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UN Secretary General Pushes Climate Change Agreement Before Next Administration


The United Nations General Assembly is getting close to passing a landmark climate change agreement. This week, world leaders will come together for the annual general assembly debate, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is planning to use this time to make a big push to bring the climate deal into force. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, he's getting close.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is in a race against time to get the Paris climate change agreement into force before the end of his term and before a new U.S. president gets to the White House.


SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I'm using every opportunity to push for the early entry into force of the Paris agreement before the end of this year.

KELEMEN: Ban needs at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of climate change emissions, to formally join the deal for it to go into effect. And the secretary-general is asking as many countries as possible to deliver their letters of ratification at a ceremony this Wednesday in New York. One of his aides on this, Selwin Hart, says it's been remarkable to see how quickly countries are moving through complicated political debates at home.

SELWIN HART: It usually takes years and sometimes decades (laughter) - and sometimes never - for major international agreements like this to cross these thresholds that have been put in place and enter into force.

KELEMEN: Hart is expecting about 20 countries to join on Wednesday, bringing the total close to 50. The recent decision by the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the U.S. and China, to join added momentum. And Secretary of State John Kerry continues to rally other countries, says Assistant Secretary of State Bethsheba Crocker.


ASST SEC OF STATE SHEBA CROCKER: The secretary and numerous other U.S. government officials are talking all the time to other counterparts in other governments to try to encourage other countries to sign up this year so that, hopefully, the agreement will come into force this year.

KELEMEN: Why the rush? In part, the U.S. election calendar is driving this. While Democrat Hillary Clinton has been on board with the Paris agreement, Republican Donald Trump has said he would walk away from it. If the Paris climate change agreement goes into force by the end of the year, the U.S. technically wouldn't be able to withdraw from its commitments for four years, almost the duration of the next president's term.

And a top adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on climate change, Robert Orr, says with American businesses invested in this, it will be hard for even Trump to back out.

ROBERT ORR: The movement in the world is towards lower carbon intensity economies is accelerating rapidly, and the U.S. can't afford to lose in this race, or its economy and its jobs will suffer.

KELEMEN: Orr, who is dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, says this is part of the success of the deal. He says the secretary-general managed to bring in businesses, banks and others who recognize the dangers of climate change and see opportunities in renewable energy and other low-carbon industries.

ORR: The real world has entered the negotiating room, which left no room for negotiators to continue to dawdle. And that is a huge legacy for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mobilizing those forces made the achievement and the Paris agreement possible. It will also make the implementation of the Paris agreement possible.

KELEMEN: Orr describes it as a race to the top. A global competition for industries to become more efficient and competitive. And he argues, if America aspires to remain a global superpower, this is one area where it must lead. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.