The global climate crisis is under the spotlight once again as a record-breaking summer gives way to a week of intense climate activism and talks. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is at the forefront of this effort, aiming to force world leaders to address the pressing issue of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in exacerbating it. Leaders from various sectors are joining the conversation, emphasizing the urgency of the matter.

As the scorching and deadly summer comes to a close, the world’s attention is firmly fixed on climate change and the pivotal role played by fossil fuels in driving it. This week marks a significant moment as the United Nations gears up for a special summit on climate ambition, coinciding with the annual Climate Week. Thousands are expected to participate in the “March to End Fossil Fuels” Manhattan rally, one of many global protests advocating for urgent climate action.

Jean Su, an organizer of the march and energy justice director for the Center for Biological Diversity, describes this week as an “incredible pressure cooker” involving leaders from diverse fields, all emphasizing the need for immediate action. She notes that the pressure is intensifying from both top-down, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and bottom-up, with over 400 distributed actions worldwide.

UN Summit, Protests, and Calls for Climate Action Put Pressure on Fossil Fuels and World Leaders
UN Summit, Protests, and Calls for Climate Action Put Pressure on Fossil Fuels and World Leaders

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is set to convene the Climate Ambition Summit, a distinctive event where only leaders from nations taking substantial and novel climate actions will have a platform to speak. While the U.N. has not yet disclosed which leaders will address the summit, it is clear that some prominent figures will not be among them. President Joe Biden, who will speak at the U.N. on Tuesday, won’t be part of this lineup, nor will leaders from China, the United Kingdom, Russia, or France, all major players in fossil fuel production.

Guterres has been vocal about his criticism of fossil fuels, labeling them as “incompatible with human survival.” He and U.N. scientific reports emphasize that the only viable solution to combat climate change and meet international climate goals is to “phase out” fossil fuels. However, this terminology, particularly the phrase “phase out,” has been met with resistance in previous climate negotiations, as some leaders prefer milder expressions such as “phase down.” These alternatives leave room for continued fossil fuel use if emissions are captured and stored, a stance that environmental activists find insufficient.

The upcoming international climate negotiations in Dubai will be presided over by an oil executive from the United Arab Emirates, who will also speak at Wednesday’s summit. This dual role has raised concerns among activists and scientists, as it may imply a potential conflict of interest.

Jean Su highlights the significance of this moment, where the U.N. chief is pushing fossil fuels into the spotlight and compelling heads of states to respond definitively to the climate crisis. “Whether it’s yes or no,” she asserts, “he’s at least forcing them to respond as to will you commit to no new fossil fuel development in line with climate science?”

UN Summit, Protests, and Calls for Climate Action Put Pressure on Fossil Fuels and World Leaders
UN Summit, Protests, and Calls for Climate Action Put Pressure on Fossil Fuels and World Leaders

However, while the U.N. Secretary-General wields moral authority and the ability to persuade and criticize constructively, he has limited real power, notes Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics and a climate scientist. Guterres’ influence lies in his capacity to shame leaders who present inadequate climate action proposals.

Mohamed Adow, Director of Power Shift Africa and a longtime climate diplomacy observer, argues that the time for diplomatic subtlety is over. He insists that the U.N. must abandon velvet-glove diplomacy, signaling the urgency of the climate crisis.

At the summit, Guterres will call upon nations to expedite their efforts to transition away from carbon-based energy sources. Wealthier nations will be encouraged to lead the way and provide financial aid to less affluent countries that lack the resources for a swift transition. Selwin Hart, Guterres’ special adviser for climate action, underlines the need for an equitable transition, emphasizing that while fossil fuels are the primary driver of the climate crisis, the shift away from them must be just and fair.

However, the world’s 20 wealthiest economies, which have pledged to reduce carbon emissions, are simultaneously issuing new oil and gas licenses. This approach runs counter to the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement, particularly the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Critics argue that achieving net-zero emissions will necessitate extensive and rapid changes to the energy sector, which could potentially harm the economy.

Environmental activists point out that five wealthy northern nations— the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, and the United Kingdom— account for more than half of the planned expansion of oil and gas drilling until 2050. Of these, the United States alone is responsible for over one-third of the projected expansion.

As protesters gather for the “March to End Fossil Fuels” rally, their frustrations are aimed at President Biden and the United States. While Biden has highlighted efforts to combat climate change, including the Inflation Reduction Act, which allocates $375 billion for climate initiatives, environmentalists argue that the nation’s actions fall short of its promises. They point to new drilling permits and the insufficient delivery of climate-based financial aid to developing countries as areas where the United States needs to do more.

Brandon Wu, policy director at ActionAid USA, emphasizes the importance of meaningful action. “They want to be seen as the good guys,” he says, “but the fact is they have very little to back it up.” Environmental activists are calling for President Biden and other major oil and gas producers to commit to phasing out fossil fuels, emphasizing the urgent need for decisive climate action.

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