By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff
CAMBRIDGE -- Calling global warming "the defining issue of our time," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged immediate international action to counteract the "imminent threat" of climate change.
In a wide-ranging speech this afternoon at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Ban said it was crucial to ratify an international treaty on greenhouse-gas emissions before the Kyoto Accord expires in 2012.
Climate change "is no longer theory, it has become a fact," he told an audience of several hundred. "We cannot afford to delay any action."
He later called upon the United States to take a leadership role in reducing carbon emissions, and said industrial nations have the potential to sharply reduce energy consumption.
"They have the capacity and technology and financial resources," he said. "What they lack is political will."
Ban, the former South Korean defense minister who became the head of the UN in 2007, said global cooperation is increasingly critical to addressing the world financial crisis, terrorism, and nonproliferation.
"Now more than ever we must be bold," he said. "In these times of crisis, when we are tempted to look inward, it is precisely the time when we must move pursuit of the common good to the top of the agenda. Global solidarity is necessary and in the interest of all."
Ban, who graduated from the Kennedy School in 1984, said volatile economic conditions have threatened financial stability around the world and poses a dire risk to developing nations already struggling to cope with high food and fuel costs.
"We cannot allow the financial crisis to turn into a prolonged human crisis," he said in his speech, titled "Securing the Common Good in a Time of Global Crises."
The same forces of globalization that spread prosperity, he said, are now "biting deep in the bad times, especially for those who can least afford it."
Similarly, increased travel and migration has caused a "paradigm shift" in combating diseases such as HIV, avian flu, and SARS that demands a multinational approach.
"They cross borders freely, and are highly contagious," he said. "They cannot be resolved without action by all."
Global health problems are receiving "unprecedented attention," Ban said, citing a UN anti-malaria campaign that is "within range of containing the disease."
He said the United Nations had convened global health leaders in recent months to build health systems that work for the poorest and most vulnerable.
"The global health sphere is increasingly complex and fragmented, and there is no systematic approach to ensuring coherence of action," he said.
Ban also called for multilateral, innovative campaigns for reducing terrorism, saying "military force is rarely enough."
"We cannot shy away from nontraditional approaches," he said.
In an interview with the Globe before the speech, Ban said he was deeply worried about the impact of the financial crisis on the developing world and called for renewed efforts to meet the UN's goal of reducing extreme poverty by half by 2015.
"The challenges of the poorest of the poor should be put at the forefront," he said.
He said he was encouraged by conditions in Burma as it seeks to recover from a devastating cyclone in May, and that UN involvement was helping.
"Humanitarian aid is flowing," he said. "I'm going to be personally engaged. I am very committed to seeing genuine democracy and stability."
Ban also said the situation in Sudan remains deeply worrisome. But he expressed hope that an increase in peacekeeping troops over the coming months, coupled with ongoing negotiations, would lessen the violence in the war-torn Darfur region.
"We must accelerate the political process," he said. "We are urging the Sudanese government to cooperate with UN peacekeepers."
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.