By Abigail Flynn

As countries scramble to improve their resilience to climate change, the need for cross-border cooperation becomes apparent. Youssef Nassef ’87, ’89, director of the Adaptation Division of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is working at the forefront of these international collaborations. 

The UNFCCC’s initiatives on resilience support adaptation programs that achieve three goals: identify urgent needs in developing countries, create projects that address those needs and generate funding to implement the projects.

“Our work on adaptation or resilience aims to reduce not only the vulnerability of communities to catastrophes such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels, but also secondary impacts, including health crises like outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever,” said Nassef, who attended all but three COPs. 

The UNFCCC process does not include legally binding mechanisms for burden sharing, which means every country’s contribution and participation are entirely voluntary. An additional difficulty is that all decisions must be approved unanimously, which becomes complicated when solving a problem for one country may create a new problem for another. “One country’s adaptation can lead to an increased vulnerability for the country next to it,” Nassef explained. “For example, if a country wants to convert its forests to agricultural land in order to enhance food security, that will disrupt the wild animals who use those forests for migration, which impacts its neighbor’s environment and resilience.”

Nassef: “Maybe one day, we can have an economic system that doesn’t only prioritize profits, but also equity and quality of life.”

Nassef’s job is to solve an international Rubik’s Cube, fixing one side while trying not to disrupt the others. Despite the challenge, he remains optimistic. “The negotiating process has always been moving in the right direction, just not at the right pace,” Nassef stated. 

For the past 30 years, Nassef has led programs at UNFCCC that identify vulnerabilities and address them, such as the Nairobi Work Programme and Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. Change might be slow, but this work will save lives and homes.

Nassef credits his time at AUC for giving him the skills to handle these international dilemmas. “My work is multidisciplinary,” Nassef stated. “It’s very difficult to work in climate change if your background is solely focused on one small area of work.” 

AUC offered Nassef an interdisciplinary approach to life. He was an undergraduate at just 15 years old, studying computer science and physics. He also received a master’s in Middle East studies from the University.

“There are a lot of amazing professors whom I feel deeply indebted to because of the difference they made in my intellectual evolution,” Nassef recalled.

“I took a philosophy class on cognitive biases and logical fallacies that gave me the skills to identify invisible biases in myself and others. I am extremely lucky to have this type of grounding. I took that class a million years ago and still use these skills, so it definitely had a lot of impact on me.” 

At COP27, Nassef has three agenda points in mind. The first is to lead discussions on various elements of the resilience “life cycle,” ranging from expediting the preparation of national plans in countries to advancing the provision of support for the implementation of these plans. The second is to identify long-term goals for the Race to Resilience that will guide the program’s future. The third point, spearheaded by island states at risk of being underwater in the short term, is called “Loss and Damage.” It aims to create a plan to prepare for anticipated damage if climate change impacts are not prevented. Funding is the trickiest part, since UNFCCC cannot legally require financial support from any country, Nassef noted.

Looking ahead, Nassef hopes COP27 will pave the way for future programs to protect vulnerable countries and communities.

“Maybe one day, we can have an economic system that doesn’t only prioritize profits, but also equity and quality of life,” he said. “I am drawn to the idea of transforming the world into a different place, both with sustainability and well-being.”

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