HomeBad Ass AsiansMeet Christina Chan: A key negotiator on U.S. climate team
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Meet Christina Chan: A key negotiator on U.S. climate team

By Jessica Xiao

Dubai, United Arab Emirates– Every year, the UN hosts a climate conference for countries to set goals and track progress on meeting those goals to reduce climate change to below 1.5 degrees of global warming. Each country sends a delegation of negotiators and this year one of the top U.S. negotiators was New Yorker Christina Chan.

Chan led an important team of negotiators on “climate adaptation, resilience, and matters related to ‘least developed countries’” at the most recent climate conference in December. An estimated 100,000 people from governments, civil society, the energy industry, and more converged on Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the 28th UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP28). 

AsAmNews received an on-site interview with Christina Chan at that conference.

Portrait of Christina Chan at the Dubai climate change conference in December 2023
Portrait of Christina Chan. Photo by Jessica Xiao.

Her story is an immigration and diaspora story. Christina Chan was born in New York, and grew up in a “predominantly White town” in New Jersey, with her older brother Ken and younger sister Kathy. Her family owned and operated China 17 (which was once reviewed by the New York Times), a restaurant on Route 17 in Montvale, NJ. 

Her mother immigrated to the US in her early twenties, and her father worked in the same restaurant as her maternal grandfather, which is how they met. “My dad could read and write and my mother’s father couldn’t, so he would write the letters home and pictures would come, helping my maternal grandfather.

“I was acutely aware growing up that I was a child of Chinese immigrants, as I assume all children of immigrants are. I was aware that I was different – and understood, before I really understood, what it meant to be excluded or not part of the ‘norm.’ I was also reminded by my parents all the time that they came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children,” Chan told AsAmNews.

She credits her upbringing with her interest in international development. She said her parent’s experience as immigrants shaped her interest in international development. As she puts it, seeing their “hardships and sacrifices” and their willingness to help other immigrants get a good start in America deeply impacted her.

Her interests took her to Stanford University. Although her degree was in human biology, her coursework was a self-designed study in sustainable development, developing economies, and economics. Her coursework led her to trek across the Himalayas in eastern Nepal, during a study-abroad program her junior year with the San Francisco State University in environmental conservation. Interested in returning to Nepal, she returned, after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to research conservation and development.

“When working in southern Nepal, part of the reason for massive flooding was not just rain and strong storms, but the situation at the Nepal-India border. When it rained a lot, stormwater in dams would go up, but had nowhere to go. A lot of development was happening at that time – in the late ‘90s, The roads were built really quickly with deforestation and erosion coming for the foothills,” said Chan.

This intimate knowledge of the relationship between development and ecological change led her to work on flood risk management projects and climate change at CARE, an international humanitarian aid organization.

She managed a disaster risk management program in Nepal and used that experience back in Atlanta where CARE USA is headquartered. That work in Nepal led CARE to have work specifically on climate change as a policy analyst.

Her work in international climate policy as part of the U.S. national government, started in 2010, when she joined the Obama administration, moving from advocating for policy to developing it. 

It was “incredible,” she added, “as a professional person,” to have gotten to work for President Obama as part of the climate team during that era and get to contribute to the Paris Agreement, the latest UN international treaty on climate change that was negotiated at the 2015 COP in Paris.

Although she left government during the Trump era to work with policymakers and funders, she did not hesitate to heed the call when asked to return:

“When Jonathan Pershing, [former] deputy envoy, asked if I’d be interested in coming back, I didn’t have to think about it. The ability to help shape U.S. engagement on loss and damage is an incredible opportunity and responsibility.”

The loss and damage fund was started to provide resources to support countries most vulnerable and most impacted by the effects of climate change in meeting the global climate goals.

The former US Climate Envoy John Kerry speaking at a press conference at the 2023 UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP28).
The former US Climate Envoy John Kerry speaking at a press conference at the 2023 UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP28). Photo by Jessica Xiao.

Many were concerned that this year’s conference, which took place in an oil rich nation and presided over by Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber who is also head of the state’s national oil company (ADNOC),and would not be able to result in any real significant outcomes–and to some extent, their fears were confirmed. Leaked documents before the event suggested the country intended to use the conference to reach oil deals. Additionally, an advocacy group’s research found that there were more than 2500 fossil fuel lobbyists present at this year’s climate conference, the largest recorded showing of industry ever present at the UN climate talks.

Ultimately, this year’s conference resulted in the “UAE Consensus,” the first Global Stock Take draft that represents countries’ analysis on where human society is on meeting the goals set out in the Paris Agreement (climate goals drafted in 2015)– as well as the operationalization of a loss and damage fund, which would support nation’s most vulnerable and most impacted by climate change.

Under Chan’s leadership, the U.S. made an initial commitment of $17.5 million to seed the loss and damage fund on the first day of the COP28 climate conference. (Other countries committed funding as well.)

Aerial shot of Dubai, UAE. Captured from the top of the Burj Khalifah.
Aerial shot of Dubai, UAE. Captured from the top of the Burj Khalifah. Photo by Jessica Xiao.

“I am very proud of what I and my team, as well as others on the Transitional Committee [a UN governing body to operationalize the loss and damage fund], accomplished with respect to the recommendations for operationalizing new funding arrangements for loss and damage. The fact that these recommendations were adopted on the first day of the COP is in large part a testament to the work we did together over 2023,” said Chan.

But, everyone has a role to play when it comes to staying informed and making little changes to combat climate change:

“My son learned about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in fifth grade. He and other students had to pick an SDG and do a poster on it. He chose climate change, and with his classmates, did research to learn more about what causes climate change, its impacts, and solutions for both reducing the impacts of climate change and responding to those impacts. Everyone can try to learn more about climate change and seek to make changes, even if little ones, in their lives. My son is now much more aware of the kinds of cars on the road, and he asks questions about water and energy usage in our household,” says Chan.

And for young people invested in making a change, she offers ageless advice: 

“I had a mug when I was in my 20s that had Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ That advice never gets old! The advice I wish I followed when I was younger was to value my own voice and to use it, even if it meant creating uncomfortable situations for others. I also wish I had fully appreciated earlier the importance of surrounding myself with people who seek to lift each other up.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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