The UN Secretary-General’s burning question summons our better angels to New York
Antonio Guterres is speaking out again – and I love it.
It’s fair to say that the UN hasn’t had the best of starts to the 21st century. From Iraq to Covid, Xinjiang to Ukraine, it has been treated with disregard at best (and contempt at worst) by world powers, and struggled to make its voice heard.
The current Secretary-General is on a mission to change all that, and climate is where he’s taking his stand. This year, Guterres has turned every stage he can find into a bully pulpit for the cause – and boy has he had some good lines.
“The polluted heart of the climate crisis [is] the fossil fuel industry.”
“What we need is the political will to forge a peace pact with nature.”
“The era of global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived.”
But is the world ready to listen?
This cruel summer
At long last the answer might be yes. Of course, it helps when your warm-up act (excuse the pun) is the hottest summer in history. Heatwaves have scorched Europe, the US and Asia with record temperatures, touching 50°C in places. Apocalyptic wildfires carved across continents in their wake. If not fire, then flood; Storms of unprecedented magnitude swept the globe, from Cyclones Freddy in Africa and Mocha in Myanmar to Typhoons Mawar and Doksuri in the Pacific. Even as the rest of Europe burned, Slovenia’s PM declared flooding there the ‘worst natural disaster ever’ to hit the country. Wherever you are, the climate crisis has arrived. It’s here.
In the wake of such devastation, what is to be done? For Guterres, handwringing headlines are not enough:
‘‘The evidence is everywhere: humanity has unleashed destruction. This must not inspire despair, but action. We can still stop the worst. But to do so we must turn a year of burning heat into a year of burning ambition."
Amongst all his other great lines, this is my favorite climate quotation of the year – and a huge rallying cry.
The power of ambition
For all that we love a great turn of phrase, the time has come to turn words into action.
So far, we’ve tried all sorts of motivational levers for human behavior change. Fear. Greed. Guilt and shame. They can work (for a while), but they all fundamentally shrink the human heart. They play on the darker angels of our nature.
Furthermore, they also reinforce the message that to reach net zero, we have to minimise the challenge. Avoid pain. Make it easy. Don’t scare the horses.
But as the Secretary-General points out, none of that has got us to where we need to be. So rather than ask ourselves, ‘how can we get to net zero with the least amount of change,’ what we really need to ask is:
Do we want this enough?
There is no longer much of a technical puzzle to solve. We understand the science; we have the technologies; the policy papers have been written. We have had acronyms coming out of our ears since Paris. Everything is in place.
So why has the arc of climate history – our emissions curve – still not bent towards justice? What are we waiting for?
I put it to you that we have not yet decided, collectively, that we want this enough.
A truly regenerative future is a vision of beauty. I wonder if we are too afraid to hope that it might come true. But we must want it more. We need to dream bigger, raise our expectations, and demand it arrives. Then we can put all our energy into making it happen.
That is where ambition comes in. When you truly want something – and your vision is ambitious enough – it fills you with energy. It sets a fire in your soul. It creates the drive to bring something into being, and it makes us feel alive in the process.
So we don’t need to ask how to minimise the challenge of net-zero. We should instead embrace the enormity of it. Ambition, after all, is thrilling.
The Climate Ambition Summit – heeding the call
It’s my hope that a politician will emerge who heeds this call. As Guterres has said, ‘leaders must lead…No more waiting for others to move first.’
In September 2023, the Secretary-General convened the Climate Ambition Summit in New York, where he urged countries to raise their game across mitigation, adaptation, and financial justice. The flagship demand of this Acceleration Agenda is to bring forward net-zero dates (and concomitant NDCs) by a decade. It is supported by demands for actual emissions cuts (without relying on offsets), actual phasing out of fossil fuels in the highest-emitting sectors, and actual money for the Green Climate Fund.
This is what ambition actually looks like. And when you want something enough – when you really want it – you can move mountains to make it happen.
That is the only question left to ask. We should ask it of our leaders, and ask it of our own hearts:
Do we really want this enough?
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