WELLINGTON – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has kicked off a major push for progress on what he calls the defining issue of our time: climate change.
Guterres traveled to New Zealand on Sunday, from where he is set to visit several Pacific islands where rising sea levels are threatening the very existence of those small countries.
The stepped-up diplomacy will culminate with a climate action summit at the U.N. in September, an event billed as a last chance to prevent irreversible climate change, three years after the Paris agreement went into force.
“We are seeing everywhere a clear demonstration that we are not on track to achieve the objectives defined in the Paris agreement,” Guterres said on the failure to limit rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial revolution levels.
In a strong message for action on climate change, Guterres said international political resolve is fading and it is the small island nations that are “really in the front line” and will suffer most.
In Fiji, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, Guterres will meet with families whose lives have been upended by cyclones, flooding and other extreme weather events.
Pacific island countries face an especially dire risk from climate change because of sea level rise. In some cases, low-lying countries could disappear completely.
Fiji is working to build a coalition of more than 90 countries from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia facing climate crisis.
“We hope that the secretary-general will draw far more inspiration from his first visit to go further, faster and deeper with the climate summit,” Fiji’s U.N. ambassador, Satyendra Prasad, said.
“We are very hopeful that the climate summit will mark a turning point.”
Guterres on Sunday praised New Zealand’s “extremely important” leadership on climate change — Wellington has introduced legislation to become carbon neutral by 2050 — but warned that international political resolve is fading.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking at the joint press conference in Auckland, called climate change “the biggest challenge” facing the global community and said it will be “gross negligence” to avoid the issue.
But the U.N. push on climate change is shaping up amid geopolitical shifts: The United States under President Donald Trump has decided to pull out of the Paris agreement to combat global warming, giving China more space to assert its views.
“The Trump administration’s disdain for climate diplomacy has left China looking like the main guarantor of the Paris agreement,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.
“While China is increasingly active across the U.N., other states are suspicious of its stances on human rights and development. But it is the indispensable power in climate talks now.”
Trump announced in 2017 that the United States will exit the Paris agreement, but under terms of the deal the withdrawal will only become effective in 2020.
The U.S. administration is not taking part in summit preparations but has not said it will skip the event, according to U.N. officials.
Guterres’ mission may also be further complicated by Trump’s nomination of Kelly Knight Craft as U.N. ambassador.
Craft, who is married to a major coal magnate, raised eyebrows for declaring that she believes “both sides” of climate science, indicating she may well be out of sync with the U.N. on the issue.
Guterres has told leaders to bring plans, not speeches, to the summit to be held in New York on Sept. 23 during the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.
The summit is seen as critical because of U.S. resistance to discuss climate change at other forums including the G7 and G20, and again last week at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland.
“What people are looking for is countries to commit to major ambition increases in 2025 and 2030 at the summit or in 2020,” said Nick Mabey, head of the E3G climate think tank.
This should include legally binding targets for countries to phase out coal, become climate neutral and invest in climate resilience, especially for the poorest countries, he added.
A string of apocalyptic reports on the state of the planet is bringing home the need for concrete steps.
One million species are on the brink of extinction. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, pushing targets from the Paris accord further out of reach.
U.N. climate envoy Luis Alfonso de Alba said Friday that he is optimistic about prospects for a breakthrough on climate, saying the dire predictions are having galvanizing effects.
“The situation worldwide is quite different from what it was five to 10 years ago. Five to 10 years ago, countries were looking at their neighbors before acting,” he said.
“Today, everybody has full conscience of the urgency to act, and they are not going to wait for their neighbors to act.”
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