Listen to this article
Laurence Tubiana was working as a visiting professor at New York’s Columbia University last year, far from her home in Paris, when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, who had a proposition that was about to change Tubiana’s life. France had been confirmed as host of a huge UN conference that was supposed to deliver the first new global climate change accord in 18 years. Would she be willing to be his ambassador in the fraught negotiations needed to make it a success?
“I didn’t hesitate of course,” says Tubiana. “But at the same time I realised it was an enormous job, very challenging, very risky.”
That’s a considerable understatement. Her new job, which started in June last year, instantly propelled the 64-year-old economist and environmental policy expert from the calm pools of academia to the centre of some of the most trying global negotiations ever held — and to a senior position in France’s formidable foreign ministry.
“Fabius took a brave decision to bring in . . . somebody who hadn’t had a diplomatic career,” says Nicholas Stern, a British economist and climate change expert who has known Tubiana for nearly 20 years. “I think it’s the case that there was the odd nose out of joint because the foreign office felt this was their big moment and somebody from outside was drawn in.”
In person, Tubiana is not exactly the model of the conventional ambassador. It’s not so much her shock of white hair, fondness for skinny trousers or the bright chunky jewellery she wears. It’s her feet. Unlike other senior female diplomats, Tubiana is never in heels, spiky, low or otherwise. She wears sneakers. Quite stylish ones at times but always sneakers. This is entirely sensible, given the vast distances that need to be covered at the huge UN climate gatherings. But it is still an exception.
When we spoke shortly before the start of COP21, the UN term for this month’s climate conference, she said a horse was to blame. She fell off one during a team-building exercise this year in Paris, damaging some ligaments in her leg so badly she was forced to wear flat shoes. “Everybody was noticing, it was like a joke, particularly in the ministry of foreign affairs where, you know, that’s not the style,” she said. Undeterred, she bought different pairs of sneakers to match more formal outfits. “I decided to make a fashion statement out of it. For the COP, I decided to wear a different colour every day,” she said.
As it turned out, Tubiana had far more pressing physical considerations than footwear choices at the COP. A week before the meeting started, she suffered severe abdominal pain while flying to Paris from South Africa. On landing, she was rushed to hospital to have her appendix removed. She spent the first days of the climate conference, held in a big convention centre on the outskirts of Paris, traversing its vast corridors via an electric scooter with a “Tubiana mobile” sign on the front, insisting to anyone who asked that she was fine.
Tubiana may not be a career diplomat but she is no stranger to the workings of the French government. She was an environmental adviser to socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin between 1997 and 2002 and created an international environmental affairs division in the foreign ministry when the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy was president. But it is her unusual career, spanning the worlds of academic research, non-governmental organisations and the byzantine UN climate negotiations, that led Fabius to pick her for this latest job.
“She knows the entire world,” says Michel Colombier, research director at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), the Paris think-tank Tubiana set up more than a decade ago. He met her in 1997 when they were on France’s delegation to the UN climate talks in Japan that produced the Kyoto protocol, the last global climate treaty reached by the world’s governments. Today, her work at IDDRI and a clutch of global academic institutions means she is still close to many of the Chinese negotiators, Indian officials and US envoys involved in the Paris talks.
“She has an incredible capacity for getting people together and finding a solution,” says Colombier, pointing to her work a couple of years ago on a national committee that helped put France’s energy policies on a lower carbon footing. He attributes this to an unprepossessing demeanour that disguises the fact that “she is someone who knows what she wants and usually gets it”.
Indeed, Tubiana often speaks so quietly that people strain to hear her and she tends to pad rather than stride into a room. But she stands out from the conventional ambassadorial crowd because of her tendency to say pretty much what she thinks.
She acknowledges that she can be “quite candid”. “I think it can be a weakness but it can be a strength, because most of the time people trust you or believe what you are saying.”
The reason UN climate talks have plodded on for more than 20 years is that they are aimed at getting countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — which power most nations’ economies. Diplomats inside the talks typically tread carefully when it comes to climate change campaigns such as the divestment movement that urges investors to ditch assets in fossil fuel companies. Not Tubiana. She says she supports the divestment campaigners because they have given ordinary people an opportunity to act on climate change. “I’m very interested in this kind of movement where you take action that can have a global impact,” she says. “I think it’s very interesting to see that.”
Then there is meat. Many countries involved in the climate talks are home to powerful farming industries and rely heavily on meat export revenues. Senior climate diplomats tend to avoid taking a public stand on meat-eating, even though clearing land to raise methane-emitting cows and other livestock is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Tubiana is not a vegetarian but supports campaigns that advocate at least one meatless day a week. “I think this campaign of one day without meat and trying to decrease meat consumption could be good,” she says, especially in countries where “we are consuming too much”.
Tubiana was born in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, to a lawyer father and interior decorator mother, and moved to Paris as a child. She studied at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, better known as Sciences Po, whose alumni include four of France’s presidents and four of its prime ministers.
It was her interest in international trade, farming and environmental policies that led her to focus on global warming, and periodically to join France’s delegations to UN climate conferences. Disarmingly, she says what many climate diplomats think but rarely say about these events: “I was happy not to go because they are very boring.” But many veterans of climate talks were relieved when she was appointed to her current role. “She’s added waves of energy and imagination to the process,” says Michael Jacobs, a climate adviser to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown who has worked with Tubiana at IDDRI.
It has also demanded an inordinate amount of time from Tubiana, who is divorced with one daughter, a 26-year-old who works in theatre and cinema lighting. She has lost count of the exact number of weekends she has given up in the past 18 months and the working days that have started at 7am and ended close to midnight. She thinks she has made about 45 trips abroad but it could be 50, each one typically requiring a slew of meetings with ministers, journalists, think-tanks and business groups. There have been times when she has literally forgotten which city she was in. One morning, she flew back from a distant city to Paris and got into a cab with an adviser. “I told her, ‘I think I have time to go to the hotel before the meeting’ and she laughed and said, ‘You’re in Paris!’ I had forgotten.”
All that work has meant a lot less time for her favourite pastimes, including horseriding and visits to her farmhouse in the south of France. But she was there on a rare day off on November 13 when the terrorist attacks on Paris shook the city. There was initial speculation that the Paris climate conference could be called off but Tubiana says it was quickly apparent that it had to go ahead. “What we felt strongly was that there was the support of people saying we should continue and we should maintain the COP.”
Her academic training is evident when she talks about how she approached her role for the Paris climate meeting, designing a strategy that recognised the importance of domestic policies in pushing global action on climate change. The talks in the lead-up to Paris have been based on all countries volunteering climate action plans, drawn from national policies, that would collectively lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
More than 180 of the 195 countries involved have put forward such plans since March, the first time so many nations have published so many climate pledges in such a short time. “It’s incredible,” says Tubiana, revealing that she initially thought there could be as few as 90 plans. The process has led countries to have deep discussions about how they would combat climate change, she says, including some that have long resisted proffering such policies at an international level.
A couple of months ago, she said she thought there was a 70 per cent chance there would be a successful deal in Paris this weekend (the outcome was still unknown at the time the magazine went to press). But she has always known that the task of getting 195 countries to agree on an accord with profound implications for their economies would be immense. “Process can derail and that’s my main concern,” she says, adding she believes there is still a good chance of an agreement that would make a difference. “It will not be the perfect one by far. It will not solve everything by far. But I think it will make a difference.”
Pilita Clark is the FT’s environment correspondent
Photograph: by Lea Crespi