World / Science & Health

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres tells Davos gathering: 'We are losing race' on climate change


The world is “losing the race” against climate change, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Thursday at the elite Davos forum, demanding bolder action from governments to arrest catastrophic warming.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time. We are losing the race,” Guterres said on the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which has featured much hand-wringing on the crisis this week.

“It is absolutely central to reverse this trend.”

Following a U.N. summit last month in Poland, which was designed to advance the Paris climate accord, Guterres said he was “not hopeful” that nations will find the necessary resolve.

But he stressed: “We need political will and we need governments who understand that this is the most important priority of our times.”

The Paris accord has been shaken by the withdrawal of the United States under President Donald Trump, and by threats to do the same by Brazil’s new hard-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro.

The U.N. chief said the commitments made in Paris are already “not enough.

“If what we agreed in Paris would be materialized, the temperature would rise more than 3.0 degrees” Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit), he said on a Facebook Live broadcast from Davos.

“We need countries to make stronger commitments,” Guterres said, calling for more measures to mitigate against climate change and adapt to it, along with financial aid for poorer countries.

A WEF survey ahead of the Davos meeting found climate change was the leading concern of forum participants around the world, noting in particular the growing frequency of extreme weather events.

Without stronger political action corporate executives in Davos such as Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of French energy giant Total, have been touting their own measures to transition to a greener economy.

“We don’t look to renewables to be green,” he told the CNBC channel in Davos on Thursday, noting that electricity is the fastest-growing segment of the energy market.

“We look to renewables because it’s the best way to go in to this electricity market, but the electricity market will require also natural gas, so natural gas and renewables.”

But activists say companies are not doing nearly enough.

One vocal voice in Davos this week has been Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who has inspired a wave of climate protests by schoolchildren around the world after delivering a fiery speech at the U.N. climate summit in Katowice, Poland, last month.

“They (companies) have known exactly what priceless values they have been sacrificing to continue making unimaginable amounts of money,” she said in an interview at Davos.

She is demanding leaders do whatever it takes to adhere to the Paris targets. “I think it is very unfair that the older generations have done this to us and future generations … and that we will have to clean up after them,” she said.

“Young people need to realize that their future is at risk.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who signed the Paris accord on behalf of Washington in 2016, said 38 out of the 50 U.S. states are implementing their own climate policies despite Trump’s withdrawal and vocal skepticism on climate change.

The Paris pact was based partly on the expectation that the private sector would step up with new investment in areas such as batteries and solar panels, he noted.

“It’s not happening enough, and even in Katowice recently, you saw the fight that was taking place, just to be able to try to be reasonable here,” Kerry said, also on CNBC, in Davos on Tuesday.

“We’re heading toward 4-degrees-Centigrade increase in this century, and the passive indifference that most countries are accepting is basically a mutual suicide pact.”

The U.N. chief’s warning from Davos comes as new analysis showed that even though the Earth cooled a tad 2018 from the previous couple of years, last year was still was the fourth-warmest year on record.

With the partial U.S. government shutdown, federal agency calculations for last year’s temperatures are delayed. But independent scientists at Berkeley Earth calculate that last year’s average temperature was 58.93 Fahrenheit (14.96 C).

That was 1.39 F (0.77 C) warmer than the average from 1951 to 1980 and about 2 F (1.16 C) warmer than pre-industrial times.

It is likely other temperature-measuring groups will agree on 2018’s ranking, since they had it at fourth-hottest through November, said Berkeley Earth climate scientist Zeke Hausfather.

The Japan Meteorological Agency has already calculated it at fourth and has been keeping records since 1850.

Only 2016, 2017 and 2015 were warmer than last year, with only small differences among them. That was mostly because of natural yearly weather variations like El Nino and La Nina, Hausfather said. He said it would be foolish to call last year’s slight dip a cooling trend.

“The long term is stunningly clear,” he said.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who wasn’t part of the Berkeley Earth team, said the fact that nearly every year recently is in the top five or top 10 hottest years is “clear evidence of human-caused warming on this planet.”

Last year, 29 countries, including much of Central Europe and Antarctica had record-hot years, Hausfather said.

Starting this year out, drought-parched Australia is heading toward potentially the hottest January on record.

Adelaide sweltered through the highest temperature ever recorded by a major Australian city on Thursday, peaking at 46.6 C (115.9 F).

Last year was Australia’s third-warmest on record.

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Rob Sharpe said he would not be surprised if January becomes Australia’s hottest. Heat wave conditions combined with a prolonged drought across much of Australia’s southeast have led to scores of major wildfires during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

At the Australian Open in Melbourne on Friday, tennis fans shielded themselves with umbrellas and walked by water sprinklers for relief. On Thursday, the tournament had invoked its extreme-heat policy and closed the main stadium’s roof during a women’s semifinal match.

Melbourne reached 42.8 C (109 F) by early afternoon on Friday. It was the hottest day since 2014 in the Victoria state capital, which has a population of 5 million.

The power grid began load sharing as temperatures climbed in the early afternoon, with 30,000 households and businesses at a time being switched off for as long as two hours so that supply could keep up with demand.