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UN chief warns target to limit global warming is slipping away

FILE - A woman is silhouetted against the setting sun as triple-digit heat indexes continue in the Midwest, Aug. 20, 2023, in Kansas City, Missouri.
FILE - A woman is silhouetted against the setting sun as triple-digit heat indexes continue in the Midwest, Aug. 20, 2023, in Kansas City, Missouri.

The U.N. secretary-general said Wednesday that the world is “at a moment of truth” to reach targets in the 2015 Paris climate accord to limit global warming, as the planet has just experienced the 12 hottest consecutive months on record.

“The truth is, almost ten years since the Paris Agreement was adopted, the target of limiting long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is hanging by a thread,” Antonio Guterres told an audience at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where exhibits about extinct dinosaurs offered their own planetary warning.

“The World Meteorological Organization reports today that there is an 80% chance the global annual average temperature will exceed the 1.5-degree limit in at least one of the next five years,” he said.

“We are playing Russian roulette with our planet,” he warned in a special climate speech under the museum's famous blue whale, marking World Environment Day.

The U.N. chief said the richest 1% of countries are emitting as much pollution as two-thirds of all humanity.

He said the planet is emitting around 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” of around 200 billion tons well before 2030. Guterres also said global emissions need to fall 9% each year between now and 2030 in order to keep the 1.5 degree Celsius limit alive. Last year, they rose by 1%.

The bill for the climate crisis will keep growing without meaningful action.

“Even if emissions hit zero tomorrow, a recent study found that climate chaos will still cost at least $38 trillion a year by 2050,” Guterres said.

Fossil fuels

The climate crisis has been a signature issue of Guterres’ tenure since becoming the world’s top diplomat seven-and-a-half years ago. He has repeatedly called for the phasing out of coal and other fossil fuels in favor of cleaner renewable energies like wind and solar power — which already produce nearly a third of the world’s electricity.

He raised the ante Wednesday, urging banks to stop financing oil, coal and gas and invest in renewables instead. He called on countries to ban advertising from fossil fuel producers and said news and technology platforms should stop taking their advertising.

“I call on leaders in the fossil fuel industry to understand that if you are not in the fast lane to clean energy transformation, you are driving your business into a dead end — and taking us all with you,” the U.N. chief said, adding that the oil and gas industry invested only 2.5% of its total spending on clean energy in the last year.

He urged public relations companies and lobbyists to stop enabling the industry’s “planetary destruction” and drop those clients.

“Many in the fossil fuel industry have shamelessly greenwashed, even as they have sought to delay climate action — with lobbying, legal threats, and massive ad campaigns,” he said.

Leveling the field

The secretary-general reiterated his stance that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are suffering the most — mainly poorer nations in Africa and small island states. The G20 major economies produce 80% of the world’s emissions.

“It is a disgrace that the most vulnerable are being left stranded, struggling desperately to deal with a climate crisis they did nothing to create,” he said.

Guterres warned that the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees could mean survival or extinction for some small island nations and coastal communities.

“1.5 degrees is not a target. It is not a goal. It is a physical limit,” he said.

Global warming is already hurting the planet’s oceans, their coral reefs and marine ecosystems, and melting sea ice. Across the globe, severe floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and other climate-related catastrophes are becoming all too frequent.

The secretary-general said there must be more financing and technical support from richer countries to mitigate climate impacts and invest in renewables for lower income states. He also said a global early warning system must be in place by 2027, to protect everyone on Earth from hazardous weather, water or climate events.

He urged citizens to continue to make their voices heard and said it is time for leaders to decide whose side they are on.

“Now is the time to mobilize; now is the time to act; now is the time to deliver,” he said to a standing ovation. “This is our moment of truth.”