After Global Cries For Climate Action, Silence From Big Polluters

4:45 minutes

young girl with long braid wearing a reddish-pink shirt sits in front of a microphone giving a speech, with UN Climate branding in the background
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the opening of the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

World leaders convened in New York City this week for the United Nations Climate Action Summit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse-gas-emitting elephants in the room: India, China, and the United States.

Umair Irfan, who writes about energy, tech and climate for Vox.com, called the meeting a “disappointment,” though he wrote that there were a few unexpected positive surprises. In this segment, he catches Ira up on how countries around the world are tacklingor ignoringthe climate crisis.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Next up, after last Friday’s climate strike around the world, international leaders convened here in New York for the United Nations Climate Action Summit this week. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse gas emitting elephants in the room– India, China, and of course the US. Here to catch us up on the global players and their promises is Umair Irfan, a staff writer at Vox who covers energy tech and climate research. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: All right, so what was going on there? What’s your overall impression of the Climate Action Summit plan?

UMAIR IRFAN: There was some action. But it came from a lot of the smaller players. The small island states that are extremely vulnerable to climate change, particularly sea level rise, they put forward some pretty aggressive commitments. Some of the countries that were already ahead of the curve pushed a little bit harder. But as you noted, the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world really didn’t commit to doing anything more than they’re already doing. And that’s really where we needed action.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And did the US have anything meaningful to say?

UMAIR IRFAN: Not at all, even though President Trump briefly attended the summit and he was there for Greta Thunberg’s speech at the beginning.

IRA FLATOW: He was there for 10 minutes.

UMAIR IRFAN: He was there for 10 minutes and then immediately bolted. But and Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres specifically said, I’m only going to let the countries come speak on the stage if they have something big to announce. And the United States was not on that list.

Indian and Chinese leaders did announce some big developments that they’re going to be deploying a lot more renewable energy. China announced that they have a lot of reforestation plans for the country. But not much in the way of actually cutting greenhouse gases, which is the big figure to pay attention to when we’re talking about climate change.

IRA FLATOW: All right, so give me some give me some bright spots. Anything bright at the meeting?

UMAIR IRFAN: Sure. I mean, there was there was a lot of stuff going on outside of governments. A lot of private institutions stepped up. There was a consortium of about 130 financial institutions that said that they’re going to divest their holdings from fossil fuels. This is roughly $2.4 trillion under management. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates announced a new initiative of $790 million to help small-scale farmers that would be affected by climate change develop techniques to help cope with that and also reduce their impact on the environment.

And then, yeah, there were countries that did step up. Before the summit, there were about 23 countries that had previously committed to ramping up their ambitions to fight climate change. And after the summit, it was about 70. So we saw about 40 countries commit to doing more.

But if you add them all up, that’s less than 10% of overall greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s the fundamental problem of climate change, that you have a few very big emitters that are dominating the overall portfolio. And you really need action from them in order to move the needle.

IRA FLATOW: And they are not agreeing either on what year they’d like to move that needle on, right?

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, one of the big things is that the checkpoint for the Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015, the next one is in 2020. And that’s when countries have to come up with plans to getting to 2050 to being able to get to zero. And some countries just don’t think that they can get to zero by 2015.

Others want to push past that. Meanwhile, activists are pushing countries to be even more aggressive. That we need to get zero out by as soon as 2030.

IRA FLATOW: So we’re not even going to see the promises made or the goals that were headed for in Paris being achieved either.

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, that’s the current risk. Right now, with the summit and with all this youth activism, the hope is that they will continue to pressure countries between now and the next big UN meeting in Chile in December, and then the next regrouping of the Paris Agreement next year. And so they’re hoping that this summit was maybe the start of something. But again, that remains to be seen.

IRA FLATOW: Well, looked like the summit was the start of the youth movement with Greta and mobilizing people around the world.

UMAIR IRFAN: This was one of the largest environmental protests we’ve ever seen, yes. Four million people last Friday took to the streets. And it was certainly a presence felt in the room that a lot of world leaders did acknowledge that there’s a lot of youth pressure.

And there are protesters still protesting today. There’s another round of youth strikes today. So they’re not letting up. Many of the youth activists are also not happy with the turnout either. And they intend to keep the pressure up.

IRA FLATOW: Did you get to see Greta?

UMAIR IRFAN: I saw her very briefly. I unfortunately did not get to ask her a question.

IRA FLATOW: Is she as dynamic-looking just standing there?

UMAIR IRFAN: I think what’s so remarkable about her is that she’s very ordinary. She doesn’t dress up. She’s not very florid in her language. And her affect is just like a normal teenager.

And I think that’s kind of why she’s been so phenomenal as a messenger. Her message is not about her. It’s not about what you should be doing other than listening to the scientists. And being on that message has been kind of revolutionary for the climate movement.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a staff writer at Vox covering energy tech and climate research. And we have a link to his article up there at sciencefriday.com on our website.

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