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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mexico's 'Presidenta' and Climate

Air Date: Week of

Claudia Sheinbaum made history as the first woman elected to become Mexico’s president. She has a background in engineering as well as climate science and contributed to multiple IPCC reports. (Photo: EneasMx, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0)

Claudia Sheinbaum, the first woman to be elected President of Mexico, has a background in climate and energy, having co-authored two IPCC climate reports and later implemented clean transportation projects while mayor of Mexico City. Sheinbaum has pledged to boost renewable energy in Mexico but her political links with the current oil-friendly administration could present challenges to reaching green goals. Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran joins Host Jenni Doering to unpack Sheinbaum’s record and hear how Mexican scientists are responding to her election.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering. Mexico recently held presidential elections and in a historic first climate scientist Claudia Sheinbaum won with a decisive 60 percent of the vote. That makes her the first female president in all of North America! Here for more is Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran. Hi Paloma. So, who is Mexico’s next president?

BELTRAN: Hi Jenni. Yes, Claudia Sheinbaum is the handpicked successor of the popular president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who founded the left-wing political party Morena. And during her victory speech on election night, thousands of ecstatic supporters gathered in Mexico City’s historic main square, the Zócalo.

ANNOUNCER: Claudia… Sheinbaum… Pardo!

CROWD, CHEERING AND CHANTING: Presidenta! Presidenta! Presidenta!...

BELTRAN: In her speech, the next “Presidenta” highlighted her plans to promote environmental protection.

SHEINBAUM [SPEAKING IN SPANISH]: Impulsaremos la restauración y protección del medio ambiente y los recursos naturales para garantizar la vida y el desarrollo de las presentes y futuras generaciones.

BELTRAN: She’s talking about the importance of safeguarding natural resources to guarantee life for present and future generations.

DOERING: You know, there’s been a lot of talk about her work on climate. So what’s the story?

BELTRAN: Yeah, so she has a PhD in energy engineering and completed her thesis at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, focusing on energy use in Mexican transportation and buildings. She then joined the faculty at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, which is a prestigious public university in Mexico City. President-elect Sheinbaum served as both a contributing and lead author for the mitigation sections of the Fourth and Fifth Assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007 and 2014.

DOERING: Oh yeah, and didn’t the authors of that 2007 IPCC report share the Nobel Peace Prize?

BELTRAN: They did, including Sheinbaum.

Claudia Sheinbaum served as mayor of Mexico City, a city of over 20 million people. (Photo: Kasper Kristensen, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

DOERING: Wow. So Paloma, this is the first climate scientist that I’ve heard of winning a presidential election! And what is Claudia Sheinbaum's political background?

BELTRAN: So from 2000 to 2006, Sheinbaum served as Mexico City’s minister for the environment, while López Obrador served as mayor. Then in 2018, she was elected as mayor of this metropolis with some 22 million people. During her term she electrified Line 3 of the metrobus, a rapid transit line. She also developed rooftop solar projects and added around 30 kilometers of bike lanes throughout the city in efforts to encourage less use of vehicles. And Claudia Sheinbaum set the goal for Mexico City to become carbon neutral by 2050.

DOERING: Well, those sound like good steps, especially in a city that’s had notoriously unhealthy air quality.

BELTRAN: Right. But Xochitl Cruz, Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at UNAM, who participated in a recent environmental policy evaluation of the city, said that in the last five or so years, ozone levels have started to creep back up.
She also said the city’s government has fallen behind on financial investment to reach its climate mitigation goals.

CRUZ: The budget allocated during her administration for environmental issues was declining over the years, being minimal from 2020 onwards. Forest fires increased, air quality deteriorated significantly. Access to water became more difficult, and conservation land was urbanized in an outrageous manner.

BELTRAN: As mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum oversaw the construction of a six-lane bridge that extends into the Xochimilco wetlands. And scientists and activists were very concerned that it would cause more damage to the wetland and to the last native habitat of the axolotl, a species of salamander endemic to Mexico.

DOERING: Oh! Those are such cute little guys, they always look like they’re smiling.
But anyway, people will be looking ahead to see how she runs the country as a whole. So what are the top environmental issues in Mexico?

BELTRAN: So Mexico is currently facing a list of environmental problems: There’s a water crisis in Mexico City, and a government agency said that last year, some 20 percent of the population didn’t have water during all days of the week. And there are droughts throughout Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Querétaro and more. Also, according to FEMA, the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea surface temperatures are getting warmer. And that will likely supercharge hurricanes across the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of México in the coming years. And scientists say this is all connected to climate change.

DOERING: Hmm. And Paloma, where does Mexico stand in terms of its presence in the United Nations climate negotiations?

BELTRAN: So I talked to Adrian Fernandez. He's worked for more than 30 years on Mexico’s environmental policy and attended almost 20 of the yearly UN climate meetings. He said that although the country used to be a climate leader among emerging economies, progress has stalled under the Morena party of López Obrador.

FERNANDEZ: Unfortunately, with the beginning of the current administration that is about to end, this administration totally neglected the environment and climate change, really, perhaps, thought that if they were to apply or or channel resources and efforts towards climate efforts, they had to forget about the social agenda. It's a pity, really, we wasted six years, the last six years were wasted regarding the environment and climate.

BELTRAN: Adrian and other scientists I talked with said that the government has prioritized state-owned oil and gas giant Pemex over private wind and solar power companies. He said two projects in particular raise environmental concerns: The Tren Maya, a railway that’s being constructed in the Yucatán Peninsula that will cross through forests and natural pools called cenotes. And what may turn out to be the third-largest refinery in Latin America, the “Nueva Refinería las Dos Bocas” in Tabasco that’s not yet up and running.

The ajolote or axolotl is an endemic species to Mexico city’s Xochimilco river and wetlands. Conservationists are concerned that the extension of Mexico city’s Periférico Bridge into the Xochimilco wetlands, a project carried out while Claudia Sheinbaum was mayor, will further endanger the precious salamander. (Photo: Dgzvs2012, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

FERNANDEZ: The refinery is not working. And very few countries, if any, is building new refineries at a time when we are moving in an energy transition to try to get rid of fossil fuels, not to build more refineries to produce more fossil fuels.

DOERING: OK, Paloma, well President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum is in the same Morena party as the outgoing administration, but during her campaign, did she promise a different approach in terms of the environment?

BELTRAN: So she has committed to investing more than [U.S.] $13 billion in new energy projects by 2030, focusing on wind and solar power generation and modernizing hydroelectric facilities. And she pledged to boost renewable energy to as much as 50% by the end of the decade. At the same time, though, she promised to finish what her predecessor started by completing the Tren Maya and the Nueva Refinería las Dos Bocas. So Jenni, Adrian Fernandez says the President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum has a choice to make.

FERNANDEZ: That’s a question for the country: If Claudia becomes Claudia, really independent from López Obrador, she can not only lead Mexico into become a major force in the world. She can become, almost right away, one of the greatest contemporary leaders in the world.

BELTRAN: And other Mexican scientists I talked to shared the same sentiment and hoped for more environmental ambition in the country. President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum will go into office October 1st.

DOERING: Thanks Paloma!

BELTRAN: My pleasure, Jenni.

DOERING: That’s Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran.



Inside Climate News | "Mexico Elected a Climate Scientist. But Will She Be a Climate President?"

ClimateHomeNews | “Mexico Elects a Climate Scientist as President – but Will Politics Temper Her Green Ambition?”

CarbonBrief | “Climate Scientist Claudia Sheinbaum to Become Mexico’s First Woman President”

Reuters | “Can Mexico’s Sheinbaum, a Climate Scientist, Shake Lopez Obrador’s Oil Legacy?”

Learn more about Adrian Fernandez Bermauntz

Learn more about Professor Xochitl Cruz Nunez

Track air pollution in Mexico City

MexicoNewsLately | “Critics Say Mexico City’s Last Wetlands Threatened by Bridge Project”

InsideClimateNews | “Protecting Mexico’s Iconic Salamander Means Saving one of the Country’s Most Important Wetlands”

SmithsonianMagazine | “Mexico City’s Reservoirs Are at Risk of Running Out of Water”


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