It’s Climate Week, And The UN Is Mostly Consumed With Other Problems
Just weeks before COP27 climate talks, there’s relatively minor focus on floods, droughts and heat waves at the UN meeting.
(Bloomberg) -- Between floods that ravaged Pakistan and droughts that parched Europe and China, and innumerable heat waves, the global impact of climate change has become tangible lately. Yet climate hasn’t been at the top of the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly taking place this week in New York City.
World leaders have largely focused their remarks on Russia’s war in Ukraine and soaring energy prices, among other issues. US President Joe Biden began his speech on Wednesday with a harsh condemnation of the Russian invasion before briefly touching on climate change. He touted his administration’s new climate law as a “global game changer,” then he moved on.
But not to the UN climate roundtable hosted on Wednesday afternoon by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, as an informal precursor to November’s COP27 climate talks. At least one other G-7 leader, French President Emmanuel Macron, also didn’t attend the climate event.
The climate roundtable happened behind closed doors, and afterwards Guterres emerged to make a brief public statement in which he described the goal of holding warming temperatures to 1.5 Celsius as “failing fast.” He blamed world leaders for being out of step with the global public on climate. “We have all seen the appalling images from Pakistan, and this is just at 1.2 degrees of global warming and we are heading for over 3 degrees,” he warned. “I told the assembled leaders that we need direction, their leadership now.”
So far this week, the handful of leaders who focused their UN speeches on climate have been those representing countries most affected by it.
“In 2022 alone, five cyclones struck in only two months — 178,000 hectares of arable land were flooded and destroyed,” said Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina. “How many high-level meetings, summits and international conferences have we already had? How many statements and commitments have we made? Let us now turn these words into action.”
It should be easy to keep this annual gathering of world leaders more focused on climate. That’s because the UN General Assembly meets alongside dozens of events that make up Climate Week NYC, filling venues across Manhattan with climate policy experts. At those events it may not have felt like climate was on the “back burner,” as Guterres warned in his opening remarks on Tuesday, but there were still signs of climate backsliding in progress.
At the Race to Zero and Resilience Forum — organized Wednesday by the UN Climate Action High-level Champions and Michael Bloomberg, majority owner of the parent company of Bloomberg News — government leaders mixed with environmental activists and discussed strategies for slashing emissions. An update from the co-chair of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a coalition of financial firms launched ahead of last year’s COP26, indicated that the group’s decarbonization guidance would be revised in response to unease from banks.
“What they can’t have is legally binding strictures,” said Mark Carney, the former central banker who leads GFANZ, in an interview on stage at the Race to Zero event. Several major lenders, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Corp., are considering departing the group, according to people familiar with the matter.
Regulators have in recent months increased their scrutiny of climate-risk disclosures while the use of environmental, social, and governance criteria by investors has come under sustained attack by Republican politicians in the US. Canada’s former environment minister, Catherine McKenna, appeared to embrace more regulation. “There’s a limit to voluntary initiatives,” said McKenna, who chairs a UN expert group on net zero commitment. “You need some consequences.”
In another moment this week that seemed like a throwback, World Bank President David Malpass provoked calls for his resignation for his response to a question about whether he accepted the scientific consensus on climate change: “I don’t know,” he said at a New York Times event on Tuesday, “I’m not a scientist.”
“We expect the World Bank Group to be a global leader of climate ambition and the mobilization of significantly more climate finance for developing countries,” the US Treasury Department said in a statement on Wednesday. The resulting controversy pulled in climate activists, who joined calls for Malpass to lose his post.
The week’s events have also featured emerging solutions that aim to short circuit the risk of backsliding. A summit hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Earthshot Prize spotlighted startups that promise to improve people’s lives and promote clean development. One prize finalist, Sanergy founder David Auerbach, turns food waste into fertilizer in Nairobi. He said his product can increase crop production by 30%.
“People are demanding homegrown solutions,” Auerbach said.
Another finalist, SOLshare founder Sebastian Groh, sells clean-energy services like rooftop solar and electric three-wheelers in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “The fight for climate change is decided in emerging markets,” he said.
Even at climate-focused events, though, the rest of the turmoil affecting the world could intrude at any moment. “The global energy crisis is affecting everybody,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, said on the sidelines of climate discussion. After 20 years of steady decline in the number of people experiencing energy poverty, Birol said that population had suddenly increased by 20 million people this year.
His concern? Energy problems would create “a geopolitical fracture between the global North and global South. This is something that worries me.”
Back at the UN, in a rare moment when climate came to the fore instead of war or scarcity, it was hard to avoid a sense of dented optimism. After hosting the informal climate talks, Secretary-General Guterres called for more: “The fossil fuel industry is killing us, and leaders are out of step with their people who are crying out for urgent climate action.” It could be a foreboding sign with less than two months before leaders and climate diplomats convene at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27 — and the hosts are already wary of backtracking.
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