On video chat, Ban Ki-moon is almost preternaturally kind. “Thank you for your interest in my life story and my philosophy,” he says, smiling serenely. At 76, the former secretary-general of the United Nations — who completed his final term in December 2016 — still wears the rimless glasses familiar from thousands of news wire photos. One of the most famous features Ban and two other diplomats on December 12, 2015, clasping their hands in celebration of the approval of the Paris climate agreement.
Ban likes to say that he is a “child of war” and a “man of peace.” As a child, he fled the city of Cheongju with his family during the Korean War: In his new memoir, Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World, he recalls traveling 15 miles to safety on foot with his father, siblings, and mother, who had given birth just three days before. As an adult, his quiet, make-no-enemies political strategy eventually raised him to the position of secretary-general of the United Nations, where part of the job is mediating between warring powers (Russia, Ukraine) and navigating sticky diplomatic situations (the Iran nuclear deal).
But one of Ban’s most significant interventions may have been in the frustrating, and at times seemingly fruitless, battle against rising temperatures. Since 2006, when he first ran for secretary-general, Ban has been outspoken about the threat of climate change. He has joined Jane Goodall and Al Gore in a New York City climate march; his permanently affixed smile has graced many international negotiations on global warming, including those that led to the Paris Agreement, which Ban calls “my proudest accomplishment.”
He sums up his philosophy on how to stop the world from boiling up in three words, which are simple to the point of being platitudes: passion, compassion, and perseverance. “I have been very persistent,” he says, still smiling.