Selecting the Next U.N. Climate Chief: Mr. Secretary-General, Be Bold

Adil Najam

It is hiring season at the UNFCCC.

More precisely, the Bonn-based secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is seeking a new Executive Secretary, after the incumbent – Yvo de Boer, the third European in a row to have headed the secretariat – decided to resign after less than four years in office.

The deepest memories of Mr. de Boer’s term will remain the hype that was generated around and the subsequent failure of the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations to come up with any meaningful results. In fairness, Copenhagen cannot be blamed on Mr. de Boer. Things unraveled as they did largely for reasons outside of his control and despite his efforts.  However, the timing of his departure now gives the United Nations Secretary General – who will ultimately decide on his replacement – the responsibility to find someone who can help put the climate negotiations that are now in utter disarray back on tracks. He also has the opportunity with this appointment to give real direction to the ongoing debate on improved global environmental governance (GEG), which has been floundering and rudderless for some years.

This is not an easy job, and the process of finding the right person is not being made any easier by the petty politics of pride and the chronic battles of turf that invariably accompany high-level UN appointments. Six well-respected climate leaders are now officially in the race (alphabetically): Dr. Tariq Banuri (Pakistan), Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica), Janos Pasztor (Hungary), Marthins van Schalkwyk (South Africa), Vijai Sharma (India), and Elizabeth Thompson (Barbados).

Not that he has asked for advice, but since his own climate change advisor (Mr. Pasztor) is now in the running for the job, let us offer him a few suggestions on criteria that the Secretary-General should be using as he makes up his mind.

First, choose a development person. This is not just about selecting someone from a developing country (if it were that simple, any except one of the official candidates would do). This is about appointing someone who has a demonstrated commitment and passion for linking climate and development in meaningful ways. This is not about “delivering” developing country votes to any future climate agreement. This is about being able to shape a process that can deliver a climate agreement that truly incorporates the environmental as well as development interests of the member states.

The inability to meaningfully bridge this environment-development divide was a major cause of the breakdown of the Copenhagen negotiations and is causing pressing challenges – such as those of adaptation – to be sidelined. The UNFCCC needs someone at its helm who can not only bring together the interests of developing and industrialized countries, but who commands genuine respect in the environmental and development communities. The appointment of someone who can do so would not only put new vigor into the still-stalled climate negotiations, it will also put new life into the efforts to create a sustainable development-centric GEG regime.

Second, find a thought-leader. The role of treaty secretariats is to design and manage the process of inter-state negotiations and not to influence its outcomes. Secretariat leaders who are seen – rightly or wrongly – to be too close to, or proxies for, any of the major parties in the negotiations can end up hurting not only their own credibility, but the negotiation process itself. What the UNFCCC secretariat needs to provide at this critical juncture in the negotiation process is not political skills, but thought-leadership.

The need for thought-leadership at the UNFCCC is much more than tactical. Copenhagen made evident that the issue of climate change is itself transforming. New issues, new actors and new approaches are becoming increasingly important. The next many years for the UNFCCC will not just be years of intense negotiation, they will be years when the negotiation process will demand innovation and thought. The negotiation process is complex enough as it is, but the scientific complexity of the issue makes it that much more difficult to manage. The ability to not just understand but have a command of these complexities can make all the difference.

Finally, be bold. Normally such appointments are based on some combination of regional and political expediency and most likely end up with an uninspiring but acceptable choice. But for climate change these are not ‘normal’ times and we need a bold approach. The type of approach that the then Secretary General had used in appointing Achim Stiener at the helm of the United Nations Environment Program. Someone with strong civil society roots, a deep policy orientation, a commitment to sustainable development, and a demonstrated ability to work with governments. He was not the obvious choice, but he was an excellent one.

Once again, the Secretary General should be looking beyond the obvious. The stakes are just too high to settle for a lowest-common-denominator candidate.

To be fair, all of the official candidates are competent and well-regarded and any of them will do a decent job of managing the secretariat. But there is an opportunity here for the Secretary General to send a real signal about the centrality of sustainable development to climate change as well as on global environmental governance. It would be a pity if this opportunity is missed.

3 Responses to “Selecting the Next U.N. Climate Chief: Mr. Secretary-General, Be Bold”

  1. I fully support your strong position. We could add the necessity of a personnality with a strong political feeling, being able to deal directly with Ministers.

  2. Qazi Shaukat Fareed says:

    Prof Najam has touched upon some critical issues. UN’s track record in placing the right person against the right position is not encouraging. In Stiener’s case we just got lucky because his appointment happily coincided with the S-G having to replace one German (Toepfer) by another! This time around it is a different ball game and the S-G has a tremendous responsibility but also the opportunity to do the right thing. He has set up a selection panel comprising some of the best people in the UN system, so there are hopeful signs.

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