The weekend of September 21 and this week of September 23-27 are biggies in our world. The United Nations holds its annual General Assembly and debate each year at this time, and this week is its 74th meeting. Most of the world’s leaders and national spokespeople come from all corners of the planet to this highest-level meeting to discuss what is important to them, and to hopefully make or strengthen commitments they’ve already made towards supporting the work of the United Nations in many directions.
This year is an even more special one for the United Nations and world, due to the Global Youth Climate Strikes that were held the Friday before the General Assembly. On Saturday, Sept. 21, the UN hosted a Youth Climate Summit, and on Monday, a General Climate Summit for all interested parties to come together and give their practical ideas and action plans for how to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres invited youth activists to speak at Monday’s Climate Action Summit. (Watch here)
In his opening remarks, Guterres spoke enthusiastically of the young people who had come to the summit demanding accountability and action by world leaders and actors. He proclaimed, “they are right.” Guterres said his generation has failed in its responsibility to protect our planet, and that must change. He claimed we have the tools we need, including the knowledge of how to reduce emissions and achieve the goals of the Paris agreement. We have the roadmap, in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. And, he continued, we have the imperative, irrefutable science, according to the IPCC report of 2018, that confirms we must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise, or face irreversible and terrible consequences for humanity in this century. He went on to say that the IPCC report also shows it is still possible to create a future world that is livable, but only if we make drastic and fundamental transformations away from a world based on burning fossil fuels for energy. It will entail transformation in all areas of life, including land use, agriculture, economics, and transportation. The transformation also requires changes that will create “less suffering, and more justice and harmony for people and planet.” Guterres reiterated that there is a cost to doing everything, but the biggest cost is doing nothing. The biggest cost is subsidizing a dying fossil fuel industry, continuing to build coal power plants, and in order to change, we must admit that “we are in a global climate hole, and to get out we must first stop digging.”
Three young people came on stage after the Secretary General spoke. One was a young activist and lawyer from Brazil, who is fighting for the rights of indigenous tribes and youth in the Amazon from the continued exploitation and destruction of their lands by foreign oil and gas interests. Another was a young entrepreneur from India, now living in Singapore and asking for world leaders’ help to back and support youth start ups for inventions and innovation platforms to help those in countries where the digital divide remains, such as African farmers. And the third young person on the stage that morning was the invincible Greta Thunberg of Sweden, who is the person mainly responsible for sparking and mobilizing the global youth #ClimateStrike movement. When the MC asked Greta what was her message to the world leaders, this was her response. (Watch here)
My message is that we’ll be watching you.
This is all wrong.
I shouldn’t be up here.
I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.
Yet you all come to us young people for hope?
How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.
And yet I’m one of the lucky ones.
People are suffering.
People are dying.
Entire ecosystems are collapsing.
We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.
And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.
How dare you!
For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear.
How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.
You say you “hear” us and that you understand the urgency.
But no matter how sad and angry I am, I don’t want to believe that.
Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil.
And that I refuse to believe.
The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
50% may be acceptable to you.
But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice.
They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us –we who have to live with the consequences.
How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business-as-usual and some technical solutions.
With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than eight and a half years.
There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures today.
Because these numbers are too uncomfortable.
And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
You are failing us.
But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.
The eyes of all future generations are upon you.
And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you.
We will not let you get away with this.
Right here, right now is where we draw the line.
The world is waking up.
And change is coming, whether you like it or not.
After Greta delivered her powerful and emotional speech, for a moment it seemed the audience was stunned, then broke into enthusiastic applause. Secretary General Guterres then followed up with his own reaction to their speeches. He thanked the three young people for their eloquent testimony, and remarked that “it is amazing and fantastic that young people around the world are not only standing up and speaking truth to power to ensure the world becomes committed to climate action, but they themselves are taking action towards providing solutions to the enormous challenges we face.” Guterres said it’s the duty of decision-makers around the world “to not only listen to the voice of young people, and to do what they ask us to do, but also to support them in their own actions for climate action around the world.”
As I continue to watch the world’s youth waking up, standing up, and literally shouting to world leaders to finally listen to the scientists and Take Action Now, I am more convinced than ever that truly the ONLY thing that gives humanity a chance for a future that is not utterly catastrophic and unlivable is their energy, determination, creativity and will to change how we are collectively living on this beautiful, damaged planet we call Home. The real heroes in the hall of the United Nations Monday are these young people who are telling the truth about the imminent danger we face. Greta Thunberg’s passion, frustration and emotional appeal to them encapsulated what many millions of us feel every day. Simply put, there is no magic bullet or savior who will come to save us all from the changes all around us. It is up to us, especially the world’s political leaders and power elite, to make the urgent and necessary change of weaning ourselves off of dirty energy and the global economy derived from it. Not in twenty or thirty years, but NOW.
Greta is absolutely right: Change is coming. The world is waking up, and the changes will continue. The flooding, fires, volcanoes, ice caps melting, and animals going extinct will continue. Those feedback loops are baked in our common cake at this point. Yet, as was so clearly repeated during the past days, weeks, and months, there is still time for us to get onto a less catastrophic trajectory if we make radical, and immediate changes to our mode of living. From the looks of things on YouTube, (millions of views of her speech since Monday, Sept. 23), and all the news stories generated from her speech, it seems she has hit a raw nerve with the collective. If Donald Trump is taking the time to mock her for her speech, it’s clear she is a threat to the global status quo, and that is a very good thing.