MADRID • Confronted with a climate crisis threatening civilisation itself, humanity must choose between hope and surrender, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres told the opening plenary of a UN climate conference yesterday.
"One is the path of surrender, where we have sleepwalked past the point of no return, jeopardising the health and safety of everyone on this planet," Mr Guterres said.
"Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?" he asked.
Spain's acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose government stepped in to host the summit after unrest erupted in Chile, said in a speech that "only a handful of fanatics deny the evidence" of climate change - without naming any individuals or countries.
In a separate forum earlier, US congressional leader Nancy Pelosi told the conference - known as COP25 - that the world could still count on the United States despite President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement.
"We're here to say to all of you, on behalf of the House of Representatives and the Congress of the United States, we're still in it, we're still in it," said Mrs Pelosi, who is leading the 15-strong congressional delegation, to applause.
States and cities that are home to two-thirds of the US population are committed to the targets set by the 2015 agreement, as are all the Democratic candidates for president, according to the US research groups.
Mr Trump has dismissed global warming as a hoax and last month gave formal notice of the US withdrawal from the 196-nation Paris climate treaty. The treaty calls for capping global warming at well below 2 deg C, and 1.5 deg C if possible.
In his impassioned appeal, Mr Guterres cited new findings from the World Meterological Organisation (WMO) confirming that the last five years have been the hottest ever recorded. The concentration of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has also reached levels not seen in three million to five million years, the WMO will report this week.
A major UN science report last year reset the Paris accord's threshold for a climate-safe world from 2 deg C to 1.5 deg C, concluding that the global economy must be "carbon neutral" by 2050 to stay under that threshold.
"What is still lacking is political will - to put a price on carbon, to stop subsidies on fossil fuels, to stop building coal power plants," Mr Guterres said.
President Hilda Heine of the Marshall Islands warned that breaching the 1.5 deg C barrier would spell the end of her water-bound homeland. "The most vulnerable atoll nations like my country already face 'death row' due to rising seas and devastating storm surges," she said via a remote video link-up.
The talks in Madrid are focused on finalising rules for global carbon markets, and setting up a fund to help countries already reeling from climate-enhanced heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms made worse by rising seas.
Front-line negotiators describe COP25 as "technical talks" setting the stage for next year's meeting in Glasgow, where countries must confront the yawning gap between the Paris targets and current emissions.
A climate action group steeped in civil disobedience, meanwhile, laid plans to descend on the Spanish capital. "Extinction Rebellion reminds leaders they cannot flee the climate and ecological emergency," the group said in a press release.