The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. takes a low profile as nations gather in New York to debate steps to combat climate change

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate change activist from Sweden, testifies before a House committee. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has scurried across the globe over the past year to deliver, time and again, a blunt reminder that the world is not doing enough to combat climate change — and to implore leaders to act with more urgency.

“We still lack the global political will to take the kind of transformational measures necessary to make these trends be reversed before it is too late,” he warned an audience in Beijing in April.

“Climate change is running faster than our efforts to address it,” he said during a May visit to Fiji, where he’d come to witness the impacts of rising seas on small island nations.

“We are in a battle for our lives,” he said in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, in June.

A much-anticipated climate summit at the United Nations on Monday will test whether Guterres’s relentless campaign to nudge nations toward more aggressive climate action is working. It also will help reveal whether the world’s nations, which came together to sign the Paris climate accord in 2015, can muster the resolve to slash carbon emissions as rapidly as scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“This is not a regular meeting of the U.N.,” Luis Alfonso de Alba, a Mexican diplomat whom Guterres appointed as a special envoy for the summit, said in an interview. “This is a sounding of the alarm at the highest level.”

For his part, Guterres has demanded that the countries attending Monday’s summit bring with them promises of tangible action, such as vowing to reach net zero emissions by 2050, scaling back fossil fuel subsidies and halting construction of coal-fired power plants.

“I told leaders not to come with fancy speeches, but with concrete commitments,” Guterres told reporters this week. “We are losing the race against climate change. Our world is off track.”

U.N. officials have said that only the countries that have promised meaningful new pledges — probably about 60 nations — will be allowed one of the three-minute speaking slots throughout the day.

That means high-profile nations such as the United States, which has vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement next year, will not be invited to weigh in.

Ban Ki-moon, the former U.N. secretary general who made finalizing the Paris accord one of his top priorities, said Guterres is taking a hard line with countries in an effort to extract ambitious commitments ahead of a major climate summit next year. At that gathering, nations will be asked to increase the initial pledges to cut carbon emissions they made five years earlier in Paris — pledges that were nowhere near enough to keep global warming from rising two degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

De Alba said the main goal of Monday’s gathering is to demonstrate that the “transformative” actions necessary to combat climate change do exist.

“We need to demonstrate that it is possible to make these changes,” he said.

At the same time, however, a group of nearly three dozen prominent figures — including Ban and Microsoft founder Bill Gates — called the Global Commission on Adaptation will use the summit to press for measures to cope with the impact of climate change that has happened or is inevitable.

Monday’s summit comes amid a growing focus on climate change around the world and mounting pressure to address it, including among young activists and corporate investors.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that the reality of the worsening impacts around the globe and dire predictions of impacts to come have galvanized a global citizen movement calling for climate action from their leaders,” Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute, wrote in a blog post ahead of Monday’s summit. “. . . In short, the real world is moving faster than the politicians.”

On Friday, hundreds of thousands of teenagers around the world are expected to hold demonstrations to push for more urgent climate action. Among the largest of those protests is the one that will be led in New York by 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

In testimony before Congress this week, Thunberg submitted a report from a U.N.-backed panel of scientists that found nations must take “unprecedented” actions to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade to keep the world from racing past warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels.

“I am submitting this testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me,” she said. “I want you to listen to the scientists. And I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.”

If the world is to meet the aims of the Paris agreement, real action will be a necessity. A recent U.N. report found the current pledges from countries leave the world on track for a rise in emissions of more than 10 percent above 2016 levels by 2030 — a trend sharply at odds with pleas for deep cuts.

At the same time, there are signs of rising ambition in corners of the globe. For instance, the same report found that at least 112 nations, representing 53 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, have signaled an intention to revise their plans for combating climate change over the next decade.

Of course, one major world power notably absent is the United States, which under President Trump has relinquished its role as a global leader in pushing for climate action. Trump has insisted the Paris accord would have hurt the United States financially and said the nation already has a stronger environmental record than most other countries. (It is also the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon, behind China.)

Trump has the support of many Republican lawmakers. Even those who concede that man-made climate change is real remain reluctant to support actions they say are not reciprocated by countries such as China or India.

Rep. Garret Graves (La.), the ranking Republican on the House Select Climate Crisis Committee, said in a statement after the hearing on Wednesday that “we need aggressive and sustainable action that’s grounded in more science — not less.” He also lamented that “for every ton of emissions we cut, China adds four tons: more than offsetting what we’ve done.”

Asked about the U.S. absence, Guterres found slivers of optimism.

“It is very important for the United States to come back to the Paris agreement. But that is not only a question for the government; it’s a question for the whole of American society,” he said, adding that he was inspired by the positive changes being made by cities, states and the business community.

Ultimately, Guterres said Monday’s summit is the latest step in the long fight to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, for people who are already feeling its effects and for generations to come.

“I have three grandchildren,” the 70-year-old leader of the United Nations said, “and I don’t want to be responsible for them to live in a semi-destroyed planet when they come to my age.”