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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Climate Chief Calls it Quits

Air Date: Week of February 19, 2010

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Soon-to-be former U.N. Climate Chief, Yvo DeBoer (Courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change Conference)

Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has announced his resignation. Host Jeff Young talks with Bill Hare of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research about what this change in leadership will mean for climate negotiations.

Transcript

YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts – this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. A top United Nations official on climate change calls it quits after four years, and that’s raising concerns about the worldwide effort to rein in global warming. Yvo de Boer says he’s resigning as Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where he fought hard for an international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In December, De Boer told Living on Earth he was optimistic about the big climate conference in Copenhagen.

DE BOER: What I want to see at the end of this conference is a list of rich country targets, that are ambitious, clarity on what major developing countries will do to limit the growth of their emissions, and a list of financial pledges that will make it possible for the much broader developing nation community both to change the direction of their economic growth and adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change.

YOUNG: But Copenhagen brought only limited progress, and De Boer expressed disappointment. Physicist and climate scientist Bill Hare has watched Mr. De Boer’s work for years. He’s a visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for climate impact research. Mr. Hare says Mr. De Boer was squeezed between big economies like the U.S. and Europe and developing nations like China and India.

HARE: In the last year particularly he’s been under enormous pressure because of the pressures of trying to get under adverse political circumstances an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen, and because of the need to sometimes speak plainly about the level of ambition coming forth from major countries, which I’m sure many saw as going somewhat beyond the role of a UN diplomat.

YOUNG: He seemed to me at times like a man who was the equivalent of a rope in a tug of war with developing nations and developed nations on either end there.

HARE: Well, that’s right, I mean anyone in that position is going to be subject to powerful forces pulling in completely opposite directions, and I think it’s a tribute to his skills that he was able to keep the whole show together for so long. Personally, I think Copenhagen was a real mess, but I think that could have been a lot worse without the efforts of Yvo De Boer and the UN FCCC Secretariat.

YOUNG: Do we know was Mr. De Boer asked or forced to leave or did he leave of his own accord?

HARE: I’ve got no information about that, of course we all know and have heard about pressures upon the executive secretary in the last year from big countries who were reported to be unhappy with his forthright statements calling for greater levels of ambition, for more action domestically, for greater levels of political will and compromise to be brought in to national negotiations.

Publicly, Saudi Arabia criticized Yvo De Boer; we know that China was unhappy with him at different moments; rumors circulated that even the United States was unhappy with him over certain statements and certainly other countries were, as well. So, of course there’s no hard evidence on many of these rumors, but it’s somehow clear that where there was smoke there was fire and there were pressure on the Secretary, which is I guess only natural in a year like Copenhagen where there was enormous bit of government attention on a high-level meeting, which in the end failed to achieve that much.

YOUNG: What does this tell us, then, about the state of this framework convention on climate change process?


Soon-to-be former U.N. Climate Chief, Yvo DeBoer (Courtesy of the United Nations Climate Change Conference)

HARE: I think we’re in a period of at lease grave uncertainty and I think it’s a bit of a shock now that someone with so much experience is actually leaving the system at a time when it needs to be stabilized.

YOUNG: What can we expect now in the lead up to the next major round of talks in Mexico in Cancun?

HARE: It’s extremely difficult to make any reasonable prediction about just what we can expect to achieve at Cancun in Mexico, and I’m resiling from offering opinions about that. I think it’s still too early to say exactly what shape the regime is going to be in and therefore what will be possible to negotiate in the coming ten months.

YOUNG: Give me a sense of the bigger picture here, I mean this isn’t just about Mr. De Boer leaving, this isn’t just about the UN FCCC Process. The IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the noble-winning scientific body is under serious attack. Climate change legislation in the U.S. is, at best, stalled. Are the wheels coming off of the whole effort to address climate change here?

HARE: Well, certainly the wheels are loose and I think I believe the system is in grave danger of collapsing. I think the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – will survive the attacks of the skeptics, and let’s face it in a report of its size in magnitude one will always find errors. The remarkable thing is that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report’s have not suffered more attacks. I think the report’s standing up very well to the test of time in nearly all of its dimensions.

YOUNG: How much of the difficulty with the UN process comes back to difficulty getting something done in the U.S.?

HARE: I think the inability of the United States to bring its domestic legislation to a conclusion is casting a shadow over the whole international regime. I fear that unless the United States is able to bring itself to adopt a domestic climate package that has real meaning and action that it will be very difficult if not impossible to bring China and other big developing countries to the table to negotiate a legally binding and ambitious international climate regime.

YOUNG: Bill Hare, visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for climate impact research. Thank you very much.

HARE: Thank you.

 

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