UN General Assembly and a Climate Emergency


For one week in late September, it seemed all roads (flights paths and carbon-neutral racing yachts) led to New York, to the 74th United Nations General Assembly (aka “UNGA”, which one CNN journalist said sounded like a digestive tract complaint!). Scores of world leaders and their entourages flocked to the Big Apple to discuss the topic of “galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion.” Inevitably, there was lots of media coverage on the General Assembly and the sideline meetings, and this blog aims to summarise some of the key headlines that caught my eye;

  • The first really interesting news nugget was that the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who was chairing a climate action summit at UNGA, asked attendees to come only if they had “concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45% over the next decade, and to net zero by 2050.” In other words, we don’t need more platitudes and empty promises; we need action! I really liked this intention; however, the reality did not live up to the spirit of Guterres’ request, but it was the right idea at least.
  • Climate emergency: If you’re not scared, then you haven’t been paying attention. Climate change is not news (the International Panel on Climate Change was founded in 1988 – more than 30 years ago – and the Stern Review on the “Economics of Climate Change” was published in 2006, 13 years ago), but this year at UNGA the new data about the rate at which the climate is changing is just terrifying. Sea level rises are predicted to wipe out the city of Calcutta and most of Bangladesh (with populations of 4.5 million and 163 million respectively) within the next 15 years – and that’s just the beginning. Carbon dioxide levels are increasing, temperatures are rising, ice is melting, sea levels are rising…the IPCC says “There is overwhelming evidence that [greenhouse gas emissions are] resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people.” Read the headlines in the IPPC press release.
  • Greta Thunberg – who almost needs no introduction, but in case you’ve just woken up from a 100-year sleep, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish girl who has done a remarkable job of raising awareness of climate change. She has been “striking” from school every Friday for the last few years and her message can be summed up as “I’m scared; I don’t like the way climate change is looking for my future – and what are you grown-ups doing about it?” Her TED Talk epitomizes everything that she is: committed; compelling; obsessive about the data; articulate; and very, very direct. There have been a few Greta-related headlines of note this week from UNGA:
    • She sailed to New York on a carbon-neutral racing yacht, to avoid the emissions that flying would have generated. This has been dismissed by some as a stunt, but I’m not sure that’s the point. I think she is aware that the nay-sayers would have attacked her and picked at her credibility if she had flown. And sadly, I don’t know if her commitment to carbon neutrality will have persuaded that many people not to fly (or to sail instead), but she can’t be accused of not leading by example.
    • Donald Trump has appeared to mock her, saying she “seems unhappy about something”. It’s worth mentioning this because it shows Trump reacted to Greta and her messages; often he can be selectively unresponsive to his critics (he didn’t see the crowds protesting when he visited the UK earlier this year – apparently). It’s just unfortunate that he resorted to kindergarten-style teasing as his reaction.
    • There has been extensive debate about the driving force behind Greta’s mission and the crafting of her messages, with someone on the BBC World Service (I missed the speaker’s name) saying that she was being manipulated by her parents and another posting on LinkedIn that she had no understanding of what [good] fossil fuels have brought to society [namely inoculations, which are derived from hydrocarbons]. These are two points that most of us will not be able to prove, however there is one thing that we can all be certain of and that is this one young lady has become the face of an inconvenient truth (much more than Al Gore ever was): that is, we need to act urgently.

And so, for me, the 74th United Nations General Assembly has been about the irrefutable fact we are facing a climate emergency. It has also been about the scariest climate data to date – it’s accelerating, rather than slowing down. And it’s about the urgent need to act – and if it takes a slightly quirky (but ever-so-courageous) 16-year-old to tell that to world leaders in New York, then all their carbon emissions to get there (and her nautical miles) might just have been worth it.