Following are UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ remarks to Youth Climate Summit, in New York on 21 September 2019:
I have been more times a keynote speaker than a listener. That is one of the problems of world leaders: they talk too much and they listen too little.
And, it is listening – it is in listening that we learn.
It is in giving the possibility for all those that represent today’s world to speak and to have their voices be part of decision-making processes that we can move forward.
I am really very enthusiastic about the leadership and the dynamism of the youth movement for climate action today in the world.
When I started two years and something ago, I must say I felt very, very discouraged in relation to the prospects of climate action.
We are already facing a climate emergency. We are seeing, and I’m not going to enter into technical details about it, but we are seeing this multiplication of natural disasters becoming more and more intense, more and more dramatic with worse consequences.
We are seeing drought in Africa. Namely, in some circumstances, not only making communities unable to survive, but being affected by conflict like in the Sahel, where the lack of water resources is making farmers and others fight each other and because of that, facilitating the emergency of conflicts and even the spread of terrorism.
We were seeing the glaciers melting, the ice caps disappearing, the corals bleaching, biodiversity being threatened, the heatwaves everywhere.
There was always in the last few years, since I started, clearly this perspective, there is a climate urgency. Things are getting worse. The worst forecasts that were made are being proven wrong, not because they were too dramatic, but because they were not enough dramatic in relation to the reality.
At the same time, there was a sense of apathy. It was very difficult to put these things on the table. It was very difficult to make decision makers assume the need to act.
There was a kind of a laissez-faire in the world. All of a sudden, I started to feel that there was momentum that was gaining. This was largely due to the youth movement that started a fantastic, very dynamic impulse around the world, moving progressively with them, their families, their communities, their societies, and based on the societies moving, and the voice of the societies being heard, starting to have an impact on the way businesses were acting, on the way cities were acting, and on the way regions were acting.
Finally, we are starting to see electorates being active on these and governments starting to respond.
There is a change. We are not yet there. We are still losing the race. Climate change is still running faster than what we are. We still have subsidies to fossil fuels, we still have coal plants being built, we still have many things that are not happening and should happen, or things that go on happening and should not be happening anymore.
But, there is a change in momentum – I feel there is a change in momentum. Largely this change in momentum was due to your [Greta Thunberg’s] initiative, and to the courage with which you have started this movement and made this movement from a small movement in front of a Parliament to — I believe it was the Swedish Parliament some time ago — into millions around the world, saying clearly, not only that they want change, not only that decision makers must change, but they want them to be accountable. This question of accountability is essential.
Obviously, there are different dimensions on these. There are dimensions related to grassroots movements that at the village level are able to themselves be leaders in climate action. Then, based on that, push their communities, push their societies, push their governments to act. There is the way to participate in an institutional way, in the bodies that are discussing these things.
You mentioned Katowice. I went to Katowice three times. You can’t imagine how difficult it is to make things move when you have 193 countries and we have to have all the countries agreeing with the moves that are absolutely obvious that need to be done, but there is always someone with some doubts or some questions or whatever.
So we really need a very strong impulse and the impulse of the young people organized to push for the institutional decision making processes to move is essential.
Then you have also this fundamental reflection about injustice. We do not live in a fair globalization.
The dramatic thing is, it’s not the African continent, or the small islands in the Pacific or the Caribbean, that contribute more to climate change, but they are the main victims.
It’s not the poorest communities that contribute more to climate change, but they are the main victims. And indeed, there is a question of justice and the question of fairness in the way the global economy is organized, in the way power is distributed. This is also related to climate change.
So, your reflection is also a very important reflection. We need to link climate change to a new model of development, a model with more justice among people, and a fair relation between people and the planet.
When we look into today’s world, I think that is something that is new. We have had conflicts among people for centuries or for millennia since the human race existed. But, for the first time, there is a serious conflict between people and nature, between people and the planet.
This could be absolutely destructive for the future of our communities and for the future of all societies. It’s not only a question of glaciers or icecaps, or corals, even if that is extremely important, and biodiversity is a is a vital question in today’s world. But it is more and more about the suffering of people. And this will become worse and worse as time goes by. Lots of people are today dramatically dying and suffering because of the impacts of climate change.
So, we have no time to lose. It does not make sense to go on subsidizing fossil fuels. Some people present the subsidies of fossil fuels as a benefit to the population. No, they are done with taxpayers money – with our money. It doesn’t make sense at all money is there to boost hurricanes, or to bleach corals or to destroy communities, like the ones that were mentioned here in Africa. Let’s make sure that taxpayers get their money back and there are no more subsidies to fossil fuels.
When people talk about tax on carbon, that means more costs for the economy. Not necessarily. You can put a tax on carbon, and reduce taxes on people, namely on salaries, and with that you help solve the problems of unemployment, namely youth employment.
So that is a win-win strategy that is possible, if you combine at the same time, climate action with a fair globalization with the Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals and our plans for a more fair and just world, in which the resources can be better distributed and better used.
I believe that what the youth is doing today, what grassroots movements are doing today is absolutely essential for this to happen. I encourage you to go on some people say it is very dangerous, very complicated, you know, these young people, be careful. No, I am not careful at all.
I encourage you to go on, I encourage you to keep your initiative, keep your mobilization, and more and more to hold my generation accountable. My generation has largely failed until now to preserve both justice in the world and to preserve the planet.
I have granddaughters. I want my granddaughters to live in a liveable planet. My generation as a huge responsibility. It is your generation that must make us be accountable to make sure that we don’t betray the future of humankind.