Climate watchers pay tribute to Nicaraguan envoy Paul Oquist, who died on Monday

The outspoken diplomat, who famously described the Paris Agreement as a “path to failure”, will be remembered as a complex figure who fought for justice

Paul Oquist leads the Nicaragua delegation at UN climate talks (Pic:  IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth)


Paul Oquist, a US-born climate diplomat for Nicaragua, has died. Famous for objecting to the adoption of the Paris Agreement, Oquist nonetheless continued to engage with the UN process and served on the board of the Green Climate Fund.

The president’s office said that Oquist died on Monday night. Local media reported the cause of death was pulmonary embolism, a common complication of severe Covid-19 infection – although no positive diagnosis of the virus was made.

“Paul Oquist Kelley served the people, the families, all Nicaraguans with love, faithfulness, commitment and untiring bravery,” president Daniel Ortega said in a statement on Tuesday. 

“[He was] a brother, a colleague and I believe one of the most important and prominent people in this country, a true Nicaraguan, more Nicaraguan than many who were born in this country,” said Gustavo Porras, speaker of Nicaragua’s national assembly.

Climate watchers have described him as a “fighter for justice” and a  “complex figure in global climate negotiations”, with a sharp, analytical mind.

Stay in the know: Subscribe to our Climate Daily newsletter

Born in 1943 in California, Oquist attended university in the US before moving to Nicaragua where he held several positions in Ortega’s government in the 1980s and when he returned to power in 2007.

In the climate space, Oquist made waves by refusing to back the adoption of the Paris Agreement, arguing the deal did not go far enough to cut global emissions and protect developing countries from climate impacts.

“We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibility is a path to failure,” Oquist told Climate Home at the time in a video interview on the sidelines of the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015. 

“We don’t want to be an accomplice to taking the world to 3 to 4C and the death and destruction that represents,” Oquist said. “It’s not a matter of being troublemakers, it’s a matter of the developing countries surviving.” 

Nicaragua, a country in central America described by the World Bank as a “renewable energy paradise”, is a tiny emitter, generating just 0.02% of global emissions

Nicaragua eventually joined the Paris Agreement in 2017 in a move president Ortega said was a show of solidarity to countries affected by climate disasters. 

Following this change of heart, Oquist was appointed co-chair of the multi-billion-dollar Green Climate Fund (GCF) board in 2018. In this role his main responsibility was steering the board meetings, where decisions are reached by consensus.

On the GCF board, Oquist called for stricter vetting of potential private sector partners. For example in 2019, he backed civil society concerns about a Chilean private equity firm specialised in wealth management and an Indian bank mired in financial instability. Both entities were accredited.

Joe Biden’s $1.2bn budget for Green Climate Fund falls short of campaigner demands

Oquist was a close political advisor of president Ortega and his defence of the government’s crackdown on political opponents resulted in financial sanctions from the Trump administration

Following news of his death, political leaders and climate experts paid tribute to Oquist on social media. 

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said in a statement that Oquist was known for his “inexhaustible energy, cheerful nature and dedication to reveal and defend, internationally and in any setting, the truth.”

South African GCF board member Zaheer Fakir described Oquist as a “fighter for justice and a steadfast and dedicated climate warrior”.

Henning Wuester, director of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency, wrote on Twitter: “With Paul Oquist the global climate process loses a very bright and engaged personality. He was difficult but very sharp and analytical – an important voice to carefully listen to. I will always remember some of his statements of the early days of the GCF.”

Read more on: Central America | Paris Agreement | UN climate talks | |