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UN chief’s test: shaming without naming the world’s climate offenders


The world’s top diplomat, António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has recently been particularly brutal in his attacks on fossil fuel producers. He accused them of “profiting from destruction.” He urged governments to stop funding coal and curb new oil and gas projects. “History is coming for the planet destroyers,” he said.

But who are these “planet destroyers”? He doesn’t name them.

Not China, the global coal giant. Neither Britain nor the United States, both of which have ambitious climate laws but continue to issue new oil and gas permits. Not in the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate where a state oil company executive is hosting the upcoming United Nations climate talks — a move that activists have decried as undermining the very legitimacy of the talks.

The contradictions show not only the constraints weighing on Mr. Guterres, a 74-year-old Portuguese politician who has made climate change his central subject, but also the gaps in the diplomatic playbook on a problem as urgent as global warming.

“The rules of multilateral diplomacy and multilateral summits are not suited to the rapid and effective response we need,” said Richard Gowan, who decodes United Nations rituals for the International Crisis Group.

The 2015 Paris climate agreement only asks countries to set voluntary targets to combat climate pollution. Agreements from annual climate negotiations are routinely watered down as every country, including the champions of coal, oil and gas, must agree on every word and comma.

The general secretary can cajole but not command, incite but not impose. It does not name specific countries, although nothing in the United Nations Charter prevents it from doing so.

Despite his exhortations, governments have only increased their fossil fuel subsidies, reaching a record $7 trillion in 2022. Few countries have concrete plans to shift their economies away from fossil fuels, and many rely directly or indirectly revenues from coal, oil and gas. The human toll of climate change continues to rise.

“He interpreted his role as a kind of truth teller,” said Rachel Kyte, a former United Nations climate diplomat and professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “The powers he has as secretary general are impressive but limited. »

This week, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting, he is offering a little diplomatic wink. At the climate ambition summit he is organizing on Wednesday, he is giving the floor only to countries that have done what he has asked, and only if they send a high-level leader, to show that they are taking the lead. summit seriously. “A naming and shaming device that doesn’t actually require naming and shaming anyone,” Mr Gowan said.

Diplomatic maneuvering over who will be on the list has been intense. More than 100 countries asked to speak, and Mr. Guterres’ aides in turn asked for more information to prove they deserved to be on the list. What have you done to phase out coal, some asked. How much climate finance have you proposed? Are you still issuing new oil and gas permits? And so on.

“It’s good to see Guterres trying to hold his feet to the fire,” said Mohamed Adow, a Kenyan activist.

Mr. Guterres waited until the last possible minute to make the list of speakers public.

Expect the awkward.

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, is expected to be present but will not speak. (Mr. Guterres gives the microphone only to high-level national leaders.) It is unclear whether the head of the Chinese delegation this year, Vice President Han Zheng, will have a speaking role. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen got the microphone. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will not come to the General Assembly conclave at all. Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Emirati oil company and host of the next climate negotiations, is expected to speak.

Mr. Guterres will also invite companies with what he calls “credible” targets for reducing their climate emissions to participate. Expect to count them with the fingers of one hand.

Mr. Guterres, who led the United Nations refugee agency for 10 years before being tapped for the top job, has not always made climate change his central issue.

In fact, he didn’t talk about it when he was chosen to head the United Nations in 2016. Climate was considered the signature issue of his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, who led the Paris Agreement in 2015. Mr. Guterres instead spoke about the war in Syria, terrorism and gender parity at the United Nations. (Her choice disappointed those who had insisted that a woman lead the world body for the first time in its 70-year history.)

In 2018, a change happened. At that year’s General Assembly, he called climate change “the defining issue of our time.” In 2019, he invited climate activist Greta Thunberg to the General Assembly, whose raw anger at world leaders (“How dare you?” she lambasted world leaders) sparked a social media clash with party-pulling President Donald J. Trump. The United States leaves the Paris Agreement.

Mr. Guterres, for his part, has carefully avoided criticizing the United States by name.

In 2022, as oil companies posted record profits following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he intensified his rhetoric. “We must hold fossil fuel companies and their partners accountable,” he told world leaders at the General Assembly. He called for a windfall profits tax, urged countries to suspend fossil fuel subsidies and appointed a committee to issue guidelines for private companies on what constitutes “greenwashing.”

This year, he intervened in the contentious debate between those who want greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas projects to be captured and stored, or “reduced,” and those who want to keep oil and gas completely buried in the ground. “The problem is not just fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels, period,” Mr. Guterres said in June.

Reactions from the private sector are mixed, said Paul Simpson, founder and former director of CDP, a nongovernmental group that works with businesses to combat climate pollution. Some leaders say privately that Mr. Guterres is right to call for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, while others note that most national governments still lack concrete energy transition plans, no matter what he says.

“The real question is: how effective is the United Nations? » said Mr. Simpson. “It has the ability to get governments to focus and plan. But the UN itself has no power, so national governments and businesses must act.”