U.N. Secretary-General urges USA to take the lead in combating global warming

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the United States to take the lead in combating global warming during a visit to California to learn about the state's aggressive campaign to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

"The whole planet earth is at a crucial juncture," Ban told an audience at an event organized by the World Affairs Council of Northern California on Thursday. "Time is of essence. The cost of inaction will be far greater than the cost of action."

Ban, who served as South Korea's foreign minister before he became U.N. chief in January, arrived in San Francisco on Thursday for a two-day visit of the Bay Area. He lunched with Mayor Gavin Newsom at the historic Ferry Building and accepted a key to the city at the Herbst Theater, where the U.N. Charter was signed by its 50 original member states in 1945.

During the World Affairs Council event, Ban answered questions about a wide range of issues, including U.N. reform, the crisis in Darfur, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq.

Ban said he has made climate change a top priority of his tenure as secretary-general and has invited world leaders, including President George W. Bush, to attend a high-level U.N. conference to discuss the issue in September.

The U.N. "should be at the forefront of generating strong political will" needed to confront global warming, but the United States - as a major emitter of greenhouse gasses and a leader in technological innovation - is in the best position to bring change, he said,

"If you take leadership, I think we can save this planet earth from plunging into a very difficult situation," Ban told an audience of 1,300 people at the Fairmont Hotel.

California has become a world leader in confronting climate change with its efforts to promote renewable energy, boost energy efficiency and develop cleaner technologies. Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that made California the first state to impose a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions.

Ban was scheduled to meet with Schwarzenegger on Friday and tour a Silicon Valley company that develops technology to help businesses conserve energy.

Ban, 63, is a career diplomat who rose through the ranks of South Korean's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, becoming its deputy foreign minister in 1996 and U.N. ambassador in 2001. After three years as his country's foreign minister, he became the U.N.'s eighth secretary general, replacing Kofi Annan.

Ban opened his two-day trip with a visit to the Novato home of 90-year-old Libba Patterson. Her family hosted Ban when he was an 18-year-old high school student making his first visit to the United States in 1962.

"They showered me with affection, love and kindness to a very young Korean schoolboy who had never been to a foreign country," Ban said. "After that, if I may quote Tony Bennett, I really did leave my heart in San Francisco."