women of the worldPhotos: angela7dreams via FlickrWe have a critical opportunity right now to make sure the next U.N. climate chief will serve the needs of the global community of women, and we need to seize it.

With Yvo de Boer stepping down as executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be appointing a replacement.  The role of the executive secretary is critical to achieving a fair, ambitious, and binding climate agreement, and a strong successor to de Boer is absolutely essential for Cancun and beyond.

What will make for a strong UNFCCC executive secretary? The Climate Action Network has issued a letter articulating important qualifications, which include political leadership, experience with negotiations, commitment to civil society, and a thorough understanding of the challenges of development in the Global South.

As leaders of organizations working at the forefront of environmental and women’s issues in the Global South, we’d like to add another qualification to that list: an understanding of the full range of gender issues, including access to reproductive health and family planning.

Women make up half of the world’s population and 70 percent of the world’s poor, produce up to 80 percent of agricultural products in places like sub-Saharan Africa, and stand to face the brunt of climate change.

Three female candidates are rumored to be under consideration:  Maria Fernanda Espinoza from Ecuador, Elizabeth Thompson from Barbados, and Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica. These women occupy distinct and noteworthy positions within the larger environmental and climate diplomatic circles.  Espinoza has held the post of minister for foreign affairs, and is the current Ecuadorian representative to the U.N.  Thompson has a well-known reputation for excellence in diplomacy, having led the Barbados governmental delegation to Kyoto.  Figueres is a formidable negotiator on climate change and an expert on carbon markets.

Certainly we all know from the U.S. experience with Sarah Palin that being a woman does not a feminist make. On the other hand, ensuring gender balance, tracking the number of female elected officials, and actively engaging women at all levels of policy making are all standard and well-accepted means of measuring an institution’s ability to bring a balanced perspective to its deliberations. Do we wish we lived in world free of such measures and quotas? Perhaps, but the reality is that marginalized perspectives tend to be, well, just that-marginalized-so our advocacy on this front is not yet finished business.

With the UNFCCC soon to enter its third decade, it is long overdue for Ban Ki-moon to live up to his own challenge to world governments to give a “greater say to women in addressing the climate challenge.”  In selecting a leader who will be capable of crafting an effective and fair international agreement, the secretary-general must seek a candidate with a track record demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the gendered aspects of climate change challenges and solutions.  It is time that the U.N. pay more than lip service to the notion that women are the agents of change.