Yvo de Boer and the difference individuals make

To compound the post-Copenhagen gloom comes the news that UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer, will be stepping down in the middle of a year and a successor to be in place for the next big meeting in Mexico at the end of the year. The reasons, as the BBC’s Richard Black writes, are known unknowns, ones that we can only guess at.

How big a deal is this? I was struck by the rather fulsome response from Greenpeace (who Black also cites), praising de Boer and remarking on the big shoes any successor will have to fill: “We have much reason to thank him for his tremendous personal efforts and patience in trying to bring countries, as well as the public, together to tackle the most serious crisis facing humankind today.”

We tend to live in a world of personalities and individuals, and not just in terms of a celebrity-obsessed media. Time magazine’s covers and Man of the Year awards do their best to find a face that reflect the stories of the day and the mood of the times (although somewhat US-centric). Personal narratives are incredibly compelling stories, which do help us to try and make sense of the wider world. But as much as we laud and mark particular people in world history – the anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison being one of the most recent examples of this – there is a much bigger set of forces at play, and individual people really only matter because they happen to come along at the right time, in the right place (related: see my previous post on timing and luck).

So back to Mr. de Boer and his successor. I would expect that very reason that Greenpeace praises him will be the same reason that a person of a completely different character arrives in the post. After all, it is a bureaucratic position in a UN agency. A globe-trotting one that puts him on stages with Desmond Tutu, no less, but his role isn’t about independent policymaking. Black mentioned Robert Watson, the previous chair of the IPCC, as moving on because a lack of US enthusiasm; I tend to think of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General who fell out of favour with the US and made way for Kofi Annan after one term in office. Come to think of it, Annan’s global stature is no small explanation for the choice of his much less public successor, Ban Ki-moon. Sympathy and appreciation from global civil society, for publicly standing up for the little man or criticising the inadequacies of the rich, gets you no points in this type of job appointments.

None of this is to say that the role doesn’t matter. Chairing and the role of the secretariat clearly do – and the history of the climate negotiations offers a rich and sometimes entertaining account of the fact that so many meetings and conferences have been able to produce a decision only because of the chairperson putting a stop to time-wasting debate and gavelling agreement through. They are important as managers of the negotiating process, to try and create an environment as conducive as possible such that agreements, especially costly ones, are made in good faith and nervous parties can be reassured. But if the parties are on different planets, as much of the UNFCCC negotiations have seemed to me, there’s only so much that private cajoling and public nudging can do to bring them together.

The Guardian’s John Vidal writes of the stakes in the job description for potential successors: “Get it right, and the new head of the UNFCCC will be celebrated as the man or woman who steered the whole world to a historic agreement that could save the planet from calamitous climate change. Get it wrong, and negotiations could be set back a decade.”

I doubt it, either way. I will follow with interest what comes next – but there’s a much bigger picture here, of which the Executive Secretary is just one piece.

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