Christiana Figueres and the Collaborative Approach to Negotiating Climate Action Great Negotiator Case Study Series


James K. Sebenius, Laurence A. Green, Hannah Riley Bowles, Lara SanPietro, and Mina Subramanian

This case study centers on PON 2022 Great Negotiator Christiana Figueres and her efforts as Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC to build momentum for, and ultimately pass the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

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The Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School periodically presents the Great Negotiator Award to an individual whose lifetime achievements in the field of negotiation and dispute resolution have had a significant and lasting impact. In 2022, PON selected Christiana Figueres as the recipient of its Great Negotiator Award.

As UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres was tasked with a seemingly insurmountable challenge of putting together an impactful, global climate agreement to save the planet. Coming out the dramatic failure of the Copenhagen summit, many believed that such an agreement was not possible. However, with persistent optimism and careful, targeted interventions aimed at building momentum, in 2015 the Paris Agreement was unanimously adopted by the 196 participating nations and set forth a new framework for international climate agreements.

Figueres had to personally undergo a transformation to let go of her identity as a Costa Rican diplomat so she could approach the negotiations from a global perspective and meet each participating nation from their perspective. The negotiation process itself was not just the two-week conference in Paris but instead was a years-long series of actions taken by Figueres and others to help enhance the probability of a successful outcome at the negotiating table. These actions included things like discussions with private industry groups, repeated talks with the Saudi government, and Operation Groundswell, in which a small team of strategic influencers worked with partners behind the scenes to build support for an ambitious outcome. By bringing different coalitions of countries and non-state actors together to lead the way, a more expansive agreement became possible.

Major lessons of this case study include:

  • Coalition and spoiler management in complex international treaty negotiations
  • Principal-agent dynamics
  • Active listening and difficult conversations
  • Building momentum for an agreement
  • Power dynamics in negotiation
  • Deal implementation and sustainability

This case can be paired with the Great Negotiator 2022: Christiana Figueres videos, available for purchase separately from the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC).