NEW YORK, June 20 (IPS) – With Patricia Espinoza to step down in a few weeks as head of the UN’s climate change effort, who should take her place? Felix Dodds and Chris Spence review options and consider what type of leader should fill the gap Patricia Espinoza’s six years as executive secretary of the UN Secretariat for Climate Change end on July 15. During her tenure, she led efforts to operationalize the 2015 Paris Agreement and bring greater urgency to the diplomatic process. Although progress was difficult, Glasgow’s COP26 added some momentum and probably led the UN process to its next stage: implementation.
As thoughts turn to this next, critical phase, several names are already circulating about who should be the next leader. Among them are Alok Sharma of the United Kingdom, who chairs COP26, former GEF chief Naoko Ishi of Japan and Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmin Fouad, Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia’s finance minister and Ambassador Liz Thomson of Barbados. .
So who should take Espinosa’s place? And what qualities will they need to succeed?
There are geopolitical calculations for every senior position in the UN. As the Global South wants more in the fight against climate change, it must be argued that the next executive secretary must come from a developing country. Some observers believe this would help build confidence in the climate talks.
There is also an argument for justice here. Historically, the first three leaders of the UNFCCC are Europeans: Michael Zamit Kutahar of Malta, then Joke Waller-Hunter and Yvo de Boer, both of the Netherlands. The next two came from America: Cristiana Figueres of Costa Rica and Patricia Espinoza of Mexico.
It is easy to argue that the next leader should come from the Asia-Pacific region or Africa. Interestingly, the next two COPs will be in these regions: COP27 in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.
But which should it be: Africa or the Asia-Pacific region? In this regard, it is worth noting that two Africans are already in charge of the other so-called Rio conventions: Ibrahim Tio is responsible for the UN’s efforts to desert, while Elizabeth Mrema is in charge of biodiversity. On this basis, there are strong arguments for appointing a person from a developing country in Asia or the Pacific, or perhaps from a small island developing country, as they are most affected by the effects of climate change.
They are looking for brave, ego-free network people
Regardless of geographical location, what qualities will the future leader need? We believe that someone with excellent networking skills is essential, especially when moving from negotiation to execution mode.
Of course, a charismatic figure who can build trust and bring people together will be essential. These are qualities that Cristiana Figueres is using with great effect to help create the Paris Agreement.
Every future UN climate leader will also need to be aware of the need for finesse. In fact, we would assume that the next leader will have to be almost “ego-free” in his quest for progress. The best leaders of the UN know when to let their partners – the politicians who chair the COP, for example, as well as the heads of other governments – take center stage.
They know not only when to step up, but also when to step back and share the spotlight. In this regard, Michael Zamit Kutajar – who headed the UN Climate Secretariat in his early years – was a master, as was Deputy Leader Richard Kinley (2006-2017).
There is an important lesson here: Any leader who believes that everything has to do with them or that they can fascinate or force governments to act will be doomed to failure. This is a particular risk for candidates who have been senior politicians in the past. They will have to curb the instinct to collect titles for themselves. In this role, the ability to listen, not just speak, will be crucial.
Ideally, the next executive secretary should have been active in the climate negotiations for some time. This is a complex area and they will need to have a good understanding not only of the issues or political positions of different groups of countries, but also of the people leading the negotiations.
Diplomacy is always a complex network of geopolitical positions, but there are personalities beneath it. An effective leader will get to know the people involved and will strive to build personal trust. Having someone who already knows the key players will help them get on the ground.
The role will also require courage and perseverance. These are qualities that we believe are essential for any successful leader when it comes to multilateral environmental agreements. This is something we explore in depth in our book, Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage. Yes, science tells us that we need to step up our efforts and sprint to the finish line. However, perseverance and the knowledge that all diplomacy is a marathon will be necessary for anyone who takes on this important role.
Finally, this is such an important appointment that we would suggest that the hiring process be carried out outdoors. What we mean by this is that there may be an ‘understanding’ for Member States and stakeholders to question candidates, as is the case with the UN Secretary-General’s position. Meetings of the mayor’s office with staff would also be useful to take into account their contribution.
It is not a hyperbole to assume that this appointment is coming at a critical time for our planet. The need for inspired, courageous and exceptional leadership has never been greater.
We wish the breeders – and their choice – good luck.
Chris Spence and Felix Dodds are co – editors of Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Rutledge, 2022). Felix is also an associate professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and an associate professor at the Tellus Institute. Chris is an environmental consultant and award-winning writer. Both have been involved in UN climate talks since the 1990s.
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