TOM PLATE WRITES – Like each of his seven predecessors, the current occupant of the Office of Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, gets to pick his own impossible dream to imagine solved, and he certainly has his. However, the SG disagrees that he’s tilting at windmills, as skeptics of modern science scoff. He believes there’s nothing imaginary about problem number-one on his to-do list.
For some past UN leaders, past SG choices have included such obvious dreams such as “world peace” (good luck with that!) or universal respect for human rights (oh sure, easy … Rwanda, etc. etc. etc.). But Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister who has served as UNSG since 2007, feels a special urgency about the global threat from radical climate change. And, there’s just something about the way Ban Ki-moon tilts at the impossible dream of remedy and stays with it through bad and good, year after year, that makes you feel like the world really ought to be following his lead – maybe for once actually listening obediently to an urgent call from the UN.
Ban Ki-moon is no quixotic dreamer, but a thoroughly seasoned and realistic career diplomat who is substantively up to speed on almost any significant world policy issue you can think of, from A to Z. In fact, the 69-year-old Korean may well be the most technically proficient Secretary-General the United Nations has ever had. While he has his detractors, Ban Ki-moon has won many admirers from New York and elsewhere, not only for his prodigious work habits, but also for his overall “niceness”. In fact, the SG is a naturally nice man, but he can be anything but nice to world leaders who would ignore the difficult but necessary task of curbing human and economic behavior and habits that are clearly stressing out the earth and its ecology.
His gritty and sometimes pushy commitment will again be useful when, in September, Ban Ki-moon takes the lead at a climate summit in New York that is designed to cook up diplomatic and political steam for a new world climate treaty. For this particular summit, just about everyone has received invitations, from heads-of-state, government and to civil-society.
Few people realize that Ban Ki-moon, who otherwise carries the burden of a tame and somewhat bland public image, is something of a tiger-in-an-army-tank on the global-warming issue, grabbing leaders’ attention and almost shaming them into at least facing the music. Here’s a particularly good example: a decade ago, a notoriously uninterested President George W. Bush practically had to be dragooned to New York for a climate summit. It took Ban Ki-moon, at his beastly back-room best (with a major assist from then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who agreed with the SG), to get the balky Bush even to show up.
Listen to Ban Ki-moon on the climate issue and see if you hear what I hear: “From tropical deforestation to depleted ocean fisheries, from growing freshwater shortages to the rapid decline of biodiversity and increasingly polluted skies and seas in many parts of the world, we see the heavy hand of humankind…. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil that grows our food are part of a delicate global ecosystem that is increasingly under pressure from human activities.”
These were thoughts that arose in conjunction with recent Earth Day ceremonies around the world.
Further: “We need a global transformation of attitude and practice. It is especially urgent to address how we generate the energy that drives our progress. That is why world leaders have pledged to reach a global legal climate agreement in 2015.”
Well, we’ll soon see if that actually happens – or if any agreement is actually worth the computer storage space on which it’s written. But, Ban Ki-moon won’t permit political cynics or policy pessimists like me to slow him down. Instead, he is imploring “all people everywhere to raise their voices. Speak out on behalf of this planet, our only home.”
You might wish to reflect on his call for support and raise your own voice in whatever ways you can, in whatever place that you call home. You know how to do it – just say the UN Secretary General sent you, and, like Ban Ki-moon himself, be as nice as you can about it, but be firm. Don’t permit your leaders to beat around the bush, even with a different, less committed UNSG, the issue would heat up on its own.
Tom Plate is author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, which includes Conversations with Ban Ki-moon, and, most recently, In the Middle of the Future. He is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.