Climate change is “most systemic threat to humankind,” says UN Chief

By , March 29, 2018

António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said, “I am beginning to wonder how many more alarm bells must go off.”CreditGiuseppe Lami/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock.

UNITED NATIONS — Nuclear weapons? Famine? Civil war? Nope.

The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, on Thursday called climate change “the most systemic threat to humankind” and urged world leaders to curb their countries’ greenhouse gas emissions.

He didn’t say much, though, about the one world leader who had pulled out of the landmark United Nations climate change agreement: President Trump.

Instead, Mr. Guterres suggested that Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord nearly a year ago didn’t matter much. The American people, he said, were doing plenty.

“Independently of the position of the administration, the U.S. might be able to meet the commitments made in Paris as a country,” the secretary general said. “And, as you know, all around the world, the role of governments is less and less relevant.”

That may be overly optimistic. Sixteen American states and Puerto Rico have pledged to stick to the commitment that the United States made in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025. Those states are on track to keep their promise.

But they represent less than a half of the country’s population, and the United States as a country will most likely fall short of its Paris pledge as Mr. Trump dismantles environmental regulations, according to a 2017 study by the Rhodium Group, a private economic research company. And a group led by Michael R. Bloomberg, the United Nations special envoy on climate change, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California, came to the same conclusion in a report that relied on the same data.

The Paris accord is written in such a way that the United States, in fact, remains in the pact even though it announced its intent to pull out. The actual withdrawal does not happen until 2020.

Mr. Guterres is planning a summit meeting next year to goad world leaders to raise their emissions reductions targets. But few countries are even close to meeting the targets they set under the Paris agreement, which was drafted in November and December in 2015, according to independent analyses.

His warnings came a week after the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency, reported that a barrage of extreme weather events had made 2017 the costliest year on record for such disasters, with an estimated $320 billion in losses.

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters on Thursday, Mr. Guterres said floods in South Asia had affected 41 million people and that drought had driven 900,000 people from their homes in Africa.

“I am beginning to wonder how many more alarm bells must go off before the world rises to the challenge,” he said. “We know it can be hard to address problems perceived to be years or decades away. But climate impacts are already upon us.”

Asked about the looming danger of floods and landslides facing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Mr. Guterres said he had urged Bangladesh’s government to relocate them to higher ground. Bangladesh’s government has said it is preparing to relocate the most vulnerable refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal, itself vulnerable to the rising sea.

Mr. Guterres would not comment on those specific efforts except to say that “we believe higher ground is the best place.”

Somini Sengupta covers international climate issues. She has reported from Congo, Liberia and other war-torn areas of West Africa, was the bureau chief in Dakar and New Delhi, and served as The Times’s United Nations correspondent. @SominiSenguptaFacebook