Climate and Environment
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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.N. chief’s relentless, frustrating pursuit to bring the world together on climate change

The COP26 summit in Glasgow could ‘become a missed opportunity,' Secretary General António Guterres told The Washington Post

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has made climate a priority among the many urgent issues he has had to deal with. (Felix Zahn/Photothek /Getty Images)

NEW YORK — On a recent afternoon at the United Nations, as boats meandered 38 stories below along the sun-splashed East River, the world’s top diplomat was talking about his three granddaughters. And, in particular, what they might think of him at the end of this century.

“I would not like them to come to say that the planet is hell, and that I have not done enough to avoid it,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in an interview with The Washington Post.

He wants to give them a different story to tell:

“That finally, a few decades ago, there were some generations that understood that we were moving in the wrong direction." Guterres hopes he is among those that help persuade the world to make “peace with nature” in order to create "the best possible conditions for human beings to inhabit planet Earth.”

In the lead-up to COP26, a crucial U.N. climate summit next month in Glasgow, Scotland, Guterres is working feverishly to write that happier ending.

Read the Washington Post interview with Secretary General António Guterres

With the world on a path that scientists have said will lead to catastrophic warming, the 72-year-old diplomat has assumed the role of the globe’s exhorter-in-chief for bolder climate action.

He has chided leaders of rich nations for not doing more to cut greenhouse gas emissions and for not living up to their promises to help poorer, vulnerable countries deal with the mounting disasters of a warming world.

He has served as a megaphone for scientists, warning in blunt terms that failure to slow global warming will lead to more costly disasters and more human suffering in the years ahead. He has amplified the grievances of young activists, who have marched in the streets by the millions demanding more urgency from those in power.

He has acted as a cheerleader, insisting that while the math of slowing climate change has grown more daunting, humans still have the power to shape a better, more sustainable future — if only leaders can muster the necessary political will.

“When you are at the verge of the abyss, you need to be very careful about your next step,” he said, calling the effort to halt climate change “the most important political battle of my life.”

What Guterres has failed to do, at least yet, is persuade presidents and prime ministers to lock in the sweeping commitments necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels — the most ambitious goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

But not for lack of trying.

“On this subject, he has been continually outspoken and even at times inspirational,” Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” said in an email.

Schlesinger has been critical of Guterres, saying he has not been visible enough on the world scene and not done enough to emphasize human rights during his tenure, which began in early 2017. But on climate change, Schlesinger said, Guterres has displayed passion and persistence, even as he grapples with the main handicap of any U.N. chief: the inability to compel world leaders to act.

“At best, Guterres can exert a moral force with the nations of the world,” Schlesinger said. “He has no army, no legislative authority, no taxing authority and no presidential powers. … He has a difficult row to hoe.”

It is a limitation Guterres knows too well.

“There are many illusions about what the secretary general of the United Nations can do,” he told The Post.

He said that while the U.N. Secretariat can nudge and nag, while it can spotlight the latest science on climate change and the related devastation the world is already seeing, ultimately only government leaders can bring about change. Nations can influence one another — offering trade deals or financial incentives, imposing or lifting sanctions. But the U.N. chief has few tangible bargaining chips.

“Unfortunately, in the world, power and leadership are not always aligned,” Guterres said. “Sometimes there is leadership where there is no power, and there is power where there is no leadership. And I think there is a strong risk that that might happen in relation to climate change.”

Guterres, of course, has many allies in the push to alter the world’s trajectory, reverse the rise in global greenhouse gas pollution and avoid deepening climate-fueled calamities in every corner of the Earth.

The European Union and Britain, which is hosting this year’s climate talks, have made among the strongest commitments to emissions cuts and have implored other nations to follow suit. “COP26 is not a photo op,” the British president of the summit, Alok Sharma, said in a recent speech. “It must be the forum where we put the world on track to deliver on climate. … Responsibility rests with each and every country. And we must all play our part.”

President Biden, meanwhile, has tried to reposition the United States as a leader on climate action. His top envoy on the issue, former secretary of state John F. Kerry, has spent the year traversing the globe, pressing leaders to embrace bolder plans to transition away from fossil fuels.

Tracking Biden's environmental actions

Small and vulnerable nations bearing the brunt of climate impacts also continue to push major economies to move with more haste. And the United Nations itself has a cadre of officials dedicated to implementing the goals of the Paris agreement, including Deputy Secretary General Amina J. Mohammed and Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), who since 2016 has worked to persuade nations to live up to their promises.

But Guterres has a unique global platform, and even as he grapples with crises ranging from the pandemic to conflicts in Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere, he has kept a spotlight on the need for climate action.

“He hasn’t let the current geopolitics interfere with his global responsibility of putting the world on the right track for the medium and the long term,” said Christiana Figueres, who led the UNFCCC from 2010 through 2016. “He has been very clear and very brave in his public statements, and very consistent in his bilateral meetings with other leaders.”

In speeches and news conferences, he speaks about the problem with a directness rare among world leaders. He displays a sober grasp of the science, coupled with a street preacher’s fervor as he pleads with national leaders to do more — and do more quickly.

“[We are] racing toward the threshold of catastrophe,” he told dozens of national leaders at a White House climate summit in April, noting that the past decade was the hottest on record, that extreme weather events were growing more intense and that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere had reached levels not seen in millions of years.

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A code red for humanity,” he said in August, reacting to a landmark scientific report that detailed how humans had pushed the climate into “unprecedented” territory. “There is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

In September, he lamented the “suicidal war” that humanity is waging on nature. “The climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch,” Guterres warned leaders gathered for the U.N. General Assembly. “We are weeks away from the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light-years away from reaching our targets.” He added that the combination of climate change and covid-19 had “exposed profound fragilities as societies and as a planet.”

“Yet instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges, we see hubris,” he said. “Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.”

Guterres has not shied away from calling for leaders to embrace far-reaching — and often politically difficult — changes. He has said the world must end the construction of coal-fired power plants and halt fossil fuel subsidies. He has pleaded with nations to put more stimulus money toward green infrastructure. He has insisted that rich nations must do far more to help poorer, vulnerable countries prepare for worsening climate disasters. He has backed a global tax on carbon.

He told The Post that while climate change had been “a concern for many years,” it was not central to his previous public life.

Guterres, a native of Lisbon, studied physics and electrical engineering and spent time as a university professor before launching a political career in the mid-1970s. He served as a member of the Portuguese parliament for 17 years and then as prime minister from 1995 to 2002. He noted that he had backed efforts to incentivize the growth of renewable energy, helping put the nation on a path to becoming a leader in that area.

It was during his decade as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, from 2005 to 2015, that he says he grasped that “climate change was also a factor” in the conflicts and deteriorating conditions that led many people to abandon their communities, “for the simple reason that life is no longer possible there.”

Guterres took the helm of the United Nations in January 2017, weeks before Donald Trump entered the White House. Gone was much of the optimism that abounded when nearly 200 countries had finalized the Paris agreement barely a year earlier. America’s new president made clear he wanted no part of the international effort to address climate change, and Guterres had to stand by as the United States withdrew from the Paris accord.

“It’s interesting to see his whole journey,” Laurence Tubiana, a French economist and diplomat, and one of the architects of the Paris agreement, said of Guterres in an interview. “I think he has grown into [the role],” she added, saying that as Guterres gained a deeper understanding of climate change and grasped its urgency, he became more outspoken on the need for profound action.

“This is the product of many actors,” she said, “but the resilience of the Paris agreement, in good part, is due to António Guterres sticking to it and mentioning that we don’t have any other choice but to fill these commitments.”

He also has been consistent in insisting that the gray-haired leaders of the world — of which he is admittedly one — should heed the calls from young people to move faster and more forcefully on climate change. Guterres has featured the voices of young activists at U.N. climate gatherings, and he meets regularly with a group of youth climate advisers.

“He really feels others and hears others,” Nisreen Elsaim, 26, one of those advisers and a negotiator for African nations, said in an interview. “Diplomacy didn’t erase his identity; it didn’t erase his humanity. … He’s frustrated sometimes, he’s hopeful sometimes, he’s excited sometimes.”

But always, she said, he “takes climate change and young people seriously.”

Days before leaders begin to arrive at this year’s much-anticipated U.N. climate summit, Guterres knows that the math is not adding up the way he and many other advocates had hoped it would by now.

Rather than digging into their pockets to fulfill their financial pledges to poor nations battered by climate impacts and a persistent pandemic, rich nations have failed two years running to meet their funding promises. Rather than bold new commitments to put the world on a path to remain “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of warming, as the Paris agreement states, current pledges would lead to a trajectory closer to 2.7 degrees Celsius.

He is hopeful that breakthroughs might still happen in coming days, but also realistic enough to acknowledge that they might not. “Glasgow can become a missed opportunity. And we have no time for missed opportunities,” he said.

But both the diplomat and the grandfather in Guterres know that even if world leaders fail to make meaningful progress in Scotland, only one option remains.

“The next day,” he said, “we start again.”

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