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Why outgoing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was willing to bet big on a climate change deal

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon embraces Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who holds his 2-year-old granddaughter Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson, after signing the Paris Agreement on climate change at United Nations Headquarters in New York last month. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Ban Ki-moon, the globetrotting secretary-general of the United Nations, sat inside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on a rainy morning this week, sounding relaxed and reflective.

One floor below, the ballrooms were bustling with business leaders, academics and government officials, who had gathered for a Climate Action 2016 summit. Their goal: Figuring out how countries can live up to the landmark climate agreement negotiated in December in Paris by hastening changes in the ways they produce and consume energy.

The rare accord calls on all nations — rich and poor — to increasingly limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over time, with the goal of staving off the worst consequences of global warming. The agreement, officially signed by 175 countries last month at the United Nations in New York, was the very definition of a worldwide collaboration. But it might not have happened — or come to fruition when it did — without Ban’s nearly decade-long persistence.

When he assumed office as U.N. secretary-general in 2007, he made climate change a primary focus, despite advice from staff members that it would be a fraught and potentially fruitless endeavor.

“From day one, I made climate change the top priority,” the bespectacled, 71-year-old diplomat said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post. “There were many crises around the world, even at that time. But I thought that all these crises, these political crises, could be solved,” he said, in part by forging a global pact to stave off the crippling droughts, rising seas and extreme weather events that were helping to fuel conflicts.

It was a long, fitful and, at times, frustrating process. A low point came at a 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, when a raucous final day failed to yield a formal multinational agreement. One news account described Ban sitting “glumly on the podium at a fractious all-night session as the meeting unraveled.”

“That was one of the most difficult moments for me, personally,” Ban recalled, even as he insisted that he came away undeterred.

The years that followed, he said, brought a fundamental shift. The science became ever more clear that global warming was beginning to alter the Earth’s climate, and that those changes would likely accelerate if greenhouse gas emissions continued unabated. Many world leaders became more “conversant” about climate change and more willing to take on the issue, Ban said. Citizens in many countries became more vocal in demanding action, perhaps most notably during a September 2014 march in New York City that drew hundreds of thousands of people.

Ban also kept a spotlight on the issue. He is perhaps the only world leader to have seen firsthand the melting ice of Antarctica and Greenland, the drought-ravaged Aral Sea, and the disappearing Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which like some other small island countries, is slowly being swallowed by rising sea levels.

“I’m not a climatologist. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an economist,” he said. “But I know that what I have seen is true.”

December’s global agreement, adopted after nearly two weeks of intense bargaining outside Paris, was a defining moment in international relations — but also a personal triumph for Ban.

“I’m grateful to all the parties involved,” he said. “They may have some small dissatisfactions. But they all agreed, for the common good, for a better future … That was a real moment for me, as secretary-general.”

The months since have been, for Ban, both a victory lap and a scramble to make sure countries actually live up to their promises. The agreement will enter into force when at least 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global emissions, officially ratify the accord in their own domestic process. Already, 16 countries have done so, and big emitters, such as the United States and China, have vowed to move quickly. Ban believes countries will reach that threshold by the end of 2017, if not sooner.

Asked whether he was concerned that Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee who has called the notion of man-made global warming a “hoax,” could be the next occupant of the White House, Ban demurred.

“When it comes to an issue related to humanity and the environment, there is no political ideology; there is just one science,” he said. “There have been some deniers, [but] 97 percent of world scientists are in support” of the evidence behind human contributions to climate change.

“The discussions on whether climate change is happening or not are over,” he added, noting that nearly 200 countries had signed onto the Paris agreement, and that worldwide accord should guide the actions of countries going forward, even as individual leaders change.

“I hope that whoever becomes the president of the United States, he or she will be fully committed,” he said. “There is a huge expectation that the next president of the United States will lead this process in the right direction.”

As for Ban, he seems content that the global climate deal he pushed for nearly a decade to accomplish happened on his watch: “There is no perfect agreement in this world. But this is very ambitious and flexible … The once unthinkable has become unstoppable.”

The overarching goal of the Paris agreement is to bring down pollution levels so that the rise in global temperatures is limited to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial averages. The deal binds together pledges from individual countries to limit emissions from fossil-fuel burning, within a framework of rules that allow for monitoring and verification, as well as financial and technical assistance for developing countries. Nations will officially take stock of the collective efforts beginning in 2018.

Ban’s term as U.N. chief expires later this year. He said that even after he steps down, he will look for ways to ensure that the Paris agreement is implemented in coming years, and that countries take even more aggressive actions over time. But he knows it will be up to another U.N. leader — and hundreds of leaders around the globe — to make sure that promises become reality.

“I’m sure that this will continue to be a priority,” he said. “This is something that affects all of humanity, all of this planet Earth.”

This post has been updated.

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