From Chemical Engineer to Climate Justice Avenger: A Journey with Yamide Dagnet

Yamide Dagnet, Director of Climate Justice at the Open Society Foundations, addresses the forum Financing for Resilience: Overcoming Hurdles to Catalyse Regional Action and Locally-led Adaptation and Loss and Damage Finance at COP28 in Dubai. Credit: OSF
Yamide Dagnet, Director of Climate Justice at the Open Society Foundations, addresses the forum Financing for Resilience: Overcoming Hurdles to Catalyse Regional Action and Locally-led Adaptation and Loss and Damage Finance at COP28 in Dubai. Credit: OSF
  • by Alison Kentish (saint lucia)
  • Inter Press Service

She stuck to science, discovering her path in chemical engineering. She became a scientist focused on critical reactions to solving real-world problems like improving water quality in the United Kingdom.

Her attention to detail, observation skills, and grounding in science eventually led her to a career in climate negotiations and climate justice.

As Director of Climate Justice at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), she is committed to the organization's cause of expediting a fair, transparent, low-carbon, and resilient transition in our societies.

Reflecting on her journey, she acknowledges that the task is daunting, but she remains optimistic for the future. Her roots as an islander fuel her drive to fight for a more just and resilient world.

"Vulnerable countries, including Islanders, have played a critical role in shaping negotiations and the outcome of climate negotiations over time by bringing both tangible experience and a moral voice to this issue while also bringing solutions. Even as small Islanders, we always felt that we were big on solutions," she said in a sit-down with IPS.

Financing for resilience: catalyzing community based financing for adaptation and L&D, COP 28

The move from chemical engineering to climate justice director may be non-traditional, but for Dagnet, it was a transition hinged on applying her principles and skills from the lab to the policymaking table.

"I kept the spirit of problem-solving in an unexpected career move. I see negotiations and the diplomatic world not as chemical reactions among products but as chemical reactions among people—a people alchemy," she said.

The Changing Nature of Climate Negotiations

When Dagnet entered the field of climate negotiations, the focus was predominantly technical, she told IPS. Things have changed since then. The talks have morphed into a more political sphere, increasingly shaped by geopolitical dynamics. It is a shift that Dagnet says requires an understanding of the diverse interests of countries at the negotiating table.

"When I joined the negotiations, we were just getting into the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol," she said, adding, "Over time, everything that would affect geopolitics would affect the climate negotiations as well. That was really key to creating trust and understanding for landing the Paris Agreement itself. The Paris Agreement was no longer just a climate agreement. It had become a socio-economic and environmental agreement that had to be contextualized."

"Now that we're getting into the implementation phase again of a complex agreement, to reach that breakthrough, we have to understand the different interests of countries—200 countries, 200 different interests."

The composition of the annual climate talks is also different, reflecting the change from a technical gathering to one with more glaring political hues.

"There's been what had started to be an exercise, and a gathering of initiated diplomats and technocrats expanded to bring all hands on deck for implementation. More from the private sector, more from civil society, and more from indigenous people, women, and youth. So, there has been a progression in terms of inclusion, but also more interests and a greater risk of corporate capture over time."

Climate Negotiations, then the Open Society Foundations

While working as a chemical engineer in the UK, Dagnet was involved in water quality. It was an opportunity to ensure that products in contact with drinking water were safe and of the highest standards. It was during that time, already working with inspectors, that she became more familiar with the nexus between climate and water, along with the safety plans that needed to be put in place to mitigate the impacts of climate change on drinking needs.

In 2007, she was then detached to France’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, in their international division, where she gained valuable experience leading delegations, establishing cooperation, and twinning programs between France and Eastern European countries. The primary goal was to enhance the capacity of countries seeking access to the European Union. It was a defining experience for her, helping her to test different means of capacity building to reflect what could be most effective and sustainable.

It made for a smooth transition to the climate arena.

"I was privileged to join the UK climate team at a time when the UK was a climate leader—enacting the first climate change bill, setting up the first climate change committee, and relying on much data and evidence emerging from the UK greenhouse gas inventory I was responsible for. Being the UK deputy focal point for the IPCC at a time when the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize. Joining the UK climate delegation under UNFCCC at the turning point of the negotiations to shape the Paris Agreement," she said.

"While negotiating for the interests of the UK, I was in a very unique and diverse delegation that had a comprehensive outreach strategy with different countries that were also committed to coalition building outside and within the negotiations. I was keen to first have the opportunity to use my problem-solving skills and the fact that I wanted to really look into solutions and put those solutions into action, not just for the UK, not just for the EU, but for the rest of the world, including the most vulnerable countries."

The opportunity came to join an internationally renowned, US-based think tank, the World Resources Institute, in 2012 and advance robust research, analysis, and policy recommendations for designing a new rule-based climate regime.

"It's convening power was really interesting, and for me, making sure that you do not produce creative solutions that are put on a shelf, but how to really look at the power and interaction with different stakeholders, not just governments, but the faith community, different civil society constituencies, how to really, again, build bridges and test ideas, to really come up with something that has legitimacy."

To do that, Dagnet organized several consortiums. The task was not easy, but it was necessary.

"I learned the power of consortiums. First, it's more difficult to work in a consortium because it's actually a platform of negotiations where you don't navigate just one mindset, one view, one way of addressing an issue; but by creating the right consortium, you bring the legitimacy and credibility that represent different views from different countries, which in the end really helped us to get the traction and inference necessary to shape a meaningful agreement."

After almost a decade, the Open Society Foundations was a natural fit for her knowledge and passions to work as a funder to empower the field, support new ideas and analysis, take grassroots and legal actions, and engage in diplomatic and advocacy efforts. Her priority has been supporting just resilient outcomes, especially in neglected areas like adaptation to climate change and politically sensitive issues like losses and damage. How you face climate impacts you cannot even adapt to—that will cost lives and livelihoods and generate irreversible economic and non-economic (e.g., cultural, social) damages. Another area of focus was the implications of a just energy and industrial transition, ensuring equitable use and deployment of critical minerals, minimizing unintended environmental adverse effects and social or labor abuse, while spurring the ability for resource-rich mineral countries to move up the manufacturing ladder. All of these are matters of justice, equity, and human rights. Ensuring accountability and inclusion within national and international processes like the COP was critical.


The former climate negotiator was in Dubai, UAE, for the 2023 climate talks.

Like many, she welcomes the landmark announcement of the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund on the first day of COP as a hard-won victory. "Two hundred countries, including a petrol state, have agreed to move away from fossil fuels and to operationalize a loss and damage fund that has taken so long to be established," she said. "Now that we've got a roadmap, we have an initial capitalization, even if it only represents less than 1 percent of what is really needed."

She, however, says that there is no place for complacency. Those breakthroughs are decades away, still little, very late, and lacking the necessary pace needed to effect the change needed.

Moreover, Dagnet says the new climate deals have shortcomings. She is particularly concerned about some of the controversial technologies mentioned in the agreements, which lack sufficient safeguards and measures to minimize unintended adverse impacts on frontline communities and the environment. For instance, "the reference to transition fuels, which, without the right accountability mechanisms, could be overused and used as a license to delay some of the radical changes that need to be done."

Looking Forward

The next year is poised to be an interesting one on the international climate scene, with an eye on how the commitments on energy and roadmap to build resilience will be transformed into tangible actions and how ongoing campaigns to reform the global finance infrastructure will pan out.

"2024 is really shaping as being about the means of implementation to keep 1.5 alive and build resilience within that threshold. We know that the UAE, Azerbaijan, and Brazil committed to the delivery of a financial framework through their “road map to mission 1.5 C. There needs to be a strong mobilization of different stakeholders to support, inform, shape those frameworks, and make them a reality," says Dagnet.

She took the opportunity to express her appreciation to all partners, especially frontline communities, who often risk their lives in this climate change battle. "Without them, we would not have secured these hard-won breakthroughs."

Dagnet expressed her hopes that their efforts will be redoubled and rewarded in the future.

"We need to pull up our sleeves. There's a lot of work to do, which can only be effective if we create and harness the synergies and intersections between climate and health, climate and nature, and climate and trade.

And as for Dagnet's work—no matter what, "I think I will remain a climate and social justice avenger."

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© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service