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At the UN’s Major Climate Event, Greta Thunberg Asks, ‘How Dare You?’


UN Secretary-General Guterres speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Climate Action Summit in the General Assembly Hall, Sept. 23. His first words to the scores of international leaders and others gathered at the conference were: “Nature is angry.” ARIANA LINDQUIST/UN PHOTO

The United Nations Climate Action Summit kicked off in New York with powerfully direct statements by Secretary-General António Guterres and several youths invited to speak in a panel set up in the vast General Assembly Hall.

They faced an audience of national leaders gathered from across the world at a conference that was not necessarily meant to signal a “kumbaya” moment, as a UN official put it, but to show who was leading on controlling climate change — and that implied not the United States.

“This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. . . . This is a climate action summit,” said Guterres in his opening remarks.

Especially poignant was the speech by the teenage climate activist from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who said emotionally, “My message is that we’ll be watching you,” a line she followed with about a four-second pause. Appearing angry, tearing up and reading from a sheet of paper held with both her hands, she continued, speaking to the large number of important adults in the audience: “This is all wrong, I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school across the ocean. . . . How dare you?”

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Thunberg was followed by Pope Francis reading a personal message by video, conveying a far more subdued tone than Greta: “We can see that the commitments made by states are still very weak. Indeed they are still far from achieving goals,” he said, until the video of him froze and he was cut short.

Similar logistics issues plagued the initial part of the summit, held on Sept. 23 and hosted by ABC anchor JuJu Chang in the morning. Her microphone headpiece did not work at first, and world leaders consistently took more than their allotted three minutes to speak.

The selection of leaders who spoke was based on those with “ambitious” plans to mitigate global warming and other climate-related actions, the UN emphasized. The first four national leaders who spoke and met this criteria were Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand; Hilda Heine of Marshall Islands; Narendra Modi of India; and Angela Merkel of Germany.

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Other speakers ranged from mayors — Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York and the UN special envoy for climate action and Valérie Plante, the mayor of Montreal — as well as corporate executives, civil society members and indigenous representatives.

At the podium, Ardern began her speech in what was presumably Maori. She read a long list of New Zealand’s achievements that have been accomplished in the last two years: stopping the issuance of offshore oil permits, initiating a mission to plant a billion trees by 2023, building and investing in sustainable public transportation and shifting to more “green” private investments and 2023 renewable energy goals, among many more items. Most significant was New Zealand’s announcement of becoming the world’s most-sustainable food producer, which will include the ability for the country’s farmers to measure, manage and reduce their own farm’s emissions.

The president of the Marshall Islands, Hilda Heine, spoke of a 2050 decarbonization strategy and affirmed that the climate crisis remains the single-greatest threat to the Pacific nation.

The most dramatic moment came more than a half hour into the summit meeting, when attendees in the hall or watching livestreamed realized that President Trump was sitting in the General Assembly next to Vice President Pence. (Also seated with them was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US envoy to the UN, Kelly Knight Craft.) Otherwise, the US was silent during the entire climate conference.

Apparently, Trump walked into the hall during Prime Minister Modi’s speech about taking a comprehensive behavioral, education and lifestyle-based approach to combating climate change. Modi also outlined increasing renewable-energy capacity, biofuels, rainwater conservation (spending $50 billion on this initiative, he said) and his country’s partnership with Sweden to engage private industry players into their strategies. (He did not talk about India’s huge dependence on coal.)

President Trump appeared in the General Assembly Hall unexpectedly, when President Modi of India spoke. The two leaders spent Sept. 22 at a rally in Houston, Tex., with crowds from mainly the Indian diaspora. Trump did not stay long at the climate event but left for his own conference at the UN on protecting religious freedom.

At the climate conference, Trump was seen on-camera clapping immediately following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s talk (who spoke after Modi), involving the phasing-out of power plants and coal as an energy source. Merkel, who hasn’t been to the UN in four years, said that industrialized countries are largely to blame for the world’s climate change. Germany aims to get two-thirds of its energy from renewables by 2030 and to be completely climate neutral by 2050. It will also be helping lead Europe toward achieving better transportation and insulation pricing schemes, Merkel said.

A segment on plans for a carbon-neutral world included Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, who announced that his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, will be expanding its work to accelerate plans for clean energy products. He also took a moment during his speech to acknowledge Trump’s brief presence in the General Assembly by thanking him for coming, adding, “Hopefully our discussion will be useful for you when you formulate climate policy.”

Here are highlights of some of the world’s national and local leaders’ talking points describing their climate-change initiatives.

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera:
● Clean renewable energy
● Efficient public transportation
● Forest conservancy

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto:
● Use of coal ending 2029
● Use of fossil fuels ending 2030

Mayor Plante of Montreal:
● By 2050, two-thirds of the world population will be in cities
● Already committed to combat climate change through C40 and a mayors’ coalition network
● Protection of biodiversity
● Protecting our green spaces despite financial pressures

French President Emmanuel Macron (see related Sept. 23 article on rainforests):
● France has banned new oil exploration on its soil
● Trade is a factor of peace and poverty, and trade needs to align with the climate agenda
● Has doubled its green fund contributions

Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani:
● National measures to develop technologies by 2030
● As FIFA 2022 host, will be the first carbon-neutral tournament with solar-powered stadiums and energy efficient cooling systems
● Contributing $100 million to help small island and developing nations to catch up in their battle to fight climate change

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness:
● The global financing system requires immediate transformation to help tackle climate change, and it must be science-based and technically supported
●  The country has been looking at the Paris Agreement Capital Transition Agreement and risk-scenario analysis tools

Costa Rica’s President Carlos Alvarado Quesada:
● Has launched a decarbonization plan
● Extending a moratorium to keep fossil fuels underground with no end date
● Removed taxes on e-vehicles, recharging stations are being installed and 500 percent growth in electric fleet
● Mobilizing over $30 million a year from taxes, investing into mainly forests
● Over $5 billion has been invested in infrastructure: hydroelectric/thermal, wind
● 52 percent recovered forest, aiming for higher
● 30 percent zero emissions for public transport by 2035
● Two electric trains to be fed by clean renewable energy

Indonesia’s Vice-President M. Jusuf Kalla:
● Decreasing emissions 29 percent and targeting up to 40 percent with international support by 2030
● Nature-based solutions: restoration of greater land and peetland
● Restoring coastal areas
● Energy transition, removing fossil fuels policy
● Scaling support of financing renewable energies

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi:
● The withdrawal of certain parties (from the Paris Agreement) “will not shake the progress” toward combating climate change
● Green and low-carbon developments
● CO2 per GDP 45.8 percent from 2005 level, overshooting target 5.2 billion emissions
● 1.2 million e-vehicles
● National emissions trading market being developed

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan:
● Has planted 1.1 billion trees in the last five years
● Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany addressing the Alliance for Rainforests, an event that was also held at the UN on Sept. 23, featuring other national leaders such as FŽelix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg:
● Released a study about how the oceans can be sustained
● Protecting biodiversity
● Scaling up ocean-based research and making COP24 “BlueCOP”

Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales:
● Conserving forests
● Contributes only 0.04 percent of pollution, but one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change
● Increased wastewater treatment plants
● Over 200 biofilters, filtering out solid floating waste in its rivers; preventing pollution of beaches and oceans
● In comprehensive protection of natural resources: single-use plastic bags, straws

Iceland: Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir
● Vanishing glaciers
● Clean energy transformation
● Doubling green fund contribution

Denmark: Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen
● Doubling up earmarked funds for green research

Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte:
● Phasing out all coal by 2030
● Implementing a national climate agreement
● Supporting developing countries

Barbados’s Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley:
● Island States Alliance, OASIS
● 1.5 Celsius to stay alive. “Not to thrive, but stay alive. In other words, 2 degrees needs to be taken off the table for once and for all”
● Natural disaster insurance in bonds and the affordability of insurance for island nations
● “I’m speaking on behalf of 20 percent of this community of the small island bodies. We’ve contributed less than 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions”

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar:
● Carbon budgeting will be implemented next year
● Banned fracking
● Sovereign wealth fund divested from fossil fuels
● Carbon tax

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
● Generating 30 percent of renewable energy
● More than 4 billion trees planted throughout Turkey
● Railways use to increase 5-10 percent
● Bike routes to be expanded

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis:
● “Ancient Greeks had no access to scientific knowledge. We do now and yet have failed to act”
● Will shut down brown coal by 2028.

Djibouti’s President Ismaël Omar Guelleh:
● Renewable energy transition by 2030
● Would like to see simplification of access to green funds

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In:
● Will explore stronger measures for transition to a low-carbon economy and Korean sustainable goals
● Doubling contribution to the Green Climate Fund
● Proposed international joint research and technical support for improving air quality

For full coverage of of the UN Climate Action Summit, click here.
The draft agenda for the summit is here.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.

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