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Climate change has world at the ‘gates of hell’: United Nations chief

Carbon polluting nations silent as UN continues in New York
Gillian Tett, left, of the Financial Times, moderator, Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley, second left, Wold Bank Group President Ajay Banga, third left, and Carolina Cosse, Mayor of Montevideo, Uruguay, participate in the United Nations Sustainable Development Forum, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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 of 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, to the summit even though President Joe Biden was in town. Then the United Nations didn’t give Kerry a speaking spot. But California Gov. Gavin Newsom 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.

“We are in the final stages of what actions are needed to preserve this planet and regrettably I’m not sure everybody is getting it,” said Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who called on debt pauses and cancellations and changes in multinational development banks and the insurance industry.

Mottley, a leader of poorer nations struck frequently by extreme weather, lamented that everybody was paying attention to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who was speaking at the same time at the Security Council. While she stands in support of Ukraine, she said, climate change is “a greater threat because more lives are at stake globally than they are in Ukraine.”


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.

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.

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.

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.


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,’’ Kenyan 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.”


Sultan Al Jaber, who will run the upcoming climate negotiations in Dubai, put a giant number on the problem: 22 billion metric tons. That’s how much carbon dioxide emissions the world has to cut in the next seven years to reach the world’s climate-fighting goal. Then he came up with a bigger number: It will cost the globe between $4 trillion and $5 trillion a year, he said.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of this challenge,” Al Jaber told the summit. “Let’s go after the gigatons, not each other.”

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.

“This started as the climate ambition summit, and I believe it ends as the climate hope summit,” Guterres said, wrapping up the day-long meetings.

The promises and actions dischssed Wednesday keep alive the world’s chances of limiting warming to the international goal, Guterres said.

“We are not yet there,” he said. But there are cities, regions and companies that are leading the way. “If these first movers and first doers can do it, everybody can do it.”

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