António Guterres speaks onstage at the UN Climate Action Summit.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres spoke onstage at the UN Climate Action Summit. Credit: Randy Showstack

“Nature is angry,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned at the start of the 2019 Climate Action Summit on 23 September. “Our warming Earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

The conference “is not a climate negotiation summit, because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit,” Guterres said. Limiting warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels is still possible, if there are “fundamental transformations” in all aspects of society.

The summit did come through with a number of announced actions and initiatives, though some environmentalists, political leaders, and scientists questioned whether those announcements are sufficient to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

The summit focused on nine interdependent tracks: mitigation, resilience and adaptation, infrastructure, energy transition, industry transition, climate finance and carbon pricing, social and political drivers, public mobilization, and nature-based climate change solutions.

Among the announcements by governments, businesses, finance groups, and nongovernmental organizations at the summit, 59 nations signaled that they intend to submit enhanced climate action plans under the Paris climate accord; companies with a combined market capitalization topping US$2.3 trillion pledged to take actions to align their businesses with science-based climate targets; the Powering Past Coal Alliance expanded to include 30 countries among other parties that are committed to stop building new coal power plants in 2020; and the shipping industry announced that it is launching a Getting to Zero Coalition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050.

Other announcements included the launch of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature, whose goal is to conserve 30% of Earth’s lands and oceans by 2030; a pledge by the Zero Carbon Buildings for All initiative to work to make new buildings 100% net zero carbon by 2030; and efforts by the Central African Forest Initiative to maintain the forest cover of that region.

More Measures Needed

Despite those and other announcements, Guterres was among those calling for much more action to stop what he referred to as “the climate crisis.” Those actions, he said, should include, for instance, much more progress on carbon pricing and no new coal power plants being built after 2020.

Guterres spoke about his granddaughters. “I refuse to be an accomplice in the destruction of their home and only home. I will not be a silent witness to the crime of dooming our present and destroying their right to a sustainable future. It is my obligation—our obligation—to do everything to stop the climate crisis before it stops us.”

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you.”

Others, too, expressed their outrage about climate change, including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, who addressed world leaders and summit delegates near the beginning of the meeting.

“My message is that we’ll be watching you,” Thunberg said in an impassioned and emotional speech. “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.”

Thunberg added, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”

Addressing the audience, she said, “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.”

A Possible Groundswell Building for More Action

Several scientists involved with major initiatives to protect the environment and curb climate change told Eos that the world needs to act with much greater urgency than the initiatives and announcements made at the summit indicate.

“If the retirement homes and the golf courses in Florida start going under water, then maybe the world will come in with a stronger reaction.”

Lee White, Gabon’s minister for forests, sea, the environment and climate plan, said that he sees some hope for progress through a number of measures discussed at the summit, including the Central African Forest Initiative.

However, White told Eos that major required actions to deal more effectively with climate change may not take place until more people in the developed world understand that they are personally affected by, and suffering from, climate change.

“I don’t think some of these [fossil fuel] lobbies are going to accept climate change until more and more people in the developed world are dying. People in Africa are dying already. It’s a life and death scenario for people in the Sahara,” White said. “If the retirement homes and the golf courses in Florida start going under water, then maybe the world will come in with a stronger reaction. It’s tragic to say it: Not enough people in developed countries are suffering from climate change.”

White said he doesn’t think that this conference will make a landmark change, but with the global youth protests, “we are maybe starting to see a groundswell that might push politicians to do more.”

A Call for More Scientists to Speak Up

Marine biologist Enric Sala, who is a coauthor of a paper that called for conservation goals included in the initiative of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature, also said that youth activists deserve a lot of credit for pushing the climate change issue. “Thank God for them. It’s so inspiring,” he said.

“We don’t yet see what we need from the major actors, and that’s got to happen.”

Sala, an explorer in residence with the National Geographic Society, urged more scientists to speak up and not “self-censor” themselves. “You’re not just a scientist, you’re not a machine, you’re a citizen, and you should have values. Don’t be afraid to say what the science is telling you. Be up-front about the challenge of doing the science and the inherent uncertainty, but don’t self-censor.”

He added that scientists “have a huge privilege to be able to do what they love, but they have a huge responsibility by showing the truth.”

David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) International Climate Initiative, told Eos that President Donald Trump’s failure to participate in the climate summit, aside from a brief visit while attending a religious freedom event that same day at the United Nations, “is an affront to those who are working on this issue.” He said it was a particular affront to youth who say that they are scared about their future and are demanding action.

Waskow said that some significant measures were announced and advanced at the summit but they don’t go far enough and that major greenhouse gas–emitting countries need to do much more.

“There’s enormous energy in the streets, there’s a lot of energy among cities and many, not all, obviously, businesses. And a lot of vulnerable countries are really ready to take strong action,” he said. “But we don’t yet see what we need from the major actors, and that’s got to happen.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2019), Climate summit delivers some measures but doesn’t go far enough, Eos, 100, Published on 24 September 2019.

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