“Allow me to be blunt,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, told his audience to an uneasy laugh. “Our world is in a mess.”
Although Guterres could have been speaking to any audience anywhere, he was addressing a crowd gathered at the Stern Center for Sustainable Business at New York University on May 30, one of his first public appearances in New York since he became secretary-general on Jan. 1.
Fittingly, he spoke in straight, uncomplicated terms about climate change as the Trump White House prevaricates on whether to remain a party to the Paris Agreement, the international pact combating global warming.
“Countries and communities everywhere are facing pressures that are being exacerbated by megatrends — population growth, rapid urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity, migration. . . . ,” Guterres, a Portuguese, said in his accented English. “But one overriding megatrend is far and away at the top of that list: climate change.”
Guterres made his remarks to an auditorium filled with students and academics that included Andrew Hamilton, president of the university, and Peter Henry, dean of the university’s Stern School of Business. Numerous UN officials were present as well as foreign diplomats — notably François Delattre, the French ambassador to the UN. His country finalized the Paris accord in December 2015.
As an emissary for the Paris Agreement, which was ushered into life at a formal reception at the UN in April 2016, Guterres centered his remarks on why it is “absolutely essential” that the world carry out the Paris accord. He referred obliquely to the United States’ threat of going its own way as a fossil-fueled empire, but in taking questions afterward, Guterres reverted to his early bluntness, saying that when countries leave a “vacuum,” someone else — like Russia, China, Saudi Arabia — “will occupy it.”
Under President Obama, the US agreed to “accept” the Paris Agreement under executive powers, so it did not need to be ratified by the Senate. The White House at the time had expected powerful resistance from Republicans to the agreement, and that situation hasn’t changed as coal and oil-gas lobbyists fight to keep their interests at the top of the Trump energy-policy map.
Secretary of State John Kerry signed the Paris Agreement on April 22 — Earth Day — last year. Currently, 147 parties representing more than 82 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions have ratified the agreement, according to the UN. China is the only big country with a long-term strategy for nurturing “green” industries, as it strives to be the world’s dominant economy in 10 to 20 years’ time, Guterres said.
Guterres appeared at New York University right after returning from Europe, where he participated in the Group of 7 meeting in Italy in which President Trump took part. In Trump’s first overseas jaunt as president, traveling to the Middle East and Europe, he refused to commit to staying in the Paris Agreement. That snub, combined with his lashing out at NATO while he was in Brussels, left European leaders stunned.
Angela Merkel of Germany soon retaliated by saying that the times when Europe could fully rely on others were “over to a certain extent.”
Europe’s swift response gave Guterres more impetus to push the climate change agreement in his speech in New York. He had little trouble describing the vast reach of global warming damage.
“Climate change is a direct threat in itself and a multiplier of many other threats — from poverty to displacement to conflict,” Guterres said. He listed the many physical vagaries of climate change, such as sea ice hitting historic lows and sea levels hitting historic highs; glaciers retreating nearly everywhere.
“Here in the United States, only 26 of Glacier National Park’s glaciers remain,” he said, referring to Montana. “When it was made a park in 1910, there were around 150. I hope you never have to rename it ‘no-Glacier National Park!”
Droughts and floods, Guterres added, are more fallout from climate change, with dry spells lasting longer “from California to the Sahel.”
He touched on the economic value of climate-change adaption, noting that in America and China, new renewable-energy jobs outstrip those created in the oil and gas industries. He acknowledged, however, that 80 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels.
His speech was also timed well as the UN will hold its first conference on the state of the world’s oceans, from June 5-9, in New York. As to how much the US will get involved in that forum has remained elusive, as PassBlue reported, finding few government experts willing to comment much on the matter.
The State Department has a Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; its acting assistant secretary is Judith Garber. Her office, reflecting the State Department’s new inertia under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, provided no details on its role at the oceans meeting, except to say “we intend to be actively engaged in the June Conference.”
Further questions were referred to the White House, a line of command that another State Department official repeated, nodding grimly.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.