The Irish Times view on the UN climate action summit: effort and urgency still falling short

Climate activist Greta Thunberg encapsulated growing anger at politicians with her blistering criticisms in New York this week

Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg was a towering presence in New York this week. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg was a towering presence in New York this week. Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

 

New York hosted three immensely significant events on climate disruption in recent days. The biggest climate rally in the history of the planet, in solidarity with millions of other people throughout the world, suggested a great global awakening. It was followed by a United Nations gathering which sought to bring young people into the heart of the political process. Then, some 100 global leaders convened at the UN to outline new, concrete climate actions.

Swedish teenager and climate activist Greta Thunberg was a towering presence at all three events. She encapsulated growing anger at politicians with her blistering criticisms, most strikingly the assertion “all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth”.

Heads of state must have arrived at their summit on Monday feeling uneasy at the level of expectation in light of Friday’s marches. The more astute within their ranks will admit climate change is causing an ecological, economic and social disaster. President Trump is not among them yet he could not help but stick his nose in, arriving at the UN on the same day, ostensibly to address a gathering on religious freedom before venturing down to where selected leaders were setting out their stalls. He went on to post a grossly cynical tweet about Thunberg’s disposition.

The summit, however, was meaningful. Signatories to the Paris Agreement flagged their readiness to close an ominous implementation gap next year, while 77 states – including Ireland – committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dozens of small nations ramped up commitments, but the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters offered nothing but silence. Yet there was evidence of greater momentum.

Ireland heralded the end of fossil fuel exploration in Irish waters in what was largely a symbolic gesture. If implemented, however, the climate action plan detailed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has the potential to enable us to shed our laggard status. There is clarity now on how carbon taxes will be used, including supports for those who will be worst affected. All told, there is more consistency in policy but, unfortunately, current emissions don’t lie.

This week’s World Meteorological Organisation report, confirming that the causes and effects of climate change are increasing, is deeply concerning. Moreover, a report from some of the UN’s most eminent climate specialists finds oceans and mountain regions that supply water face ecological turbulence that will wreak havoc.

Two crunch questions remain: is the collective effort set out at the UN enough and is it infused with sufficient urgency? The latest evidence is negative. Many governments have declared an emergency but continue to display shocking complacency. To paraphrase Thunberg’s blunt words, “how dare they!”

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