Special Report

Those Least Responsible

A Report from the UN Climate Summit

By Nathan Albright

Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados addresses the General Assembly at the Climate Action Summit
Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados addresses the General Assembly at the Climate Action Summit

On September 20th in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, a crowd of tens of thousands gathered under an oppressive late-summer sun to listen to Greta Thunberg, each following her lead by foregoing their regular Friday routines to strike for the climate. The unassuming 16 year old, who began the movement on the steps of the Swedish Parliament before crossing the Atlantic by sailboat to reach New York, seemed unfazed by the size of the crowd before her, later estimated at 250,000 and with over 4 million others marching in more than 170 countries. This mass mobilization, larger than any previously organized in the environmental movement, was timed to send a clear message to world leaders that “the eyes of the world [would] be on them” as they made their way to what the march organizers were calling “the UN’s Climate Emergency Summit.”

In actuality, the summit had been planned years in advance and had only recently adopted “Climate Action” as a central focus. Initially, the gathering was intended to be a progress review of the UN’s “development goals” for eliminating extreme poverty. A few years ago, I wrote about these goals, originally called the “Millennium Development Goals,” and how their singular focus on economic metrics allowed the UN to report that millions had been lifted from extreme poverty while distorting the fact that many of those involved had actually seen their quality of life greatly diminished as common lands were enclosed, communities displaced, and pollution accelerated all in the interest of industrial development projects. In 2015, the UN sought to reconcile some of this tension between development and ecological stability by introducing the “Sustainable Development Goals.” Five years on, the need to re-frame the progress review for these goals as a “Climate Action Summit” prompted by fears of global ecological collapse makes it clear that there has been no reconciliation.

I attended the summit’s week of events, starting with Saturday’s Youth Climate Summit which took place the morning after the demonstration in Battery Park, only a few miles north at the UN headquarters. As the day began, Secretary General Antonio Guterres sat with a panel of youth climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, who passed her allotted time to others, saving her comments for the main summit on Monday. The other speakers, youth activists from Argentina, Kenya, and Fiji, expressed a sense of urgency for the climate crisis and excitement for what the day had in store. “Our leaders have an obligation to make radical change,” said Bruno Rodriguez from Argentina, “100 corporations are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.” The Secretary General, who was referred to as the day’s “Keynote Listener,” described the rapidly developing climate crisis. “The worst forecasts are being proven wrong,” he said, “not because they were were too extreme, but because they weren’t extreme enough.” But, he insisted, “there’s a win-win situation” still within our reach: sustainable development.

The room applauded, the speakers took their leave, and then began the “Summer of Solutions: Young Entrepreneurs Pitch Competition.” Young people from around the world pitched their business ideas for solving the climate crisis to a panel of judges made up of executives from multinational corporations like Google, Microsoft and Nike. Proposals included a 3D printer that uses recycled plastics, an app for African farmers to get weather updates, and a plan to reduce energy intensive digital memory by storing all of the world’s data in a giant vat of liquid DNA.

A few minutes later, in a fifteen minute segment called “Youth Take The Mic,” young members of the audience responded to the prompt: how are you personally committing to reduce your emissions?Moderators passed the mic into the crowd, prodding the assembled young people to “applaud more!” and to give responses “quick, like tweets!” After a few responses, a young woman stood and addressed a question of her own to the Microsoft executive: “This is a question for Lucas [Joppa]. If Microsoft is so committed to sustainability, why did Microsoft partner with Chevron and Schlumberger this week to accelerate extraction? Why are you part of the Climate Leadership Council, a group which aims to kill historic climate change lawsuits? Do you care more about getting contracts from fossil fuel companies than you care about youth? Do you care more about profit than you care about us?” The crowd gave the loudest cheer of the morning while the moderator took the microphone back and asked that everyone be respectful of the guest judges. Joppa assured the crowd that Microsoft is “struggling with those questions.”

The rest of the day’s programming offered this same uneasy mix of apocalyptic realities and fantastical techno-optimism. The hip MCs – their youth signified by backwards hats and paint-splattered sports-wear – carried an oversized earth beach-ball. “Sometimes it feels like the leaders we have today are literally throwing our world away,” said one MC as he tossed the globe into the crowd of youth delegates, “and the reality is many of them are too old to experience the kind of suffering that we will!” He ran through the aisles like a mascot at a pep-rally, recounting his work as a foreign correspondent: “When I was in Syria during the civil war, I talked to farmers who said the protests began when the crops were running out of water; when I was in Nigeria I met sex workers that left rural areas for the cities when the water ran out – it’s all connected, guys!”

Despite a seemingly endless torrent of new apps, social media campaigns, and infographics, these kinds of disturbing truths kept floating back to the surface. During a forum of elite athletes invited to give their take on the climate crisis (“the world needs people to rally behind the climate movement the way they rally behind their sports”), Olympic athlete Pita Taufatoufa spoke about a tropical cyclone which hit Tonga. “If 50% of New York was wiped out in one night, what would happen?” he asked, fighting back tears, “People would act. 50% of my country was wiped out in one night. People haven’t acted yet.” The room got deathly quiet and the moderators struggled to keep their cheerful tone. At lunch, representatives from Facebook, Youtube, and Nike, ran workshops on using social media, making viral videos, and learning finance. In the afternoon, a young woman promoted an app she invented which puts women in newly flooded regions in contact with swim instructors.

At the closing ceremonies, a youth envoy to the UN had a few minutes to read her notes, collating the comments from young audience members throughout the day. She quoted statistics on corporations responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, and talked about climate justice between nations: “the 20 most powerful countries in the world are responsible for 80% of carbon emissions, so we need to hold those countries accountable.” She quoted youth delegates who talked about the intersectional nature of climate change, the danger of siloing issues, and the need to be specific about how struggles for human rights are central to climate justice. “We need systemic change,” she concluded, “especially in our economic system.” These messages, which stood in stark contrast to the UN’s programming, were the ones youth delegates had hoped to deliver to world leaders. But by this point the few heads of state who had attended were long gone.

By Monday morning, when leaders from around the world had finally gathered en masse for the official Climate Action Summit, Friday’s demonstrations and Saturday’s youth summit had been neatly edited into an easily digestible video. I watched from my seat in the press balcony, right above the Bahamas and Bangladesh and just to the right of a giant whirring projector. Scenes of natural beauty washed over the enormous walls of the General Assembly hall, along with some of the same faces from Saturday’s summit repeating selected excerpts of their presentations. The young woman who suggested we store our data in a vat of liquid DNA, for instance, simply said, “the solution I’m presenting today works with biology,” before fading into B-roll of demonstrating youth set to soaring guitar riffs.

After brief opening remarks from the Secretary General and a few representatives from the youth summit, the attention turned again to Greta Thunberg. Her statement, by far the most widely circulated of any that week, was an absolute denunciation of the spirit of the summit. “This is all wrong” she began, “I should be on the other side of the ocean.” Her words were uniquely weighted by the weeks she had spent crossing the measure of the Atlantic and the weeks it would take her to return home. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth,” she said, clearly referencing the weekend’s programming and preemptively shaming everything to come. “How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just business as usual and some technical solutions?” She cited facts and figures, laying out just how dire our situation has become and how negligent world leaders have been over the more than 30 years since scientists first sounded the alarm. “With today’s emissions levels, the remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than eight and a half years,” she said, quoting recent IPCC reports, “but there will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable.” “The young people are starting to understand your betrayal,” she warned the General Assembly, shaking as she spoke, “and if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you.”

She was cheered, applauded, and thanked, and then the rest of the week continued as if she hadn’t said a word. Much like the youth summit, the Climate Action Summit was a buffet of unfounded optimism and firsthand accounts of catastrophe. Heads of state and billionaire investors tossed around terms like “resiliency,” “circular economy” and “nature based solutions.” Someone referred to the climate crisis as “a massive business opportunity.” Meanwhile, as more and more stories emerged of devastating natural disasters from around the globe, it became clear that the world at just 1° of warming has already taken on terrifying dimensions. As leaders from Indonesia, Pakistan, Greece, Fiji, and the Congo spoke about unprecedented natural disasters in their countries, I realized I hadn’t even heard of most of this year’s record-breaking events.

Many of the world’s largest polluters pledged to give more money to the UN’s Green Climate Fund for recovery efforts in countries most vulnerable to these kinds of disasters. It was clear that what qualified a country as “vulnerable” to climate change was less about geographic location and more about economic exclusion and colonial extraction, both of which showed no signs of changing. Heads of several of these vulnerable states expressed frustration at not being able to access money from the fund and complained that when recovery assistance is offered it is usually in the form of loans which drive their economies deeper into debt and dependence.

By the end of the summit, seventy-seven countries – most notably Germany, France, and England – had pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, an admittedly gargantuan political feat. But the majority of these pledges, which are to be carried out voluntarily, were made by nations with relatively small economies which all together are estimated to be responsible for only 11% of the world’s carbon emissions. And as Greta Thunberg had pointed out that morning, were the entire world to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, we would still only have a 50% chance of staying below a 1.5° temperature increase “and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control,” a probability that doesn’t factor in “tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution, or the aspects of equity and climate justice,” and which relies on atmospheric carbon removal technologies that don’t yet exist.

Some of the only statements in line with these realities were made by representatives of the “SIDS” — small island developing states — which make up 20% of UN membership and whose very existence is threatened at a 1.5° increase. “We refuse to be relegated to the footnotes of history, and to be collateral damage for the greed of others,” said Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados. “Make no mistake. There will be mass migration by climate refugees that will destabilize the countries of the world that are not on the front line of the climate crisis.” As dozens of world leaders suggested slowly drawing down carbon emissions on timescales that would almost certainly leave these islands underwater, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering, speaking on a panel of “Least Developed Countries, noted that his nation was already carbon negative. “We never minded if we were in the category of ‘least developed country’ or not,” he said, explaining that his country chooses to measure progress in happiness – an economic model that has left 72% of the region’s original forest cover intact. The fact that those least responsible for the climate crisis are now the most vulnerable to its effects was repeatedly presented as a tragic coincidence, rather than an obvious indictment of the accumulation of wealth. Meanwhile, only a few ventured to suggest that those least responsible for the crisis (i.e. those who have benefited the least from industrial capitalism) may also have something to say about how it might be solved.

This, however, seemed self-evident to Tuntiak Katan, the sole representative invited to speak to the general assembly on behalf of the world’s more than 400 million Indigenous peoples. Katan, from the Shuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, reminded the assembly that “80% of the world’s biodiversity” is protected by Indigenous peoples, and extended an offer “to work with all to fight climate change.” His full statement was the product of a lengthy, collaborative project bringing together a global alliance of Indigenous peoples over the course of several smaller summits, the last of which was the Platform for the Indigenous Peoples which had taken place Saturday morning. Despite repeated calls throughout the week to listen to indigenous voices and the token inclusion of indigenous prayers at the start of several major meetings, the actual forum in which Indigenous peoples were invited to speak had been held two days before the main summit, in one of the UN’s smaller gathering rooms, at the same time as the widely publicized Youth Summit.

The forum had included a truly global representation of Indigenous communities, from Indonesia, Kenya, Sweden, Brazil, New Zealand, and Russia, among others. One participant noted that “the diversity of Indigenous nations is equal to or greater than the diversity of the United Nations.” Despite this diversity of its participants, the discussion was genial and marked by some of the only direct communication and compromise I saw all week. This was not a room full of politicians but a gathering of people emotionally and morally invested in the future of our planet.

Janene Yazzie, a Diné representative from the US, addressed the conspicuous absence of member states in the room. “How serious must they be about these commitments” she asked, “if they’re not taking time to interface and interact with indigenous peoples” — many of whom made great sacrifices to be at the forum, while others were fighting just to be recognized as Indigenous. She cautioned that as indigenous knowledge is increasingly recognized as valuable, it is also being “mined in an extractive sense” rather than engaged with respectfully. A young man who identified himself as Joseph, representing an indigenous group from Kenya, agreed. “The crisis we are facing is not of our own making, and having this conversation without many governments, without the business industry or international corporations who are the main causes of the crisis we are facing, is unfortunate.”

Graham Reid, one of the moderators and an Anishinaabe tribal member from the Great Lakes region in Canada, said that indigenous peoples had long ago identified the “ongoing degradation” of indigenous lands as a compounding cause of climate change which not only reduces “our ability to adapt but also create[s] this false dependency on fossil fuel extraction.” Bernadette Demientieff, the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, spoke about the recent decision by the Trump Administration to open her home, the coastal plains of arctic refuge in northeast Alaska to oil and gas development. As the REBOOT THE EARTH: TECH SOLUTIONS FOR CLIMATE ACTION session of the Youth Summit drew crowds down the hall, Demientieff gave her statement to a nearly empty room:

“We are caribou people, the coastal plain is the porcupine caribou calving and nursing grounds, we call it the sacred place where life begins, and in 2017 this administration opened it up to oil and gas development. This area is so sacred to us that we don’t step foot there. Our elders directed us to ‘go out and tell the world that we are here,’ ‘don’t compromise our position,’ and ‘do it in a good way.’ Now ‘do it in a good way’ is a very simple sentence but it’s not always easy to do when we’re up against so much dishonesty. We have people coming into our homelands, making decisions about our future, and they are not involving us. I am here to state that the Gwich’in nation stands united in denouncing the United States government.

Our way of life, our food security is not the only thing that’s being attacked — this is about our identity as Gwich’in. All our songs, all our stories and all our dances, are directed to the porcupine caribou herd. The migratory route and the Gwich’in communities are identical. We migrated alongside them for over 40,000 years. A piece of my heart lies within the caribou and a piece of the caribou’s heart lies within mine. So I’m not only here to use my voice for my people, I’m here to use it for the caribou and for all the many animals that go to the coastal planes. We have birds from six different continents and from all the states that migrate to the coastal plane. The porcupine caribou heard is the last land mammal on the planet that travels that distance. There is a spiritual element here. This place is very special.

In Alaska I’ve witnessed birds falling out of the sky. I’ve witnessed thousands of fish, dead, floating in our lakes and our rivers. We have 33 coastal communities dealing with erosion, falling into the ocean. So our land is changing. I know we adapt but we cannot adapt to this. It’s coming too fast and we need to do something. We are one of the last tribes in Alaska that live off the land. some of us don’t have electricity still and that’s the way we want to live. It’s a harder life, yes, but that’s what we want. In closing, I just want to share that we are real people. we are mothers we are fathers, we have jobs, we have homes, and we matter.”

Indigenous representatives spent the remainder of the forum discussing the statement that Katan would read. Individuals went back and forth winnowing down their message to ensure it would fit into the allotted three minutes, a constraint that would later be disregarded by most other speakers.

The agreed upon statement ultimately called for a recognition that land is the basis of all human rights. It echoed the latest report from the IPCC which calls for member states to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Katan proclaimed that Indigenous people have a right to the protection of bio-cultural diversity, prior and informed consent, access to the development of renewable energy in keeping with self and free determination, and protections of traditional livelihoods. Katan concluded the statement with a plea for cooperation. “The actions, territories, rivers, and oceans of indigenous peoples will all benefit each of your nations,” he said, “There’s no time left! We must make a pact for life and for our future.”

The audience applauded and then the panelist to Katan’s left, Bill Gates, talked about a new venture he was launching to make sure that the “world’s most vulnerable people” are “allowed to adapt as much as possible to the climate changes they face,” boasting of his program’s “great return on investment.” “Ironically,” he said, “these were the people who did the least to cause climate change.”

Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.