UN's Antonio Guterres warns leaders are failing to step up to existential threat of climate change

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the opening ceremony of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Sept 3, 2018.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the opening ceremony of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Sept 3, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Climate change is moving faster than people's response to it, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned on Monday (Sept 10).

In a speech at the UN ahead of a major climate meeting in California from Sept 12 to 14 and the UN General Assembly in New York later this month, Mr Guterres called climate change "the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment".

"We face a direct existential threat," he said. "We are careening toward the edge of an abyss.

"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 on the natural systems that sustain us.

"Far too many leaders have refused to listen to scientists' warnings," Mr Guterres said. World leaders had failed to live up commitments under the Paris Agreement, to curb greenhouse gases to limit global warming.

In some situations, scientists' worst case scenarios had been reached, he said. "Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than we imagined possible. This year for the first time, thick permanent sea ice in Greenland has began to break up."

A warmer Arctic was affecting weather across the northern hemisphere. Wildfires were lasting longer and spreading further. Corals were dying in vast amounts. Acidifying oceans were threatening food chains.

"This past May the World Meteorological Organisation reported the highest monthly average for CO2 (Carbon dioxide) ever recorded," Mr Guterres said in the speech billed as a last ditch appeal before the California meeting, and a UN climate summit in the Polish city of Katowice in December.

"Four hundred parts per million (of CO2) was long seen as a critical threshold, but we have now surpassed 411 parts per million and the concentration continues to rise; this is the highest concentration in three million years," he said.

"Today I am appealing for leadership from politicians, businesses and scientists and from the public everywhere," he said. "We have the tools to make our actions effective, what we still lack even after the Paris Agreement is the leadsership and the ambition to do what is needed.

"What is still missing is the leadership and the sense of urgency," Mr Guterres insisted.

Mr Guterres listed vast economic opportunities in technology, including renewable energy. But world leaders needed to step up, he said.

"The lack of decisive government action is causing uncertainty in the markets and concern about the future of the Paris Agreement. We can't let this happen," he warned.

His remarks came on the heels of a UN meeting on climate change in Bangkok which experts said made little real progress, leaving contentious issues to the December summit.

The Secretary General said he would raise the climate change challenge at the UN General Assembly, and would also call for a special summit on climate change in New York next September.

"There is no time to waste," he said. "Every day that passes means the world heats up a little more. Every day we fail to act is a day we step a little closer to a fate none of us want."