Greta Thunberg onstage at the United Nations.
Photo of Greta Thunberg at the United Nations by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty

What I Saw Inside the Messy, Desperate Chaos of the UN Climate Summit

Under rapidly approaching deadlines to keep global warming to a tolerable level, too many world leaders seem unable or unwilling to act.

The dozens of world leaders and business executives who delivered speeches about global warming on Monday at the United Nations made a big show of acknowledging how seriously they take the climate emergency without actually naming or confronting the biggest barriers preventing us from fixing it.

Instead, global power brokers like French President Emmanuel Macron, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel strode out one-by-one on to the stage of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and for the most part riffed on the same blandly inoffensive principles: Climate change is definitely happening. The time for empty words is over. We need global action that is sustainable and ambitious. That action must accelerate over time. If it does not accelerate then our children and grandchildren will suffer. Oh and by the way, isn't it so great that they're out in the streets protesting?


What wasn't shared was any serious plan to neutralize the vast political weight of the fossil fuel industry; hold oil, gas and coal executives accountable for creating a climate science denial movement that continues to delay progress; deal with climate reactionaries like Donald Trump and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro; or question the capitalist growth machine that helped get us into this clusterfuck in the first place.

"We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth," 16-year-old Swedish climate icon Greta Thunberg told the room, her voice on the brink of tears. "How dare you?… If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this." Later in the day she and 15 other children formalized these criticisms in an official complaint to the U.N.

The United Nations General Assembly Hall.

Photo of the United Nations General Assembly Hall by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty

Hers was a lonely voice at the Climate Action Summit, however, which was convened by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to build momentum for solutions that can halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That's the scale and speed of reduction that scientists calculate is necessary for us to have any chance of maintaining the climate that currently sustains our civilization.

The Summit provided a useful backdrop for activists to organize what is likely the biggest climate protest in history, as well as an opportunity for over 250 media outlets, including VICE, to coordinate and amplify stories about the destabilization of every natural system on the planet with Covering Climate Now. But outlets like Climate Home report that expectations for the actual U.N. event were low.


There was an edge of desperation that just wasn't present in the same way when I covered the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris. Our situation was arguably just as dire four years ago, but it was easier to forget that as nearly every country in the world signed onto a treaty agreeing to limit global emissions rise at 2 degrees Celsius, while striving for the much safer 1.5 degrees.

At the signing of the treaty, delegates cheered and burst into tears. "History is here," said then-French President François Hollande. But activists I hung out with at a demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe were much more guarded. There was no language in the treaty calling for shrinking the fossil fuel industry, and voluntary pledges, assuming they were all met perfectly, would only stop warming at 2.6 degrees—far from the safety zone for planet Earth.

Four years later emissions are still rising. And of course we all know how "history" turned out in the 2016 U.S. election.

During the lead-up to this week's Summit, Guterres seemed sincere in his desire to transform the global economy away from climate-destroying industries. The U.N. reportedly rejected more than 50 world leaders from speaking because their countries aren't doing enough to meet or exceed the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement. Guterres offered solidarity and an international platform to leaders from the millions-strong youth climate striker movement.


In the General Assembly, he described a litany of climate horrors that provide potentially "apocalyptic" views of the future: "Seas are rising… glaciers are melting and corals are bleaching, droughts are spreading and wildfires are burning, deserts are expanding… heat waves are scorching and weather disasters are multiplying." Guterres urged world leaders to eliminate subsidies for a "dying fossil fuel industry" and cut off support for new coal plants.

But world leaders only loosely followed his script. So many delegates were taking selfies or chatting on the floor of the General Assembly that organizers had to run two separate countdowns urging them to return to their seats. "World leaders and they don't even know how to sit down," said an Italian journalist sitting next to me. "Jesus, this is a shit show."

Many leaders blew way past the three-minute time limit for their speeches, throwing off the entire Summit's schedule. There was also a cringe-worthy moment when the video of Pope Francis addressing the Summit froze and then went dark. "My apologies," said the moderator. "We're having technical difficulties with His Holiness' message."

There were also more substantive deviations from script. Guterres had demanded leaders show up with serious commitments for unscrewing our planet. There's a reason for that: global emissions are at their highest ever level and the impacts—including accelerating Arctic sea ice loss and life-destroying acidity in our oceans—show no signs of calming.


But though on the face of it the Summit pledges seemed impressive—a new Climate Ambition Alliance of 65 nations, corporations worth $2.3 trillion promising to drastically reduce emissions—nobody, as far as I could tell, proposed plans for reducing the vast carbon and political footprint of corporations such as Exxon, Chevron, and Shell, which since 2018 alone have invested $50 billion in new fossil fuel expansion projects.

"There's two realities," Mark Campanale, founder and executive director of the think tank Carbon Tracker Initiative, explained to me over the phone during a break in the Summit. "We've got the climate dialogue that society is having. And then you've got the oil and gas industry that's living in a cocoon. What's missing is a commitment by the U.N. and world leaders to take on the fossil fuel incumbency."

There was also little willingness—beyond a couple polite diplomatic jabs—to publicly take on world leaders who are actively sabotaging global progress. Immediately after Merkel gave a speech in which she talked about the need to convince climate doubters about the need for action, the U.N. broadcast a close-up of Trump on the General Assembly screens, who had made an unannounced visit along with Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump then stood up silently and left the floor along with his entourage. Not long after, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg sardonically thanked the U.S. president for showing up. "Hopefully our discussions here will be useful when you decide to formulate climate policy," he said to laughter and applause. That was the most pointed criticism of Trump, who publicly dismisses the science, dismantles climate policy, abdicates U.S. leadership by withdrawing from Paris, and gives generous White House access to his friends in the fossil fuel industry.


And despite all the attention world leaders gave to young climate strikers around the globe who came out in the millions on Friday—it seemed like no speech went by without some mention of "the youth"—nobody seemed at all interested in engaging with the strikers' main message: that at least part of the blame for our climate emergency can be heaped on the doorstep of capitalism itself.

Macron said he was struck by the urgency of young climate activists and then spent a good part of his speech regurgitating neoliberal talking points about the value of markets and free trade. A U.N. video that played of the protests largely blunted the day's radical edge, featuring photogenic youth chanting and marching and urging world leaders to listen harder to scientists while holding signs reading "There is no Planet B."

What was striking about those images was that there was no footage of the hundreds of teens shouting "shut down Wall Street," the grassroots climate leaders vowing to bring "our economy to a standstill" nor of the young girl that I saw carrying a sign that said "What if we held billionaires accountable for the massive amount of pollution they cause."

At one point in the day I asked a veteran of the U.N. talks, a French journalist who's covered 10 General Assembly meetings, for his assistance in navigating all these contradictions. "So what is the point of meetings of like this?" I inquired sincerely. "What does having all these world leaders get up and give speeches achieve?" The journalist chuckled. "Good question," he said, and darted up a flight of stairs.

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.