On Monday afternoon, UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered a major address drawing attention to the world’s insufficient action on climate change.
“Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment,” he said. “Scientists have been telling us for decades. Over and over again. Far too many leaders have refused to listen. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change,” Guterres said.
The speech was carefully timed. It comes before a Global Climate Action Summit, hosted in San Francisco by California’s Governor, Jerry Brown. And in the speech, the Secretary General announced a new major climate meeting to be held next year at the UN.
The upcoming California summit will bring together representatives of national, state and municipal governments with businesses and investors. A main focus of both the conference and speech is how these entities, which may not have been eligible to sign on to the Paris Agreement but which the UN says have a role to play in decreasing global emissions, can help get the world to the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
More than two years since the agreement was signed, that goal is drifting rapidly out of reach. Activists marched around the world Saturday — including, according to organizers, more than 30,000 people in San Francisco — to draw attention to this objective ahead of the California summit.
But the Secretary General’s speech was not simply timed to proceed that summit. 2020 is a key year, when the Paris Agreement is meant to be fully in effect. It is also the year by which many analyses climate change-causing emissions must begin to fall rapidly.
During the first week of September, climate negotiations in Bangkok stagnated and concluded with some frustration after old debates over setting different targets for rich and poor countries resurfacing between China and the U.S. (President Donald Trump’s promise to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement is being carried out in such a way that the country will be formally out of the agreement until 2020; so far, the U.S. State Department has continued to send negotiators to UN climate talks.) 2018 was meant to be the year in which the Paris rulebook got written, but there is still a daunting pile of work remaining before negotiators reach that goal.
“Progress has been made on most issues but no issues have been fully resolved yet,” UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa told reporters at a press conference last week. Some “elements are more politically complex” she said, and, on those, “limited progress has been made here in Bangkok.”
The pace of climate change continues to outpace climate action. The world has received a number of jolts on the climate front in 2018 while progress on confronting the problem of climate change has continued to ebb. Summer has seen extreme heatwaves, floods and wildfires around the globe, including an unusually heavy monsoon season, the floods from which killed nearly 500 in Kerala, India. Later this year, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels is expected to paint a dire picture.
With 2020 looming and the world seemingly in a state of paralysis, Guterres has planned a summit for September 2019 in New York City at which governments will be asked to dramatically up their ambition. Today’s speech was meant to put governments and the private sector on notice ahead of that meeting.
In 2014, a well-timed speech by then-Secretary General Ban Ki Moon helped set the stage for the Paris Agreement to be signed the following year. Guterres may hope his speech Monday will have a similar effect. Whether it will succeed where so many other warnings have not is an open question.