UN Secretary General António Guterres: ‘Humanity has opened the gates to hell’

The head of the United Nations called for more and faster cuts in heat-trapping emissions and in spending, to help poor countries shift to renewable energy and adapt to a warmer world

António Guterres ONU
United Nation Secretary General António Guterres addresses the delegates during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, on Sept. 19, 2023.Miguel Rodríguez (EFE)

The head of the United Nations warned Wednesday that the “gates of hell” are at hand as climate change intensifies and top international officials said the world’s leaders still aren’t doing nearly enough to curb pollution of heat-trapping gases. They pleaded with major emitting nations to do more.

Those nations remained silent. They weren’t allowed to speak because, organizers said, they had no new actions to take. The only countries that touted their efforts — “first movers and doers,” the United Nations called them — were responsible for just one-ninth of the world’s annual carbon pollution.

“Humanity has opened the gates to hell,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Wednesday, opening a special climate ambition summit with yet another plea for action. “Horrendous heat is having horrendous effects. Distraught farmers watching crops carried away by floods. Sweltering temperatures spawning disease. And thousands fleeing in fear as historic fires rage.”

Guterres convened the summit with the idea that only world leaders who came with new concrete actions would get to address their peers on the issue. But leaders of the countries that produce the most heat-trapping gases themselves chose not to even ask.

Heads of state from China, the United States, India, Russia, the United Kingdom and France all skipped the summit. The United States, which has put the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the decades, sent its climate envoy, John Kerry, even though President Joe Biden was in town. Then the United Nations didn’t give Kerry a speaking spot, though he was at the summit. But California Gov. Gavin Newsome was given the space to speak and tout his state’s efforts.

The 32 national leaders who did qualify represent only 11% of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution. China and the United States both emit more carbon dioxide than those 32 countries combined. The European Commission’s president was also permitted to speak.

Extra efforts needed

Even though the world in 2015 adopted a goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, instead Earth is on a path to warming 2.8 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) — “a dangerous and unstable world,” Guterres warned. The world has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the middle of the 19th century.

“But the future is not fixed. It is for leaders like you to write it,” Guterres said.

Guterres called on “major emitters — who have benefitted most from fossil fuels — to make extra efforts to cut emissions, and on wealthy countries to support emerging economies to do so.” They were silent.

“There’s no doubt that the absence of so many leaders from the world’s biggest economies and emitters will clearly have an impact on the outcomes of the summit and diminish the contribution that many of us had hoped it could make,” said longtime climate negotiations analyst Alden Meyer of the European think-tank 3EG.

Meyer said Guterres “rightly, I think, raised the stakes, but that has made it more difficult for some leaders to get over those hurdles.” He also blamed fossil fuel industry opposition in many nations.

On the same day Guterres called for more and faster cuts in heat-trapping emissions and in spending helping poor countries shift to renewable energy and adapt to a warmer world, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appeared poised to slow down his country’s efforts — and go in the opposite direction.

Sunak issued a statement Tuesday saying he would do a “proportionate” environmental effort in response to a BBC report saying the prime minister is considering extending deadlines for bans on new gasoline and diesel cars — currently set for 2030 — and on new natural-gas home heating, due in 2035.

In contrast, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen crowed about how their members pledged to reduce carbon pollution 55% by 2030 and is doing even better than that. “We should go faster in removing the root causes of climate change,” von der Leyen said.

Guterres, a new special U.N. report on the lack of progress in the fight against climate change, activists, and some scientists have called for a phase-out of fossil fuels coal, oil and natural gas. But international negotiations keep away from adopting such a big move.

Smaller nations can’t go at it alone

On Wednesday, Guterres once again pushed for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, something he said “reached an incredible $7 trillion in 2022.” The secretary-general criticized “the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels.”

He called on wealthy nations to fulfill their $100 billion pledges to help poorer countries deal with climate change. The United States is one of the countries that hasn’t done so. The U.N. chief also pushed for countries to spend even more than they’ve promised and put in money to a “loss and damage” fund agreed upon last year that are sort of payments to help nations harmed by extreme weather from global warming.

Africa “can leapfrog into a fully green industrial paradigm,” Kenya President William Ruto said. “Yet, we cannot and must not do this on our own.”

To get there, Africa needs the world to change its debt and credit systems, an extra $500 billion in financial help and a global tax, Ruto said. “What we need is fairness — a fair financial system.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his nation is adding another 500 million Euros in climate aid, urging other industrial nations to do the same.

Experts and United Nations reports say the world needs to reduce emissions by 43% in the next seven years to reach the goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. That’s more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.

“Many of the poorest nations have every right to be angry,” Guterres said. “Angry that they are suffering most from a climate crisis they did nothing to create.”

Small island nations, vulnerable to flooding and storms from climate change, contribute less than 1% of the world’s greenhouse gases. The 20 richest nations emit 80% of those heat-trapping gases, said Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, prime minister of Samoa, speaking for island countries.

“The pursuit of profit over the well-being of humanity is not right,” she said.

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