Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

Q&A with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

It's the hard-working demographers of the U.N. who have counted the global population and have selected Oct. 31 as the date of the 7 billionth person. That makes sense because population is a major part of international development — and that's the business of the U.N. Bryan Walsh of TIME spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his office in New York City about global population, the challenges of development and the lingering threat of climate change.

Thanks to your demographers, we know the 7 billionth person is set to be born on Oct. 31. Can the world support — environmentally and economically — a population of 7 billion, 8 billion, 9 billion? Do we have that capacity?
Seven billion will clearly be a serious challenge. But depending on how we address this, in a comprehensive manner it can be both an opportunity and challenge. I suspect that the 7 billionth citizen, a child, will be born into a world of contradiction. Plenty of food, but still a billion people going to bed hungry every night. Many people enjoy luxurious lifestyles, but still many people are impoverished. [There are] many sick people while we have very nice medical facilities. This is clearly a clarion call to action. For all of us — not only government, United Nations, local communities, civil community leaders, NGOs, faith leaders — we have to have a combined solidarity to address this issue. Yesterday I spoke to students, pupils of a public high school [in Manhattan]. I was very much moved. Everybody brought small and big placards reading: "7 Billion, I'm a Part of 7 Billion." It was quite moving; I saw very strong signs of hope.

You mentioned a clarion call to action. What actions should we be taking, and what role should the U.N. be taking?
We must address and realize the Millennium Development Goals. That is why, from now on, at least the coming five years, while I am serving as Secretary-General, the United Nations has decided to focus on sustainable development as the No. 1 priority, to address all these issues. Climate change, food-security issues, energy shortages, water scarcities, disease, health issues and gender empowerment: all these are interconnected. We have to address these issues in an integrated way. This is our vision, and all 193 member states have agreed that this should be the top priority.

Does population control need to be part of that answer?
After the baby-boomer period, many countries took [serious] family-planning policies. They now realize there have been some problems in that. There's not a clear answer whether birth control — family planning, or just leave it to the individual government — I do not have any clear answer at this time. What is necessary is that we have to provide all these opportunities, including sustainable growth, under which everybody can live with dignity as a human being. What the United Nations does is to provide opportunities and try to solve all these global challenges in a comprehensive way.

Some parts of the world like East Asia are aging quickly, while other parts like sub-Saharan Africa are still very young with growing populations. Is migration the answer to balancing this out?
Migration has been around for thousands of years, and particularly in this era of globalization, you cannot control migration. This is a natural tendency of a human being: to seek a better place, better opportunities, better living conditions, better future. Therefore, rather than controlling others, or discriminating against all these migrants, it's very important that these people be given some decent opportunities, social and economic opportunities, by the host governments. Since 2007, the United Nations has been working together with the member states on migration, initiating a global forum for migration and development. There's going to be one in Switzerland in December this year, and we're going to have a high-level United Nations conference for the first time on migration issues in 2014.

Is there a way to try to standardize migration policy across countries?
I hope — we are still discussing very seriously this issue at the international level. But it has not come yet to the United Nations General Assembly. Still, outside the General Assembly, we have been discussing this matter. The United States has not yet fully joined, except sending some lower-level, lower-ranking working officials. I can't understand. There are often jobs in developed nations that those citizens are not willing to do, so all these jobs have been done by the migrant workers. It's a mutual cooperation, a mutual benefit. At the same time, I think that both migrants and hosting government, they should look at all the aspects, how these migrants can live as a human being. They should be respected in human rights, and be given all social and economic opportunities.

With Occupy Wall Street here in New York City and with the Arab Spring, we're seeing a lot of energy from young people. Can those demographic youth bulges be an advantage for the world?
They can work as dynamic energy. But at this time there is a lot of inequity, in terms of resources, between poor and rich countries. As we reach 7 billion people, I'm afraid that this gap may be widened. That's what I'm very much concerned with unless we address this issue very quickly.

It seems as if the real impact of population on the environment isn't so much a matter of population, but how much people are using and consuming — and that differs widely from poor to rich countries. Do we need some kind of balancing out of that?
That's right — it's not exactly a question of the numbers at this time. Seven billion is a huge population, an alarming number. Still, we can resolve this issue. For example, half of this 7 billion, 3.5 billion people, are living in poor countries. But they generate only 7% of total greenhouse-gas emissions. At the same time, they are the ones who have been hit the hardest [by climate change]. So we have to address all these issues. What kinds of factors are affecting which area? We are mobilizing our full resources and our manpower and our expertise to address these population issues, as part of this sustainable development.

What are your hopes for the upcoming U.N. climate-change meeting in Durban, South Africa? Obviously it's one that's fairly important, given that we're nearing the end of the Kyoto Protocol.
There are two areas — we have to make some advances and build up on what member states have agreed in Toronto last year. Like deforestation, I think we've made good progress, and on adaptation, technology and climate-change finance capacity. Another important issue which has not been agreed yet and which may take longer time is on the future of the Kyoto Protocol. We need to have clarity on the future of the Kyoto Protocol. On this issue it is sharply divided. I believe the existing commitment should continue. The conference in Panama has left it to the decision at the political level. But political-level discussions have not proved to be ... there is no point of convergence at this time. That is my concern.

But ultimately you seem fairly optimistic about all these ...
I work for optimism. I'm an optimist. Otherwise you cannot do this job.