Who Should Be the Next UN Climate Change Head?
With Patricia Espinosa due to step down in a few weeks’ time as head of the UN’s climate change efforts, who should take her place? Felix Dodds and Chris Spence review the options and assess what sort of leader should fill the gap. First published on Monday 20 in Inter Press Service.
Patricia Espinosa’s six years as Executive Secretary of the UN’s climate change secretariat ends on July 15th. During her time in charge, she has led efforts to operationalize the 2015 Paris Agreement and inject greater urgency into the diplomatic process. Although progress has been difficult, COP26 in Glasgow added some momentum and arguably brought the UN process to the start of its next stage: implementation.
As thoughts turn to this next, critical phase, several names are already circulating for who the next leader should be. These include the UK’s Alok Sharma, who chaired COP26, former GEF head Naoko Ishii of Japan, and Egypt’s Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad, Sri Mulyani Indrawati of Indonesia Finance Minister and Ambassador Liz Thomson from Barbados among others.
So, who should step into Espinosa’s shoes? And what sort of qualities will they need to succeed?
For any senior UN job there is a geopolitical calculation in play. With more being asked from the Global South in combating climate change, there is an argument to be made that the next Executive Secretary should hail from a developing country. Some observers feel this would help build trust in the climate talks.
There is an equity argument in play here, too. Historically, the first three UNFCCC leaders were Europeans: Michael Zammit Cutajar of Malta, then Joke Waller-Hunter and Yvo de Boer, both from the Netherlands. The next two came from the Americas: Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, and Mexico’s Patricia Espinosa. An argument could easily be made that the next leader should come from Asia-Pacific 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 Asia-Pacific? In this respect, it is worth noting that two Africans already lead the other so-called Rio Conventions: Ibrahim Thiaw is responsible for the UN’s efforts on desertification, while Elizabeth Mrema heads-up biodiversity. Based on this, there is a strong case for appointing a developing country person from Asia or the Pacific or perhaps from the Small Island Developing States as they are hit worst by the impacts of climate change.
Seeking courageous, ego-free networkers
Irrespective of geography, what sort of qualities would a future leader need? We believe someone with excellent networking skills is essential, especially as we move from negotiating into implementation mode. A naturally-charismatic figure who can build trusting relationships and bring people together will be essential. These are qualities Christiana Figueres deployed to great effect to help birth the Paris Agreement.
Any future UN climate leader will also need to be aware of the need for subtlety. In fact, we would suggest the next leader will need to be almost “egoless” in their pursuit of progress. The best UN leaders know when to let their partners—the politicians holding the COP presidency, for instance, as well as other governments heads—take center stage. They know not only when to step up, but also when to step back and share the limelight. In this respect, Michael Zammit Cutajar—who led the UN climate secretariat in its early years—was a master, as was deputy leader Richard Kinley (2006-2017).
There is an important lesson here: any leader who believes it is all about them, or that they can charm or compel governments to act, will be doomed to failure. This is a particular risk for candidates who have been senior politicians in the past. They would have to curb the instinct to garner headlines for themselves. In this role the ability to listen, not just talk, will be critical.
The next Executive Secretary should ideally have been active in the climate negotiations for some time. This is a complicated field and they will need to have a good understanding of not just the issues or political positions of various country groupings, but also the people who are doing the negotiating. Diplomacy is always a complex web of geopolitical positions, but underneath this are individuals. An effective leader will get to know the people involved and seek to build personal trust. Having someone who already knows the key individuals involved will help them hit the ground running.
The role will also require both courage and persistence. These are qualities we believe are essential for any successful leader when it comes to multilateral environmental agreements. It is something we explore in-depth in our book, Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage. Yes, the science is telling us we must supercharge our efforts and sprint to the finish line. However, persistence and the knowledge that all diplomacy is a marathon will be needed by whoever takes on this important role.
Finally, this is such an important appointment that we would propose the hiring process be undertaken in the open. What we mean by this is that there could be “hustings” for member states and stakeholders to question the candidates, as there is for the UN Secretary General’s position. “Town hall” meetings with staff would also be useful so their input can be considered.
It is not hyperbole to suggest this appointment comes at a critical time for our planet. The need for inspired, courageous and exceptional leadership has never been greater.
We wish the selectors—and their choice—the best of luck.
Chris Spence and Felix Dodds are co-editors of Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022). Felix is also Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and an Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute. Chris is an environmental consultant and award-winning writer. Both have been involved in the UN climate negotiations since the 1990s.