From Greta Thunberg to Donald Trump: a report from the Climate Action Summit

They’re just words, but never before has a UN climate event generated such a buzz. What was discussed at the Climate Action Summit, and the countries that actually decided to take action.

The Climate Action Summit, held on Monday 23 September at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, was a platform for good intentions. This had been the organisers’ goal from the beginning: the Summit, convened by UN Secretary General António Guterres, stemmed from the desire to shine a spotlight on the urgent need to accelerate decision-making processes on the issue of climate change. The aim was to increase international ambitions and thus respond to the voices of young people all over the world who, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg – who gave a fiery and scathing speech at the summit – have been inciting world leaders to take immediate action in the face of the climate crisis. No concrete decisions were expected and there were no negotiations, but the objective was to lay the groundwork for the next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, whose 25th edition, which many hope will be decisive, will take place in Chile in December.

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Climate Action Summit, New York
At the Climate Action Summit, held on 23 September in New York, the world’s nations were asked to make concrete commitments in the fight against global warming © Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

António Guterres’ opening speech

“This isn’t a climate talk summit. We’ve had enough talk. This isn’t a climate negotiation summit because we don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit,” Guterres explained in his opening speech. “From the beginning, I said the ticket to entry isn’t a beautiful speech, but concrete action. And you’re here with commitments. Governments are here to show you’re serious about enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement. Cities and businesses are here showing what leadership looks like, investing in a green future. Financial actors are here to scale-up action and deploy resources in fundamentally new and meaningful ways. And coalitions are here with partnerships and initiatives to move us closer to a resilient, carbon-neutral world by 2050”.

According to UN estimates, the world needs to increase its efforts by a factor of three to five if the rise in global temperatures is to stay below 1.5 degrees Centigrade, which scientists agree is the upper limit. The nations gathered at the UN on Monday promised to increase their commitments, presenting ambitious plans for reducing emissions and setting concrete objectives. For example, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the launch of a Climate Ambition Alliance which unites 65 countries, 10 regions, 93 companies and 12 investors committed to undertaking concrete actions by 2020 with the aim of zeroing emissions by 2050.

Italy’s efforts for the climate

Italy, having played a pivotal role in the Energy Transition coalition – one of the nine coalitions created to tackle the most pressing issues for a conversion to a green future – was very active at the summit and during its preparatory phases. Its delegation included Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Foreign Affairs Minister Luigi di Maio and Environment Minister Sergio Costa.

Prime Minister Conte spoke at the summit in the evening, in the lead-up to the Secretary General’s closing speech: he reaffirmed Italy’s commitment to supporting the Paris Agreement, reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and eliminating coal by 2025, and to expanding the development of renewable energy technologies, even next-generation ones.

“Our government is pursuing one of the most ambitious decarbonisation programmes in the world – Conte stated, going on to mention the merits of the private sector –. Our government has launched a Green New Deal”. The Prime Minister then formalised the partnership with the United Kingdom on COP26, which will be held in the latter country in 2020, with a series of preparatory events in Italy.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke after Conte, stating that he’s pleased to be collaborating with Italy for the next Conference of the Parties and going on to announce that the UK will double its spending on International Development Funding and increase its budget for tackling climate change to 11.6 billion pounds (14.4 billion US dollars).

Donald Trump’s appearance

Overall, most nations made declarations of commitment at the summit, with the notable exception of the United States. President Donald Trump, who until Sunday wasn’t scheduled to appear at the UN before the opening of the General Assembly on Tuesday, made a brief appearance at the summit during Indian President Narendra Modi’s speech. Later, Trump led a session on freedom of religion, for the protection of which the administration intends to add 25 million dollars to the existing budget. This happened in the notable absence of an announcement on climate change from a president who continues to deny the anthropogenic causes of global warming, and who decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Climate action summit New York
President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence made a brief appearance at the summit accompanied by US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Greta Thunberg’s speech

Upon Trump’s arrival at the summit, cameras captured the withering stare with which Greta Thunberg followed the president’s entrance after she gave a heartfelt speech in front of the Assembly.

The video immediately went viral, coronating the scornful words the Swedish environmentalist had directed at world leaders just moments before. Her rage was clear in every sentence, each word was chosen to hit hard. The message was strong, loud and clear: you have no right to pass the responsibility of hope onto young people, given that you’re unable to look beyond money in determining our future.

Greta Thunberg Climate Action Summit
Greta Thunberg speaking at the Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September © Johannes Eisele/Afp/Getty Images

“My message is that we’ll be watching you,” the activist said at the beginning of her speech, eliciting some endeared laughter. But she went on, stunning the room with a voice filled with fury: “You’ve stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We’re at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”.

Read more: Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit

Greta Thunberg then explained that the goal of halving emissions within ten years only gives humanity a 50 per cent chance of staying below the 1.5 degree limit. “50 per cent may be acceptable to you [but it] is simply not acceptable to us, we who have to live with the consequences”. And, leaving no room for doubt for those who still don’t take her seriously, at the end of her speech she said: “You’re failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We’ll never forgive you”.

Condemnation from the youth whose rights are being violated

The toughness of this speech was quickly turned into action as Greta Thunberg joined a group of 15 young people in announcing that they had filed an official complaint with the UN, arguing that the rights of young people, established by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, are being violated – constantly and repeatedly. According to the group, countries haven’t allocated adequate resources to preventing the disastrous consequences of climate change. During the press conference at which the initiative was announced, US activist Alexandria Villaseñor, who is 14 years old, explained: “Thirty years ago the world made us a promise, every country recognised that children have rights that must be protected, and these countries … ensured that we could appeal to the UN when those rights are being violated. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here today”.

The Youth Summit in Italy

Young people are conquering new territory in the climate debate, starting from the streets and reaching the international political stage. To recognise this crucial contribution, the United Nations held a Youth Summit on Saturday 21 September to give them a platform for their proposals in preparation for the New York summit two days later. During the proceedings, Costa (the Italian Environment Minister), announced that Italy, having played a pivotal role in the organisation of the summit, will also host a global youth event for climate in the buildup to COP26, which is being organised jointly with the UK. “We want to give young people the chance to bring forward concrete proposals on some of the most important themes of the climate agenda, including increasing global targets, supporting environmental education and implementing intergenerational equality. The Youth Summit in Italy will be a legitimate and structured chance to participate in this process,” the minister said, inviting young people to take part.

Climate Action Week

Meanwhile, multiple occasions for participation are taking place across the world this week. Climate Action Week began in Europe on Friday 20 September, and Climate Week NYC – the largest – was inaugurated while the UN Summit was being held in Manhattan on Monday, after a quarter of a million people took to the streets in the city’s climate march on Friday. During the opening ceremony, former US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US has to recover its environmental leadership and make the climate a key issue for voters. Kerry then announced a new initiative, born with the ambition to create a transnational green “wave” capable of uniting the public and private sectors. Its name, World War Zero, was chosen because the entire world needs to be involved, and because this really is war: “The deniers and the distorters and the delayers have literally declared war on people,” Kerry stated.

Read more: The Global Climate Strike in New York, photos and stories from the first day of the Climate Week

Monday’s ceremony marked the beginning of a week of environmental initiatives and activities to raise awareness, debate and make proposals. For the occasion, and to celebrate the first Climate Action Summit in history, some buildings across New York’s skyline were lit with green lights to end a day in which 77 countries, 10 regions and 100 cities committed to cutting their emissions to zero by 2050, as Guterres noted in his closing speech. “But we have a long way to go,” the Secretary General said after listing the commitments made during the summit, including by the United Nations itself, who will play its part by switching to renewables, eliminating single-use plastics and divesting from fossil fuels. “We can win this race. You can count on me to be on the front line,” Guterres concluded.

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