Editorial: At the U.N. climate summit, children lead while the world’s politicians act like children

On the heels of global protests last week, political leaders failed to deliver significant pledges on combating global warming during Monday's U.N. Climate Action Summit.
(Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Leaders of at least 65 countries attending the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City this week committed to increasing their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the promises are far too modest to achieve what they need to, and the world’s largest emitters — including the United States — offered little to nothing. Even as the advocacy of children such as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and those involved in last week’s global protests inspire people about the future, the anemic actions by the adults in the room Monday offered a cold bucket of reality. The world’s leaders are not doing enough to save us from ourselves.

How serious is this? Deadly serious. The world already endures life-threatening effects of global warming through larger and more powerful storms, droughts and flooding. Species are under threat — including humans, who are being displaced by severe weather and killing droughts. Glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting faster than anticipated, and thawing tundra in the Arctic may be fueling a feedback loop that could release unfathomable amounts of heat-trapping methane currently locked under ice into the atmosphere.

The Trump administration can’t be bothered, of course, because the president sees global climate devastation as an acceptable byproduct of his embrace of the oil and gas industry, and his ill-conceived and ill-advised drive to make the U.S. the world’s dominant supplier of fossil fuels. Doing so is like turning to arsenic as an antidote to hemlock.


A smart and resourceful businessman-turned-president would see that investing in the past misses the growth of the future. The U.S. could position itself to be the world’s leader in the fast-growing renewable energy sector. Instead, the president is building a buggy whip factory and taunting a 16-year-old — Greta — on Twitter. Noting her impassioned plea for global action (“people are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing”), Trump replied with the mocking tweet, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” Once again, our president is not a global political leader, but a schoolyard bully.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have time for climate denial by Trump and dithering by other world leaders. As we pointed out in our recent three-part series on climate change, the world is drifting steadily toward a climate catastrophe. It’s no longer an abstract threat; it is here, and it’s growing.

Last week, the Climate Action Tracker released an assessment of the current emission-reduction promises, predicting that these efforts could hold the rise in global temperatures to 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. That’s far above the 2 degrees Celsius limit that climate experts say we need to stay under to avoid the worst effects of global warming, and further away still than the preferred 1.5 degrees Celsius target (we’re at about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels). If current practices go unchecked, the consortium of scientists warned, we’ll pass 1.5 degrees around 2035 and hit 2 degrees around 2053, with 3.2 degrees likely by 2100.

On Monday, at least 16 small nations pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050, and others upped their donation to the green Climate Fund to help smaller countries with the transition, but those efforts won’t budge the needle. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid lip service to the problem — “We must accept that if we have to overcome a serious challenge like climate change, then what we are doing at the moment is just not enough” — but made no commitment to end coal use in his country even as he pledged continued increases in renewable energy production capacity.

How do we counter that? How do we humans avoid fouling our nest so badly we can no longer live in it? Through tough, transformative and concerted action. It will be expensive, yes, but there is no other option. Wildfires are expensive. Coastal flooding from rising seas is expensive. We’re already getting the bills. Experts say that 2017 was the nation’s most expensive year for damage from natural disasters with $306 billion in losses, and the tally from 2018 has yet to be calculated. We must do better.

Industries, responding to the clear market signals, are making changes to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and many consumers try to take steps to lessen their personal climate footprints. But that’s not enough when nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from burning fossil fuels to create heat, generate electricity and power factories, with 23% more coming from transportation. This will require significant and aggressive high-level government policies and actions. Instead, as we saw at the United Nations on Monday, we get baby steps.

As one of the protest memes puts it, “You know it’s time for change when children act like leaders and leaders act like children.” We all have to demand more of our governments, from Washington to Beijing to Brussels to New Delhi, and hold recalcitrant leaders accountable. Our very existence could hang in the balance.