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President George W. Bush deserves credit for kick-starting talks that led to a landmark international agreement on climate change, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
Ban pointed to a 2007 U.N. climate conference in Bali, where the United States pulled an about-face and agreed to enter negotiations on a new global treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The secretary-general told The Associated Press he still feels "very much grateful" to Bush.
"That was the beginning of our success," Ban said in an interview published Saturday.
The U.S., the only industrial nation to reject a 1997 climate agreement struck in Kyoto, initially opposed efforts to strike a deal in Bali. But the American delegation reversed itself after representatives from tiny Papua New Guinea demanded the U.S. lead or get out of the way.
"Miraculously, I was able to save this one, but I didn't know why," Ban said.
Ban said he discovered the reason at a White House dinner in the final days of Bush's presidency, when the 43rd president told the U.N. leader about his instructions to his team of negotiators when the talks were deadlocked.
He said Bush told him: "Suddenly, you came to my mind. Then I told the delegation head, 'Do what the secretary-general of the U.N. wants to do.' "
Reuters and other news outlets at the time reported that Paula Dobriansky, the U.S. leader at the talks, said she changed her mind because of pleas from smaller countries.
In a message to The Hill, Dobriansky said she did not initially join the consensus because of a call for change to the language from India that the U.S. believed would have weakened the deal.
"As the head of delegation, I initially did not join consensus supporting the Bali Plan of Action — primarily because in the plenary, India called for a change in the document's language — which appeared to modify a crucial already agreed upon passage that declared all countries (developed and developing) would undertake actions or commitments that would be verifiable, measurable and reportable," she wrote.
"Once we confirmed that these words were maintained in the text and learned that countries such as China, South Africa, Brazil, among others, agreed that they were not exempt from taking concrete actions to deal with climate change, I proceeded to join consensus in support of the Bali Plan of Action."
She added that the U.S. delegation was in consultation with Washington and that the position reflected the priorities of President Bush.
The Bali deal helped lay the groundwork for the first-ever international climate change agreement that was struck in Paris this month.
While the Bush administration was resistant to setting global targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, their position stands in contrast to today's Republican leaders, who have vowed to reverse the Paris deal.
Ban gives credit to Bush for allowing talks to proceed, but he doesn't describe him as an evangelist for climate change.
The former president "seemed to be a little bit surprised" when Ban raised the issue during their first meeting in January 2007.
There was disappointment along the way for Ban. The 2009 Copenhagen climate change negotiations, which occurred during President Obama's first year in office, ended in failure.
Obama showed "great commitment," Ban said, adding that the new president worked on the text of a deal from his laptop. But he said divides between countries were too big to bridge.
"From the failure of Copenhagen, we learned a great lesson," Ban said.
This story was updated on Dec. 29 to include Dobriansky's statement.