Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks on Climate Change, in New York on 10 September:
Dear friends of planet Earth, thank you for coming to the United Nations Headquarters today. I have asked you here to sound the alarm.
Climate change is the defining issue of our time — and we are at a defining moment. We face a direct existential threat. Climate change is moving faster than we are — and its speed has provoked a sonic boom “SOS” across our world. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us. That is why, today, I am appealing for leadership — from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere. We have the tools to make our actions effective. What we still lack — even after the Paris Agreement — is the leadership and the ambition to do what is needed.
Let there be no doubt about the urgency of the crisis. We are experiencing record‑breaking temperatures around the world. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past two decades included 18 of the warmest years since 1850, when records began. This year is shaping up to be the fourth hottest.
Extreme heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods are leaving a trail of death and devastation. Last month the state of Kerala in India suffered its worst monsoon flooding in recent history, killing 400 people and driving 1 million more from their homes. We know that Hurricane Maria killed almost 3,000 people in Puerto Rico last year, making it one of the deadliest extreme weather disasters in United States history. Many of those people died in the months after the storm because they lacked access to electricity, clean water and proper health care due to the hurricane.
What makes all of this even more disturbing is that we were warned. Scientists have been telling us for decades. Over and over again. Far too many leaders have refused to listen. Far too few have acted with the vision the science demands. We see the results. In some situations, they are approaching scientists’ worst‑case scenarios. Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than we imagined possible.
This year, for the first time, thick permanent sea ice north of Greenland began to break up. This dramatic warming in the Arctic is affecting weather patterns across the northern hemisphere.
Wildfires are lasting longer and spreading further. Some of these blazes are so big that they send soot and ash around the world, blackening glaciers and ice caps and making them melt even faster.
Oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening the foundation of the food chains that sustain life. Corals are dying in vast amounts, further depleting vital fisheries. And, on land, the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making rice crops less nutritious, threatening well‑being and food security for billions of people.
As climate change intensifies, we will find it harder to feed ourselves. Extinction rates will spike as vital habitats decline. More and more people will be forced to migrate from their homes as the land they depend on becomes less able to support them. This is already leading to many local conflicts over dwindling resources.
This past May, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the planet marked another grim milestone: the highest monthly average for carbon dioxide levels ever recorded. Four hundred parts per million has long been seen as a critical threshold. But we have now surpassed 411 parts per million and the concentrations continue to rise. This is the highest concentration in 3 million years.
We know what is happening to our planet. We know what we need to do. And we even know how to do it. But sadly, the ambition of our action is nowhere near where it needs to be. When world leaders signed the Paris Agreement on climate change three years ago, they pledged to stop temperatures rising by less than 2°C above pre‑industrial levels and to work to keep the increase as close as possible to 1.5°C. These targets were really the bare minimum to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But scientists tell us that we are far off track. According to a United Nations study, the commitments made so far by parties to the Paris Agreement represent just one third of what is needed.
The mountain in front of us is very high. But it is not insurmountable. We know how to scale it. Put simply, we need to put the brake on deadly greenhouse gas emissions and drive climate action. We need to rapidly shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to replace them with clean energy from water, wind and sun. We must halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and change the way we farm. We need to embrace the circular economy and resource efficiency.
Our cities and transport sectors will need to be overhauled. How we heat, cool and light our buildings will need to be rethought so we waste less energy. And this is exactly where this conversation can become exciting. Because, so much of the conversation on climate change focuses on the doom and gloom.
Of course, warnings are necessary. But fear will not get the job done. No, what captures my imagination is the vast opportunity afforded by climate action. Enormous benefits await humankind if we can rise to the climate challenge. A great many of these benefits are economic.
I have heard the argument — usually from vested interests — that tackling climate change is expensive and could harm economic growth. This is hogwash. In fact, the opposite is true. We are experiencing huge economic losses due to climate change. Over the past decade, extreme weather and the health impact of burning fossil fuels have cost the American economy at least $240 billion a year. This cost will explode by 50 per cent in the coming decade alone. By 2030, the loss of productivity caused by a hotter world could cost the global economy $2 trillion.
More and more studies also show the enormous benefits of climate action. Last week I was at the launch of the New [Climate] Economy report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate Change. It shows that that climate action and socioeconomic progress are mutually supportive, with gains of $26 trillion predicted by 2030 compared with business as usual. If we pursue the right path.
For example, for every dollar spent restoring degraded forests, as much as $30 can be recouped in economic benefits and poverty reduction. Restoring degraded lands means better lives and income for farmers and pastoralists and less pressure to migrate to cities. Climate‑resilient water supply and sanitation could save the lives of more than 360,000 infants every year. And clean air has vast benefits for public health.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that common sense green economy policies could create 24 million new jobs globally by 2030. In China and the United States, new renewable energy jobs now outstrip those created in the oil and gas industries. And, in Bangladesh the installation of more than 4 million solar home systems has created more than 115,000 jobs and saved rural households over $400 million in polluting fuels.
So, not only would a shift to renewable energy save money, it would also create new jobs, waste less water, boost food production and clean the polluted air that is killing us. There is nothing to lose from acting; there is everything to gain.
Now, there are still many who think that the challenge is too great. But I deeply disagree. Humankind has confronted and overcome immense challenges before; challenges that have required us to work together and to put aside division and difference to fight a common threat. That is how the United Nations came into action. It is how we have helped to end wars, to stop diseases, to reduce global poverty and to heal the ozone hole.
Now we stand at an existential crossroad. If we are to take the right path — the only sensible path — we will have to muster the full force of human ingenuity. But that ingenuity exists and is already providing solutions.
Another central message — technology is on our side in the battle to address climate change. The rise of renewable energy has been tremendous. Today, it is competitive [with] — or even cheaper — than coal and oil, especially if one factors in the cost of pollution.
Last year, China invested $126 billion in renewable energy, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Sweden is set to hit its 2030 target for renewable energy this year — 12 years early. By 2030, wind and solar energy could power more than a third of Europe. Morocco is building a solar farm the size of Paris that will power more than 1 million homes by 2020 with clean, affordable energy. Scotland has opened the world’s first floating wind farm.
There are many other signs of hope. Countries rich in fossil fuels, like the Gulf States and Norway, are exploring ways to diversify their economies. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in renewables to move from an oil economy to an energy economy. Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund — the largest in the world — has moved away from investments in coal and has dropped a number of palm and pulp paper companies because of the forests they destroy.
There are also promising signs that businesses are waking up to the benefits of climate action. More than 130 of the world’s largest and most influential businesses plan to power their operations with 100 per cent renewable energy. Eighteen multinationals will shift to electric vehicle fleets. And more than 400 firms will develop targets based on the latest science in order to manage their emissions. One of the world’s biggest insurers — Allianz — will stop insuring coal‑fired power plants.
Investments are shifting too. More than 250 investors representing $28 trillion in assets have signed on to the Climate Action 100+ initiative. They have committed to engage with the world’s largest corporate greenhouse [gas] emitters to improve their climate performance and ensure transparent disclosure of emissions.
Many such examples are going to be showcased this week at the important Global Climate Action Summit being convened by Governor [Jerry] Brown in California. All the pioneers I mentioned have seen the future. They are betting on green because they understand this is the path to prosperity and peace on a healthy planet. The alternative is a dark and dangerous future.
These are all important strides. But they are not enough. The transition to a cleaner, greener future needs to speed up. We stand at a truly “use it or lose it” moment. Over the next decade or so, the world will invest some $90 trillion in infrastructure. And so we must ensure that that infrastructure is sustainable or we will lock in a high‑polluting dangerous future. And for that to happen, the leaders of the world need to step up.
The private sector, of course, is poised to move, and many are doing so. But a lack of decisive Government action is causing uncertainty in the markets and concern about the future of the Paris Agreement. We can’t let this happen.
Existing technologies are waiting to come online — cleaner fuels, alternative building materials, better batteries and advances in farming and land use. These and other innovations can have a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so we can hit the Paris targets and inject the great ambition that is so urgently needed. Governments must also end harmful subsidies for fossil fuels, institute carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of polluting greenhouse [gas] emissions and incentivizes the clean energy transition.
I have spoken of the emergency we face, the benefits of action and the feasibility of a climate‑friendly transformation. There is another reason to act — moral duty. The world’s richest nations are the most responsible for the climate crisis, yet the effects are being felt first and worst by the poorest nations and the most vulnerable peoples and communities. We already see this injustice in the incessant and increasing cycle of extreme droughts and ever more powerful storms.
Women and girls in particular will pay the price — not only because their lives will become harder but because, in times of disaster, women and girls always suffer disproportionally. Richer nations must therefore not only cut their emissions but do more to ensure that the most vulnerable can develop the necessary resilience to survive the damage these emissions are causing.
It is important to note that, because carbon dioxide is long‑lasting in the atmosphere, the climate changes we are already seeing will persist for decades to come. It is necessary for all nations to adapt, and for the richest ones to assist the most vulnerable. This is the message I would like to make clear in addressing the world leaders this month in the General Assembly in New York.
I will tell them that climate change is the great challenge of our time. That, thanks to science, we know its size and nature. That we have the ingenuity, and the resources and tools to face it. And that leaders must lead.
We have the moral and economic incentives to act. What is still missing — still, even after Paris — is the leadership, and the sense of urgency and true commitment to [a] decisive multilateral response.
Negotiations towards implementation guidelines for operationalizing the Paris Agreement ended yesterday in Bangkok with some progress — but far from enough. The next key moment is in Poland in December. I call on leaders to use every opportunity between now and then — the G7, the G20 gatherings as well as meetings of the General Assembly, World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) — to resolve the sticking points.
We cannot allow Katowice to remind us of Copenhagen. The time has come for our leaders to show they care about the people whose fate they hold in their hands. We need them to show they care about the future — and even the present. That is why I am so pleased to have such a strong representation of youth in the audience today.
It is imperative that civil society — youth, women’s groups, the private sector, communities of faith, scientists and grassroots movements around the world — call their leaders to account. As I was told myself by my Youth Envoy. I call — in particular — on women’s leadership. When women are empowered to lead, they are the drivers of solutions.
Nothing less than our future and the fate of humankind depends on how we rise to the climate challenge. It affects every aspect of the work of the United Nations. Keeping our planet’s warming to well below 2°C is essential for global prosperity, people’s well‑being and the security of nations. That is why, next September, I will convene a Climate Summit to bring climate action to the top of the international agenda.
Today, I am announcing the appointment of Luis Alfonso de Alba, a well‑respected leader in the climate community, as my Special Envoy to lead those preparations. His efforts will complement those of my Special Envoy for Climate Action, Michael Bloomberg, and my Special Adviser Bob Orr, who will help to mobilize private finance and catalyse bottom‑up action.
The Summit next year will come exactly one year before countries will have to enhance their national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement. Only a significantly higher level of ambition will do. To that end, the Summit will focus on areas that go to the heart of the problem — the sectors that create the most emissions and the areas where building resilience will make the biggest difference.
The Summit will provide an opportunity for leaders and partners to demonstrate real climate action and showcase their ambition. We will bring together players from the real economy and real politics, including representatives of trillions of dollars of assets, both public and private.
I want to hear about how we are going to stop the increase in emissions by 2020, and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net‑zero emissions by mid‑century. We need cities and States to shift from coal to solar and wind — from brown to green energy.
Our great host city, New York, is taking important steps in this direction — and working with other municipalities to spur change. We need increased investments and innovation in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies across buildings, transport and industry. And we need the oil and gas industry to make their business plans compatible with the Paris Agreement and the Paris targets.
I want to see a strong expansion in carbon pricing. I want us to get the global food system right by ensuring that we grow our food without chopping down large tracts of forest. We need sustainable food supply chains that reduce loss and waste. And we must halt deforestation and restore degraded lands.
I want to rapidly speed up the trend towards green financing by banks and insurers, and encourage innovation in financial and debt instruments to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable nations such as small island States and bolster their defences against climate change. And I want to see Governments fulfilling their pledge to mobilize 100 billion dollars a year for climate action in support of the developing world.
We need to see the Green Climate Fund become fully operational and fully resourced. But for all this, we need Governments, industry and civil society reading from the same page — with Governments front and centre driving the movement for climate action.
I am calling on all leaders to come to next year’s Climate Summit prepared to report not only on what they are doing, but what more they intend to do when they convene in 2020 for the United Nations climate conference and where commitments will be renewed and surely ambitiously increased. And it is why I am calling on civil society, and young people in particular, to campaign for climate action.
Let us use the next year for transformational decisions in boardrooms, executive suites and Parliaments across the world. Let us raise our sights, build coalitions and make our leaders listen. I commit myself, and the entire United Nations, to this effort. We will support all leaders who rise to the challenge I have outlined today.
There is no more time to waste. As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes. We are careening towards the edge of the abyss. It is not too late to shift course, but every day that passes means the world heats up a little more and the cost of our inaction mounts. Every day we fail to act is a day that we step a little closer towards a fate that none of us wants — a fate that will resonate through generations in the damage done to humankind and life on Earth.
Our fate is in our hands. The world is counting on all of us to rise to the challenge before it’s too late. I count on you all.