UN General Assembly: Time for Leaders to Deliver Climate Ambition

with Kelly Rigg,, , director of strategy & policy | September 27, 2013, 2:37 pm EDT
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Shortly after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously scolded President George H. W. Bush: “This is no time to go wobbly, George.”

unUN photo

Regardless of what you think about the first President Bush, Margaret Thatcher, or the Gulf War, her challenge certainly helped stiffen President Bush’s resolve in mobilising the world community to roll back Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait.

World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly debate.

It is exactly one year ahead of a special meeting to be convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for Heads of State focused exclusively on climate change, and two years ahead of the Paris climate conference where governments have committed to forge a new international climate change agreement.

As they meet, the world is in desperate need of greater resolve to confront the mounting threat of climate change.

As the Iron Lady herself noted in her speech to the General Assembly in 1989, “Of all the challenges faced by the world community…one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance – I refer to the threat to our global environment.”

She warned the other leaders gathered in New York that day that “the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all,” and “the environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out.”

She was not gazing into a crystal ball 24 years into the future; she based her concerns on the best available science at the time.

And as the report to be released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changelater this week will make clear, the world’s scientific community is more certain than ever about the dangerous impacts that human activities – such as the burning of fossil fuels and agricultural and land use practices – are having on the global climate system.

In 2009, in part spurred by the last such report from the IPCC, world leaders committed themselves to the goal of keeping global temperature increases below 2°C as compared to pre-industrial levels.

Not that this is a “safe” level of warming – it represents more than twice the warming the earth has experienced over the last century, a level that is already having serious consequences.

But it is far preferable to the catastrophic damage the World Bank and others have warned we will face from the much higher temperature increases the world will see if we do not change our ways.


The problem, of course, is that nations are not taking the collective level of action needed to meet the 2°C goal set by their leaders.

In fact, as a series of reports by the United Nations Environment Program makes clear, the gap between the commitments made and those needed by 2020 to give us a halfway decent chance of meeting this goal is not shrinking year-by-year – it is widening.

The good news is that we have the know-how, the technologies, and the investment capital needed to close this gap and get back on track to staying below 2°C; what is lacking is the political will.

The unfortunate truth is that far too few leaders are willing to stand up to the fossil fuel polluters and put in place the policies needed to drive us towards a sustainable future. In doing so, they are failing to represent the best interests of the vast majority of the people they represent.

Leaders must therefore come to the Secretary General’s meeting one year from now fully prepared to turn this around.

They must announce much more ambitious actions to rein in emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. And by ambitious, we mean nothing short of what it will take to close the gap between promises and action.

They must also mobilise the necessary levels of funding to help developing countries meet the climate challenge, by deploying clean technologies, eliminating tropical deforestation, and making their communities and economies more resilient to the mounting impacts of climate change.

For its part, civil society must step up the pressure, remind leaders of the commitments they’ve made to limit the damage from climate change, and borrowing a page from Lady Thatcher, warn them in no uncertain terms, ‘This is no time to go wobbly!’

NOTE: This post was originally published at Responding to Climate Change, rtcc.org.

Co-author Kelly Rigg is the Executive Director of GCCA. She has been leading international campaigns for 30 years on climate, energy, oceans, Antarctica and other issues.

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  • Brenda Tzipori

    As a public school teacher I am appalled at the tunnel vision plaguing the US Dept. of Ed. In the last three decades, Earth’s surface has been successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. There is 95% certainty that human influence is the cause. Given the dire situation, is the US Dept. of Ed, paying attention? Is it insisting that green practices and climate studies become required courses for America’s K-12 students? No. It’s current mission is to force another new expensive standards program upon the nation’s school systems. (Despite the fact that No Child Left Behind left plenty of kids in the dust.) The world’s children deserve to be well-informed citizens regarding the fate of their planet. Unfortunately, new Common Core learning standards won’t save humanity. But youth armed with the knowledge to limit CO2 emissions might just influence their parents and neighbors to heed climate changes and act accordingly. I beg all educators, writers, artists, Bill Gates and company, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Ed. Duncan: work together to educate our children in the practices that might just keep us from the tipping point. It’s past time for courses in green practices and climate studies at all grades.