On Monday, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres delivered a speech at the UN headquarters in New York during which he said the world has until 2020 to “change course” in order to avoid “runaway climate change.” This is the hypothesized point at which the cumulative effects of climate change create a feedback loop and result in irreversible damage to the Earth’s climate system. Some planetary scientists suggest that similar runaway climate effects may have turned Venus from a habitable, Earth-like planet into the hellscape we know today.
“I have asked you here to sound the alarm,” Guterres said. “We face a direct existential threat. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”
During the half-hour speech, Guterres painted a bleak picture of the future under climate change. He cited the “extreme heat waves, wildfires, storms, and floods” that are already “leaving a trail of death and devastation” around the world as portents of runaway climate change. In order to stem the worst effects, Guterres called upon the leadership “from politicians, from business and scientists, and from the public everywhere.”
Although Guterres commended the Paris Climate Accord as a model for what this leadership might look like, he also said it didn’t go far enough. The Paris Climate Accord committed signatories to implement changes that would restrict temperatures from rising 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“These targets were really the bare minimum to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Guterres said. “But scientists tell us that we are far off track. According to a UN study, the commitments made so far by the parties to the Paris Agreement represent just one-third of what is needed.”
Although this was a “bare minimum” agreement, Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement only a year after it was ratified, claiming that the agreement was “unfair.” According to the treaty, countries must wait three years to withdraw from the agreement which means the United States will officially exit in 2020—the same year Guterres marked as the turning point for runaway climate change. Furthermore, the UN report cited by Guterres didn’t take into account the withdrawal of the US from the agreement. Given that the United States is one of the largest contributors to global greenhouse emissions, the Paris agreement is likely to result in even less emission reduction than predicted by the report.
Guterres also directly addressed the claims made by Trump and other anti-climate science politicians who argue that tackling climate change would hurt economic growth and called these arguments “hogwash.”
“When you’re riding a bus and you miss your stop, you don’t stay on the bus forever. You get off at the next possible stop."
“Over the past decade, extreme weather and the health impact of burning fossil fuels have cost the American economy at least $240 billion a year,” Guterres said. “This cost will explode by 50 percent in the coming decade alone. By 2030, the loss of productivity caused by a hotter world could cost the global economy $2 trillion.”
On the other hand, Guterres cited the economic benefits of climate-friendly business policies. Renewable energy jobs are now outstripping those created by the fossil fuel industries, which Trump has courted throughout his time in office by promising to bring back coal and gas jobs.
So is there any hope of making the changes necessary to stop runaway climate change in the next year and a half? According to Kathie Dello, the associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, 2020 isn’t a hard deadline for meaningful change, but does highlight the urgency of the issue.
“When you’re riding a bus and you miss your stop, you don’t stay on the bus forever,” Dello told me in an email. “You get off at the next possible stop. We need to take action as soon as possible, but doing so after 2020 is better than not doing anything. It will take big changes and global cooperation, but we have the framework in the Paris Agreement and it’s tough to ignore climate change as we’re seeing the impacts (fires, heat waves, loss of mountain snow) in a big way.”
In an effort to bring climate change to the “top of the international agenda,” Guterres announced that the UN will organize a climate summit next September that will focus “on the sectors that create the most emissions and the areas where building resilience will make the biggest difference.” The conference will occur exactly one year before signatories to the Paris agreement will have to “enhance their national climate pledges.”
“We are careening towards the edge of the abyss,” Guterres said. “Everyday we fail to act is a day that we step a little closer towards a fate that none of us wants, a fate that will resonate through generations in the damage done to humankind and life on Earth. Our fate is in our hands.”