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Yvo de Boer, global climate butler

Climate change chief, Yvo de Boer.
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) June 7, 2009
Yvo de Boer, it could be argued, holds the fate of the planet in his hands.

The United Nation's climate majordomo -- tasked with herding 192 nations toward a do-or-die deal by year's end -- does not have the power to impose an agreement on how to curb greenhouse gases and cope with its consequences.

But if he fails in his role as executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it just might muck the whole thing up.

This week, de Boer is in Bonn, Germany coaxing the troubled and hugely complex talks along ahead of the December deadline for a new treaty.

The road to Copenhagen, where the final round of talks is set to take place, is strewn with minefields, and part of his job is to help negotiators sidestep and defuse them.

So how did a Dutch public housing bureaucrat wind up at the epicentre of the fight to slow global warming?

"I had a policy in my life up to then to try something completely different every three or four years," de Boer said of his decision in 1994 to apply for a job within the Dutch environment ministry to head the climate change department.

"To my great amazement, I got the job. I knew nothing about climate change, absolutely nothing," he told AFP in an interview.

In the mid-1990s, global warming was only beginning to register on the Richter scale of international concerns, and de Boer's was mainly interested in how efforts to cut carbon pollution might intersect with development goals.

Having spent his youth traipsing across what was then known as the "Third World" with his diplomat father, de Boer, born in 1954, had seen the ravages of deep, systemic poverty up close.

Today, more than three years after then UN chief Kofi Annan tapped him to head up the United Nation's climate initiative, he has not lost sight of those priorities.

"What is sometimes forgotten is that a large part of this process is about how 145 very poor countries are going to adapt to the impact of climate change and be helped to grow their economies in a cleaner way," he said.

For de Boer, issuing such reminders is also part of his brief, and consistent with the UN Convention.

For some diplomats, however, it is evidence that he has overstepped his role as a neutral facilitator.

"Yvo often defends developing countries, sometimes with strong statements insisting that the northern hemisphere has to pay up," said one veteran negotiator from a rich nation.

"That shows a certain courage. But sometimes he goes too far and becomes political, saying things that exceed his mandate."

De Boer has also been accused of pushing the agenda of the European Union, which has taken the lead on reducing CO2 output by promising to slash emissions by 20 percent compared to 1900 levels by 2020, and by 30 percent if other industrialised countries follow suit.

"He has no business saying whether a given proposal is acceptable or not. Sometimes Mr. de Boer forgets he is an office holder, not a party to the talks," said another Western negotiator, who asked not to be named.

De Boer is aware of such criticism, but insists he strives to remain neutral.

"I know that people complain about that. I try to make a distinction between the Secretariat -- which is, and should be, neutral -- and my own personal role. So if you don't like it, shoot at me, don't shoot at the Secretariat," he said.

Speaking in a British-inflected baritone, de Boer measures his words carefully and is rarely caught off guard.

"He lacks charisma," sniped one minister from an industrialised nation.

And yet, de Boer will likely be remembered for a moment of high drama that reduced him to tears in front of thousands of delegates at the December 2007 climate conference in Bali, Indonesia.

Days of around-the-clock negotiations had produced a key draft agreement. But the US administration of George W. Bush refused to sign on.

In the meantime, the Chinese delegation -- under the mistaken impression that back-channel discussions had been opened -- blasted de Boer in a full plenary session.

"Nobody had slept that night. I hadn't slept much the night before, or the night before that. People were tense and tired, and the stakes were high," he recalled. "That confrontation was a very bad moment for me."

De Boer cracked under the strain and left the auditorium, to huge applause.

But within an hour he was back, in time to see the United States reverse itself and seal the deal.

When not behind a microphone, much of de Boer's time is taken up with the logistics of organising hundreds of international meetings every year, small and large. The December gatherings include some 15,000 participants.

"Communications, security, logistics, electronics, meeting rooms, signs, documents in multiple languages, shuttle buses, hotel rooms -- it's like organising a Rolling Stones concert four times a year," he said.

De Boer has been compared to a symphony conductor trying to get musicians to read off the same page, and a referee trying to make sure all the players stick to the rule and avoid fouls.

But de Boer sees it differently.

"In my first meeting with staff when I joined the Secretariat, I described my role as that of the butler," he recalled.

"The butler's role is to make sure that the household is well run and that the family are in a position to make sensible decisions. But it is not the responsibility of the butler to take decisions himself."

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