The United Nations' climate diplomat has historically worked in the background as presidents, government ministers and celebrities made a public case for action.
But Yvo de Boer has been anything but a wallflower.
In his three years in the U.N. climate post, de Boer, 55, has made himself at home in front of microphones and cameras in the push to craft a new global warming treaty.
At last year's climate summit in Poznan, Poland, for example, college students jockeyed for opportunities to talk with the former Dutch housing official. Reporters regularly seek de Boer for clues about what is happening behind the curtain on the international stage.
And occasionally, de Boer has been chastised by diplomats from countries that pay his U.N. salary -- the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia, to name a few -- for his blunt assessment of climate negotiations.
"I think the conventional role of a secretariat is to shut up and make sure things work," de Boer said. "I said in my interview to [then-U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan, 'If that's what you want, then don't hire me.'"
De Boer works in the crossfire between developed and developing countries battling over terms of a treaty for curbing greenhouse gases. His job is getting tougher, with a major U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, looming in December and with many top officials openly questioning whether a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol can be completed this year.
"We are deeply concerned that the negotiation is not making much headway," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Guardian newspaper last week.
For de Boer and his U.N. colleagues, efforts to kick-start the stalled talks have meant a major push this month at events in New York and Washington.
Last Friday, the Obama administration ended another round of the Major Economies Forum with environmental ministers from 17 countries that have the world's largest volume of greenhouse gas emissions. Tomorrow, President Obama will address a special climate session in New York. "He will underscore that this is very much a shared challenge, that everybody has to step up if we're going to succeed in making concrete progress," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
All of this has de Boer in the spotlight again. These closing weeks of September, he said during an interview with E&ETV's OnPoint last week, "will give us a sense on whether Copenhagen is going to be a success or not."
In an office in Bonn, Germany -- on a street named for Martin Luther King Jr. -- de Boer manages 350 U.N. staffers and a two-year, $55 million budget. The office covers all aspects of the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and organizes annual conferences aimed at crafting a new treaty.
But de Boer is not known for his day-to-day oversight of the U.N. climate bureaucracy. He is probably best remembered for leaving the 2007 negotiations in Bali, Indonesia, in tears. Like many other diplomats, de Boer had been working without sleep for two days.
The United States, Russia, Canada and Japan had been pushing back against key details on plans for future negotiations. Developing countries, led by Pakistan, were outraged over talk that the U.S. Senate had passed a bill out of committee that would impose border tariffs on their carbon-heavy goods. And Chinese officials went public with complaints that the U.N. staff had scheduled two simultaneous meetings to keep developing countries off-balance.
While the Chinese claim turned out to have been a misunderstanding and ended with apologies all around, it was not before an exhausted de Boer stood up at the podium then left the room. He returned to a standing ovation.
"It kind of broke my heart a bit," said Jennifer Morgan, who was working then for Berlin-based consulting group EG3 and recently moved to Washington to lead the World Resources Institute's climate team. "I felt for him. I think everyone had a little bit of themselves in Yvo when that happened, because almost everyone in that room was working hard to try to get an agreement out of Bali."
Recalling the Bali negotiations, de Boer said another moment stands out as more important.
"It caused a couple of hours of delay," he said of his emotional exit. "It wasn't really the point. The representative of Papua New Guinea made the point."
At issue is another tense moment in Bali, when Kevin Conrad, the representative of the island nation, chastised the United States for blocking a final deal, declaring that George W. Bush's administration should demonstrate leadership or "get out of the way."
"That," de Boer said, "was the important one."
De Boer has lived a nomadic life, learning lessons along the way that have proven useful in his U.N. post.
De Boer's diplomat parents raised him on four continents. Among his mailing addresses: Finland, Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Austria and Great Britain, where he went to boarding school.
"It exposes you early on to the fact there are more people in the world than the tribe you happen to come from," he said in a recent interview. "And it exposes you to the fact that life is different in different countries and tougher in some countries than in other countries. I think it's a good way to become a global citizen."
De Boer went to college in The Hague, studying social work. His first job was as a parole officer in Holland. He was frustrated in that job by the difficulty of keeping people from repeating mistakes and returning to jail.
"If you don't understand what motivated the action, then you can't change the parameters that will prevent a future action of a similar kind," he said. "And I don't want to compare countries to criminals, but I do think it's really important to understand properly why somebody is saying something. Not what's their position, but what's the underlying interest they're trying to address."
After his required service as a cavalry platoon commander in the Dutch army, de Boer got his first U.N. job, serving in Canada and Nairobi for the human settlement program. A brief stop in a Dutch ministry on housing led in 1994 to a job working on climate-change negotiations, something he knew little about.
Surrounding himself with atmospheric scientists, economists and political experts, de Boer turned himself by 1997 into his country's lead U.N. negotiator. He became well-known in climate circles.
By 2006, he was a lead candidate for his current U.N. post, following the death of his countryman, Joke Waller-Hunter.
De Boer's position as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change requires him to use three passports, two of which are constantly in cycle as he gets new visas. Three-quarters of the year, de Boer is on the road.
At past climate conferences, de Boer was often seen slipping out of the climate talks to indulge in hand-rolled cigarettes. While he quit smoking this year, de Boer is still known for his taste for beer, lobsters and the occasional party.
"He's a man who likes to live and has a great spirit of life," said the World Resources Institute's Morgan. "You can see him on the dance floor at the NGO parties in his Bali shirt."
'He walks the line'
De Boer often finds himself in the middle of diplomatic brawls, in part because that is how he has defined his job.
"At the end of the day, I'm not a player, I'm in a support role," he said. "But I do think that you can kick people in the backside and say you need to get serious about defining this long-term response. I think that needs to happen. The flip side is if I do it as a U.N. official, that can have implications for a secretary-general: Why is this idiot acting beyond the traditional role?"
To be sure, de Boer has irritated many.
"He's sometimes bullying," said a climate diplomat close to the 2008 Poland negotiations.
"My gut sense is he sometimes oversteps the role," added Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "I think there's a case to be made that these times call for a more aggressive role for the executive secretary. But there are bounds to it.
"He walks the line," Diringer said. "And sometimes crosses the line."
Many sources who track U.N. negotiations say de Boer's blunt style helps keep the process honest.
"He's very outspoken," said Karsten Sach, a top environmental official for Germany. "I think we need to be outspoken in order to get the support from the public that we need to get."
"He can be very, very straight with people," explained Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy. "Personally, I like people who are very direct. And sometimes, in these intense negotiations, it's better that people are clear and straight then not really coming out with what they're thinking."
Environmentalists welcome de Boer because they see him pushing laggards forward on climate change.
"It's a hard job to make everyone happy," World Resources Institute's Morgan said. "And if the executive secretary of the UNFCCC makes everybody happy, then we don't make progress."
Mohamed El-Ashry, former chairman of the Global Environment Fund, said de Boer has had to make some adjustments in going from being a Dutch negotiator to being someone who is responsible to many more bosses.
"Yvo learned quite a bit on the job, because he came representing one government," El-Ashry said. "He can provide proposals, but he cannot corral them to go with one proposal."
That job, El-Ashry noted, belongs to the president of the annual climate conference -- a rotating gig that this December falls to Denmark's Hedegaard.
De Boer acknowledged that he has brought a little bit of his previous job into the current role.
"I've been a player, and now I'm the servant," de Boer said. "It takes some practice to be a good servant -- to shut up. But at the same time, I think a good servant doesn't always shut up. A good servant can say, 'Do you really want to eat this again? Shouldn't you be having more vitamins in your diet?'"
De Boer's future atop the U.N. climate office is uncertain. He recently got a one-year extension on his term that allows him to serve into 2010. For that reason and many others, he hopes to get most of the work done in December.
"I see my role as sort of pushing this soft-buttocked elephant toward a result," de Boer said. "And I'd really like to see the elephant cross the finish line in Copenhagen."
Eventually, de Boer hopes to move away from the international climate scene to start a bed-and-breakfast with his wife in Eijsden, a small farming town near Belgium and Germany. "As an additional source of income," he said, "beyond Copenhagen."
Watch de Boer discuss U.S. action on climate change, Copenhagen meeting on E&ETV's OnPoint
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