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‘We will find it harder to feed ourselves’
September 12, 2018
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The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in his address on climate change in New York on Monday called upon the Friends of Planet Earth to put the brakes on deadly greenhouse gas emissions and drive climate action. While warning that we are careening towards the edge of the abyss, he expressed hope that we will rise up to the challenge before it is too late. Excerpts from his speech:
 
Dear friends of planet Earth,

Thank you for coming to the UN Headquarters today.

I have asked you here to sound the alarm. Climate change is the defining issue of our time — and we are at a defining moment. We face a direct existential threat.

Climate change is moving faster than we are — and its speed has provoked a sonic boom SOS across our world. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.

That is why, today, I am appealing for leadership — from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere. We have the tools to make our actions effective. What we still lack — even after the Paris Agreement — is the leadership and the ambition to do what is needed.

Let there be no doubt about the urgency of the crisis. We are experiencing record-breaking temperatures around the world.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past two decades included 18 of the warmest years since 1850, when records began. This year is shaping up to be the fourth hottest.



WIDESPREAD DESTRUCTION

Extreme heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods are leaving a trail of death and devastation. Last month the state of Kerala in India suffered its worst monsoon flooding in recent history, killing 400 people and driving 1 million more from their homes.

We know that Hurricane Maria killed almost 3,000 people in Puerto Rico last year, making it one of the deadliest extreme weather disasters in US history. Many of those people died in the months after the storm because they lacked access to electricity, clean water and proper healthcare due to the hurricane.

What makes all of this even more disturbing is that we were warned. Scientists have been telling us for decades. Over and over again. Far too many leaders have refused to listen. Far too few have acted with the vision the science demands. We see the results.

In some situations, they are approaching scientists’ worst-case scenarios. Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than we imagined possible. This year, for the first time, thick permanent sea ice north of Greenland began to break up. This dramatic warming in the Arctic is affecting weather patterns across the northern hemisphere.

Wildfires are lasting longer and spreading further. Some of these blazes are so big that they send soot and ash around the world, blackening glaciers and ice caps and making them melt even faster.

Oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening the foundation of the food chains that sustain life. Corals are dying in vast amounts, further depleting vital fisheries. And, on land, the high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is making rice crops less nutritious, threatening well-being and food security for billions of people.

As climate change intensifies, we will find it harder to feed ourselves. Extinction rates will spike as vital habitats decline. More and more people will be forced to migrate from their homes as the land they depend on becomes less able to support them. This is already leading to many local conflicts over dwindling resources.



GRIM MILESTONE

This past May, the World Meteorological Organization reported that the planet marked another grim milestone: the highest monthly average for carbon dioxide levels ever recorded. Four hundred parts per million has long been seen as a critical threshold. But we have now surpassed 411 parts per millions and the concentrations continue to rise. This is the highest concentration in 3 million years.

We know what is happening to our planet. We know what we need to do. And we even know how to do it. But sadly, the ambition of our action is nowhere near where it needs to be.

When world leaders signed the Paris Agreement on climate change three years ago, they pledged to stop temperatures rising by less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to work to keep the increase as close as possible to 1.5 degrees. These targets were really the bare minimum to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But scientists tell us that we are far off track.

According to a UN study, the commitments made so far by Parties to the Paris Agreement represent just one-third of what is needed. The mountain in front of us is very high. But it is not insurmountable. We know how to scale it.

Put simply, we need to put the brakes on deadly greenhouse gas emissions and drive climate action. We need to rapidly shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels. We need to replace them with clean energy from water, wind and sun. We must halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and change the way we farm. We need to embrace the circular economy and resource efficiency.

Our cities and transport sectors will need to be overhauled. How we heat, cool and light our buildings will need to be rethought so we waste less energy. And this is exactly where this conversation can become exciting.

Because, so much of the conversation on climate change focuses on the doom and gloom. Of course, warnings are necessary. But fear will not get the job done. No, what captures my imagination is the vast opportunity afforded by climate action.

Enormous benefits await humankind if we can rise to the climate challenge. A great many of these benefits are economic. I have heard the argument — usually from vested interests — that tackling climate change is expensive and could harm economic growth.

This is hogwash. In fact, the opposite is true. We are experiencing huge economic losses due to climate change. Over the past decade, extreme weather and the health impact of burning fossil fuels have cost the American economy at least 240 billion dollars a year. This cost will explode by 50 per cent in the coming decade alone. By 2030, the loss of productivity caused by a hotter world could cost the global economy 2 trillion dollars.



ENORMOUS BENEFITS

More and more studies also show the enormous benefits of climate action. Last week I was at the launch of the New [Climate] Economy report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate Change. It shows that that climate action and socio-economic progress are mutually supportive, with gains of 26 trillion dollars predicted by 2030 compared with business as usual. If we pursue the right path.

For example, for every dollar spent restoring degraded forests, as much as $30 dollars can be recouped in economic benefits and poverty reduction. Restoring degraded lands means better lives and income for farmers and pastoralists and less pressure to migrate to cities. Climate-resilient water supply and sanitation could save the lives of more than 360,000 infants every year.

And clean air has vast benefits for public health. The International Labour Organization reports that common sense green economy policies could create 24 million new jobs globally by 2030.

In China and the United States, new renewable energy jobs now outstrip those created in the oil and gas industries. And, in Bangladesh the installation of more than four million solar home systems has created more than 115,000 jobs and saved rural households over 400 million dollars in polluting fuels.

So, not only would a shift to renewable energy save money, it would also create new jobs, waste less water, boost food production and clean the polluted air that is killing us. There is nothing to lose from acting; there is everything to gain.



NOT A GREAT CHALLENGE

Now, there are still many who think that the challenge is too great. But I deeply disagree. Humankind has confronted and overcome immense challenges before; challenges that have required us to work together and to put aside division and difference to fight a common threat.

That is how the United Nations came into action. It is how we have to helped to end wars, to stop diseases, to reduce global poverty and to heal the ozone hole.

Now we stand at an existential crossroad. If we are to take the right path — the only sensible path — we will have to muster the full force of human ingenuity. But that ingenuity exists and is already providing solutions.

And so dear friends, another central message — technology is on our side in the battle to address climate change. The rise of renewable energy has been tremendous. Today, it is competitive [with] — or even cheaper — than coal and oil, especially if one factors in the cost of pollution.

Last year, China invested 126 billion dollars in renewable energy, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year. Sweden is set to hit its 2030 target for renewable energy this year - 12 years early. By 2030, wind and solar energy could power more than a third of Europe. Morocco is building a solar farm the size of Paris that will power more than one million homes by 2020 with clean, affordable energy.

Scotland has opened the world’s first floating wind farm.

There are many other signs of hope. Countries rich in fossil fuels, like the Gulf States and Norway, are exploring ways to diversify their economies. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in renewables to move from an oil economy to an energy economy. Norway’s 1 trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund - the largest in the world - has moved away from investments in coal and has dropped a number of palm and pulp-paper companies because of the forests they destroy.

There are also promising signs that businesses are waking up to the benefits of climate action. More than 250 investors representing 28 trillion dollars in assets have signed on to the Climate Action 100+ initiative.

The transition to a cleaner, greener future needs to speed up. We stand at a truly “use it or lose it” moment.

Over the next decade or so, the world will invest some 90 trillion dollars in infrastructure. And so we must ensure that that infrastructure is sustainable or we will lock in a high-polluting dangerous future. And for that to happen, the leaders of the world need to step up.



MORAL DUTY

I have spoken of the emergency we face, the benefits of action and the feasibility of a climate-friendly transformation. There is another reason to act — moral duty.

The world’s richest nations are the most responsible for the climate crisis, yet the effects are being felt first and worst by the poorest nations and the most vulnerable peoples and communities.

We already see this injustice in the incessant and increasing cycle of extreme droughts and ever more powerful storms. Women and girls, in particular, will pay the price — not only because their lives will become harder but because, in times of disaster, women and girls always suffer disproportionally.

Richer nations must therefore not only cut their emissions but do more to ensure that the most vulnerable can develop the necessary resilience to survive the damage these emissions are causing.



IT’S TIME TO ACT

This is the message I would like to make clear in addressing the world leaders this month’s in the General Assembly in New York. I will tell them that climate change is the great challenge of our time.

That, thanks to science, we know its size and nature. That we have the ingenuity, and the resources and tools to face it. And that leaders must lead.

We have the moral and economic incentives to act. What is still missing — still, even after Paris — is the leadership, and the sense of urgency and true commitment to [a] decisive multilateral response.

The time has come for our leaders to show they care about the people whose fate they hold in their hands. We need them to show they care about the future — and even the present.

I call — in particular — on women’s leadership. When women are empowered to lead, they are the drivers of solutions. Nothing less than our future and the fate of humankind depends on how we rise to the climate challenge.

There is no more time to waste. As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes. We are careering towards the edge of the abyss.

It is not too late to shift course, but every day that passes means the world heats up a little more and the cost of our inaction mounts. Every day we fail to act is a day that we step a little closer towards a fate that none of us wants — a fate that will resonate through generations in the damage done to humankind and life on earth.

Our fate is in our hands. The world is counting on all of us to rise to the challenge before it’s too late.

I count on you all.

Thank you.

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