U.N. Climate Summit, COP24, Warns of ‘Collapse of Our Civilizations’

Drew MacFarlane
Published: December 3, 2018

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the climate summit in Poland on Monday with a dire warning to world leaders: Act now to combat rising temperatures or there will be catastrophic consequences.

“Even as we witness devastating climate impacts causing havoc across the world, we are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” Guterres said in his opening speech at the summit, dubbed "Paris 2.0" after the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Guterres called climate change "the most important issue we face."

The 24th Conference of the Parties, known as COP24, is taking place near a Katowice coal mine used for 176 years and closed in 1999. At the top of the agenda is the so-called Paris rulebook, which determines how countries have to count their greenhouse gas emissions, report them to the rest of the world and reveal what they are doing to reduce them.

(MORE: Rapidly Changing Climate Is Creating a Global 'Medical Emergency')

In an earlier speech Monday, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough echoed Guterres' warnings, telling the gathering that the “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizons” if no urgent action is taking against global warming.

And U.N. General Assembly President Maria Espinosa said at the rate we're seeing today, mankind is "in danger of disappearing. We need to act urgently, and with audacity. Be ambitious, but also responsible for future generations."

In his opening remarks, Guterres took aim at the countries that are most needed to be held accountable for their level of greenhouse gas emissions, failing to play by the rules set in the Paris agreement. The United States is the only country not part of the accord after President Donald Trump decided to walk away from it.

The agreement aims to bolster the response to combating climate change by setting a goal to keep global temperature rise well below the 2 degrees Celsius and actively seeking ways to keep the increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius. But the Paris agreement let countries set their own emissions targets. Some are on track, others aren’t. Overall, the world is heading the wrong way.

Guterres pleaded with countries to reduce their emissions from 2010 by 45 percent by 2030 and to set a goal to release a net zero emissions by 2050, recalling consequences laid out in the 700-page report written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Without drastic action, the planet is on pace to warm an additional two to three degrees by the year 2100.

Severely reducing emissions is the only way reach the 1.5-degree goal, experts say, but it will be an expensive feat.

“In short, we need a complete transformation of our global energy economy, as well as how we manage land and forest resources,” said Guterres.

Guterres asked governments to find ways to replace fossil fuels — which contribute about 65 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to the EPA — with cleaner alternatives.

Host-nation president Andrzej Duda said Poland, which relies on coal for about 80 percent of the nation's energy, has no plan to give up coal entirely and that the country's use of it doesn't get in the way with fighting climate change. However, Poland did announce it will cut its reliance on coal to about 50 percent by 2030. The country's supply of coal can last another 200 years.

The planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius since pre-industry times due to human activity and we've already begun to see the impact of the rise in global temperatures. Sea levels have already risen more than 8 inches in the last 140 years and extreme weather events are becoming more damaging.

“For some people, this is a life-or-death situation without a doubt,” said Natalie Mahowald, a Cornell University climate scientist and lead author of the IPCC report.


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