueres called for a steady trillion-dollar annual global investment in clean technologies, an increase from the $700 billion currently invested each year.

“We have to do both the system changes I elucidated for you, and also the behavior changes,” she said, naming diet, transportation, voting, investing and activism as ways to fight climate change on an individual level.

“We have to be stubbornly, relentlessly optimistic,” she said. “To know, yes, we have challenges. Yes, the road ahead is difficult. Yes, we don’t know exactly how we’re going to get to 1.5. Yes, we don’t know exactly how we’re going to get to carbon neutrality on this campus.

“But that cannot stop us. We have to know, what is the final destination? And then challenge ourselves — and invite everyone else to use their creativity, their innovation, their wherewithal — to get us to where we need to go.”