World leaders urged to do more in global warming fight

Hurricane Florence is seen from the International Space Station as it churns in the Atlantic Ocean towards the east coast of the United States, on Sept 10, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

The evacuation of 1.5 million people from America's East Coast as a Category 4 hurricane approaches was an apt backdrop for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' appeal to world leaders for more action to curb global warming.

"Far too many leaders have refused to listen to scientists' warnings," he said on Monday, describing climate change as "a direct existential threat".

Hurricane Florence is a case in point. Having picked up strength very rapidly, it is expected to churn into North and South Carolina on Friday with winds of up to 240kmh and huge volumes of rain.

In some situations, scientists' worst-case climate scenarios have been reached, Mr Guterres said.

"Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than we imagined possible. This year, for the first time, thick permanent sea ice in Greenland began to break up," he added.

"This past May, the World Meteorological Organisation reported the highest monthly average for CO2 (carbon dioxide) recorded," Mr Guterres said. "Four hundred parts per million (ppm) of CO2 was long seen as a critical threshold, but we have now surpassed 411ppm and the concentration continues to rise. This is the highest concentration in three million years."

He added: "We are careening towards 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."

Upcoming high-level meetings on climate change include the Sept 12 to Sept 14 Global Action Summit in San Francisco and the UN climate summit in the Polish city of Katowice to be held in December.

Mr Guterres said he would also raise the issue at the UN General Assembly later this month in New York.

By 2020, countries need to boost their commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims at limiting temperature rise to 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels. That goal looks likely to be missed.

The UN chief made the case for business opportunities presented by climate change - for instance, in the booming renewable energy sector. But he added: "What is missing still, even after the clinching of the Paris Agreement, is leadership, a sense of urgency and a true commitment to a decisive multilateral response".

Climate scientist Michael Mann told The Straits Times: "The more warming we allow, the more likely it is that we trigger irreversible and dangerous changes in our climate.

"It is still possible to stave off 2 deg C warming relative to pre-industrial (levels) and avert some of the worst impacts of climate change - several metres of sea-level rise, deadly heatwaves and drought… So it is certainly true that we need concerted action now. The Paris Agreement is a good start, but we must not only meet our obligations under Paris but also commit to even greater reductions in carbon emissions within the next few years."

Mr Guterres said he would call a special global summit on climate change next September, to give the Paris agenda a push at a critical moment.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2018, with the headline World leaders urged to do more in global warming fight. Subscribe