Imagine you are hosting a gathering of more than 150 world leaders that could decide the fate of billions of people. How would you build trust and bridge gaps among disparate interests and personalities? How would you make the most of limited time to forge a meaningful and legally binding agreement? That was the challenge facing Laurence Tubiana, France’s top climate-change envoy and the main organizer of last year’s historic Paris Climate talks (related coverage, timeline and more).

“A Conversation with Laurence Tubiana” on Nov. 1 is the first of a series of wide-ranging, informal conversations to be hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute. Each conversation will explore the who, how and why behind major developments in environmental science and policy. Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of Woods, will start the exchange, with much of the time reserved for interactions with the audience (register to attend).

Tubiana is widely credited with deftly managing the talks toward an ambitious final agreement that limits warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, requires definitive national policies on cutting emissions and compels financial institutions to account for climate change in investments, among other outcomes.

“International negotiations can sometimes feel like 99 percent of the time and attention gets spent on grandstanding and diversions,” said Field, co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 2008-2015. “Laurence is a master diplomat who knows how to keep focused on the real issues. She has the patience to find the real opportunities, and she has the personal spark to bring the players together when the moment is right.”

Tubiana is the founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) in Paris, and Professor and Director at the Sustainable Development Center at Sciences Po Paris.

Inverting past practices, Tubiana suggested inviting heads of state to the opening of the Paris conference, rather than the end. She relaxed the dress code, and kept delegates happy with a range of details from meals to lighting. Tubiana’s signature Converse All-Stars – chosen after a riding accident – were seemingly everywhere during the U.N. conference.

“On the issues, the French team leading COP 21 was focused, flexible and creative,” Field said. “On managing the personal interactions, they did an amazing job of assuring everyone felt respected and sustaining reasons to keep coming back to the table. There were countless points where things could have fallen apart. Laurence and her team worked miracles to keep that from happening.”

"In many ways, Dr. Tubiana set the standard for Paris,” said Valeri Vasquez, a former counselor to Dan Reifsnyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment in the U.S. Department of State and cochairman of the negotiations group that developed the Paris agreement. “Her personal commitment to conducting a transparent, democratic process ensured that the many voices necessary to the agreement were heard. But more than that, those voices felt that they were heard. That too is due in large part to Dr. Tubiana."

“When 195 different countries come together and try to discuss charged topics like loss and damage payments from developed to developing countries, I can only imagine – and have heard from negotiators – that interpersonal dynamics are incredibly important, said John Ribeiro-Broomhead, a Stanford senior majoring in public policy who attended the Paris talks as part of a Stanford delegation of observers. “Dr. Tubiana headed months and months of preparatory meetings designed to parse out the elements of those contexts, and build a foundation of understanding between agents that would hold under the pressure of negotiations.”

Tubiana has said women “have an enormous role to play in changing our attitude toward climate change” – a sentiment with special resonance for Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at Woods.

“Climate responses are as much about leadership, aspirations, and choices as cut-and-dry analyses of economics and technologies,” Mach said. “Women like Dr. Tubiana are leaders emphasizing the climate issue is for everyone. Her low-key, transformational verve and strategic insights are majorly inspirational.” 

The next U.N. climate talks, to be held in Morocco this November, is the first such conference not focused on forging an agreement, but rather about implementing the agreement in force. “Turning the corner from negotiating to managing is a big deal,” Field said. “All countries have a lot to learn about the details of implementation. I’m optimistic that, as we learn more, we can make rapid progress on the Paris goals and move quickly to raising ambition beyond those in the commitments countries made for the Paris Agreement.”