U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a dramatic appeal to world leaders Monday to take the threat of global warming seriously and to act boldly to avert a catastrophic rise in temperatures before the end of the century.
Guterres, who spoke at the opening of the U.N. climate conference in Poland, called climate change “the most important issue we face.”
“Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” Guterres told delegates from almost 200 countries who gathered in the city of Katowice.
Famed British naturalist Sir David Attenborough echoed his warnings, telling the gathering that the “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizons” if no urgent action is taking against global warming.
The 92-year-old TV presenter blamed humans for the “disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years.”
The U.N. chief chided countries, particularly those most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, for failing to do enough to back the 2015 Paris climate accord, which set a goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — ideally 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) — by the end of the century.
Citing a recent scientific report on the dire consequences of letting average global temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees, Guterres urged countries to cut their emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and aim for net zero emissions by 2050.
Net zero emissions mean that any greenhouse gases emitted need to be soaked up by forest or new technologies that can remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Such cuts, which experts say is the only way to achieve the 1.5-degree goal, would require a radical overhaul of the global economy and a move away from using fossil fuels.
“In short, we need a complete transformation of our global energy economy, as well as how we manage land and forest resources,” Guterres said.
He said governments should embrace the opportunities rather than cling to fossil fuels such as coal, which are blamed for a significant share of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
The remark was directed at host Poland, which relies on coal for 80 percent of its energy. But Poland’s President Andrzej Duda told a later news conference that the coal-rich country will reduce its reliance on coal but will never entirely give up its “strategic fossil fuel.”
Guterres also urged negotiators not to forget that the challenges they face pale in comparison to the difficulties climate change is already causing millions around the world whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by rising sea levels, drought and more powerful storms.
The two-week conference in Poland’s southern coal mining region of Silesia is expected to work out how governments can report on their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming within the limits of the Paris climate deal.
“This is the challenge on which this generation’s leaders will be judged,” Guterres said.
He later told reporters that realities of global climate changes are “worse than expected, but the political will is relatively faded after Paris” and is not matching the current challenges.
Guterres called for a “huge increase in ambitions” during the negotiations in Poland, adding “we cannot afford to fail in Katowice.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action film star and former governor of California, said the United States is “still in” the Paris accord to curb global warming despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from it. He told delegates on Monday that “America is more than just Washington or one leader.”
Calling Trump “meshugge” — Yiddish for “crazy” — for deciding to withdraw from the Paris accord, Schwarzenegger insisted that the climate deal has widespread support at local and state levels in the U.S.
Duda, the Polish leader, said participants at the conference have backed his country’s proposal of a “just transition” away from coal mining, which calls for helping people like coal miners who are slated to lose their jobs as the world changes its energy mix.
Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, who presided over last year’s U.N. climate summit, said the “just transition” proposal shouldn’t just consider the fate of fossil fuel workers but all people around the world whose lives are affected by climate change.
Residents of the world’s smaller islands, many of whom face catastrophic flooding from higher sea levels in a warming world, have been among the world’s most vocal backers of measures to combat climate change.