By Jordan Payne
Laurence Tubiana is a French economist, diplomat and professor who served as the French ambassador to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP21, where the latest global agreement on climate change was negotiated. Tubiana’s experience with climate change policy extends from research to implementation, including roles as the founding director of a sustainable development research institute in Paris and a previous post as senior environment advisor to former French prime minister Lionel Jospin.
Tubiana spoke at Stanford on Tuesday to kick off a speaker series hosted by the Woods Institute for the Environment. The Daily sat down with Tubiana to discuss her upbringing and her hopes for the future of climate change action.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): I read online that you moved from Algeria when you were 11. Could you tell me more about your experience of moving to a new country?
LT: That’s long and long ago! I think it was very difficult, in a way. Algeria is a very sunny country bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and to be thrown into winter in Paris, for example, was just a shock. At that moment, in North Africa, it was a mix of language from Arabic, French, Spanish [especially since I was coming] to a very French culture. But at the same time, it gave me a sense that I was not from somewhere, but more that I was a global citizen in a way. That has determined probably 100 percent my next steps in my studies and in my interests.
Coming from a place and then going to another one, feeling that you can’t just say, “I am from this place and I will not move,” because you have to — that has really made me think a lot about how I could be a part of this global community and [work] on north-south relations in particular, because of this story I think. Everyone is in a way determined by his personal story, so that’s why.
TSD: What role did your parents play in your academic and intellectual upbringing?
LT: My father was a lawyer, and so certainly he would have liked me to study law. My mother was more in the humanities. Actually, economics was sort of in between! I was very happy to talk about politics and economics with my parents, [who] were very active and very engaged, and so that was part of the family.
TSD: What introduced you to climate change policy?
LT: My first advocacy activities and research activities were around trade, north-south issues and in particular on agriculture and global commodities. Then of course around the 1990s, the relation between all these elements of trade began to be related [to] environment as integration with the global economy was [becoming] even more intensive… So I began to be interested in that and then interested in first biodiversity, forest issues… and then I was more interested by climate, just because it was beginning to be a very big topic, and because I then went to government as an advisor to the prime minister in France and discovered, a little bit, this world of international negotiations. Because there was no strong team at that time, [from] there I began to create a sort of a team and diplomatic activity, which [was] not the custom in France. The diplomats were not trained on this environmental issue, so I began to be very active on that, to propose reforms in the system, in particular in the foreign affairs system, and so then I began engaging in practicing and going to the negotiations themselves.
TSD: What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?
LT: Of course Paris is a big thing. You don’t do that twice in a life. Really being instrumental in crafting this agreement and making people agree on that — yes, I don’t think it would happen twice in a life.
TSD: How do you feel overall about the outcomes of the COP21 Conference?
LT: It has to be confirmed over time, but I think it’s, even to my positive surprise, it’s really a turning point. I was looking for this message to appear, that it is a turning point, but you feel now that people have changed the way they see the solutions for climate, the scope of the risk, the necessity to act. You don’t see now any country who doesn’t want to have a climate policy… And now, it’s not only [the] government. It’s everywhere where people are saying, “What [am I] doing to [contribute to] that?”
TSD: In terms of your hopes for the future of climate change action, would it be focused on food consumption?
LT: This is one of course, but the drivers of action are everywhere. It’s really a cross-cutting issue. You can’t think in one silo — [one] has to really think on the more systemic approach, because again even things that look technical and practical like the habitat and the transport and the way you use your time… the solutions are systemic, and so that’s why it will be not easy to do that immediately, so you need time. So I count that as one domain.
But where I see more connection with individual commitment is certainly on this, probably transport, if now people go and try to use more bicycles than their car, they try to eat less meat and more vegetables, and they probably change a little bit the way they travel far. So that is the way the individual component [works], but the rest is really about [the] system of how our societies are organized. So that’s why, in a way, you have to focus on the decision-makers who finally offer the solution to the people. The [national] government, of course, but business and local governments — they are the ones that have to make the change, or offer the change or the possibility.
Contact Jordan Payne at jpayne1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.