2019 UN Climate Action Summit: World leaders’ inaction incurs wrath of growing climate movement

On 23 September, the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres, convened the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, where government leaders and representatives from youth, business, cities, and finance focused on increasing ambitions to lower greenhouse gas emissions and build climate resilience. In advance of the Summit a whole slew of reports was released; each showing the growing urgency of climate change, a widening gap between climate targets and commitments to action, and the growing impacts of already occurring climate change. Gathered world leaders, however, are not impressed, as few raise their ambition.

Leading climate science organizations published the “United in Science” synthesis report with the worrying headline message that climate change impacts are “hitting harder and sooner” than previously forecasted. The IPCC Report on land-use highlighted worrying trends that both aggravate climate change and put sustainable development at risk. Deteriorating soil fertility threatens food security and affects capacity to store carbon, further exacerbating global warming. A leaked IPCC report on oceans and the cryosphere further warned that more than a quarter billion people could be displaced when global warming hits 2°C.

Despite mounting evidence, and worse than expected trends, the world’s response has been far from adequate. According to the Global Climate Adaptation report, by 2030 the world may see a 100 million more poor; severe water shortages; and unprecedented mass migrations. Trillion-dollar investments are inevitable, but inaction will prove much costlier. Although, climate change calls for the tripling of ‘nationally determined contributions’, according to a joint report by UNDP and UNFCCC, most governments – particularly industrial countries – have not yet adjusted their ambitions.

Against the backdrop of worsening climate change and dwindling governmental climate targets, the Climate Action Summit is the latest in a series of international efforts to mobilize large-scale initiatives to combat climate change and to abate its negative impacts. In 2014, then Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convened the first UN Climate Summit. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown of California hosted the Global Climate Action Summit. In the context of the UNFCCC, the main UN climate process, continuous efforts are made to showcase and encourage a multitude of actions by a broad range of actors. Contrary to previous efforts, which emphasized the role of non-state and local actors, such as businesses, cities and regions and civil society organizations, the Climate Action Summit also provided a platform for governments to announce plans to reduce emissions and to help people to respond to the climate crisis.

The Summit saw the launch of 28 collaborative initiatives across nine thematic areas, including climate finance, Industry transition, mitigation, resilience and adaptation and nature-based solutions. Some of the more eye-catching initiatives include a new coalition of pension funds and insurance providers, managing US$2.3 trillion, which aims to shift investments away from carbon intensive industries with the goal to limit the increase in average temperatures to 1.5°C. Members of the coalition engage with high-carbon companies to help them adopt more sustainable business practices, while divestment from highly polluting industries is on the table as an ultimate measure. To catalyze its impact, the coalition calls on other large asset owners and sovereign wealth funds to join and also align their investment portfolios. In another large initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the World Bank, the European Commission, Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, made a US$790 million commitment to support research and innovations that help assist smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods and increase their resilience to climate change impacts.

Despite these striking initiatives by businesses, finance, cities, regions, and other stakeholders, governments have not adequately stepped up. Although the Summit tried to establish stronger links between ambitious actions between non-state and local actions and governments, it yielded few new governmental commitments. A few countries (South Korea, the UK, Germany and France) have pledged to double their contributions to the Green Climate Fund and other climate financing programs, but none of the major economies have acted on the call to raise their climate targets or presented concrete plans. Sadly, the Summit does not seem to have significantly rallied higher government ambitions.

Given the disappointing yield of new governmental commitments, the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit may be most remembered for the powerful speech delivered by sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. In her impassioned speech, she blasted world leaders’ inaction and accused them of failing young people and betraying future generations.

“you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. (…) 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.”

Governments will get another chance to raise their pledges at the UN Climate Change Conference in Santiago, Chile, later this year. But time for credible climate commitments by governments is running out, and their inaction is increasingly incurring the wrath of a growing movement of concerned youth, as well as older generations.

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