UN chief Guterres lays it on the line; social workers should pay attention

December 6, 2020

United Nations general secretary Antonio Guterres delivered a speech on the climate emergency at Columbia University this past Wednesday. It’s hardly the first time Guterres has urged rapid action on the climate crisis. But to date, the economically powerful nations of the world, in large measure responsible for the crisis, have paid little more than lip service to meaningful action (the U.S. under Trump, of course refused to do even that much). In this speech Guterres lays it on the line – humanity is committing suicide; it’s time to adopt a radical new approach to life on the planet, or it’s game over for the species. And the clock is ticking down rapidly.

Here is the opening section of the speech; every social worker should read it closely in full, and take its message to heart.

“Dear friends. I thank Columbia University for hosting this gathering — and I welcome those joining online around the world. We meet in this unusual way as we enter the last month of this most unusual year. We are facing a devastating pandemic, new heights of global heating, new lows of ecological degradation and new setbacks in our work towards global goals for more equitable, inclusive and sustainable development.

“To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken. Dear friends, humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back — and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes, Deserts are spreading. Wetlands are being lost. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests.

“Oceans are overfished — and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans. Let’s not forget that 75 per cent of new and emerging human infectious diseases are zoonotic.

“Today, two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe. 2020 is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally – even with the cooling effect of this year’s La Nina.

“The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels.  This year, more than 80 per cent of the world’s oceans experienced marine heatwaves. In the Arctic, 2020 has seen exceptional warmth, with temperatures more than 3 degrees Celsius above average – and more than 5 degrees in northern Siberia. Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest on record – and now re-freezing has been the slowest on record. Greenland ice has continued its long-term decline, losing an average of 278 gigatons a year. Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal.

“The North Atlantic hurricane season has seen 30 storms, more than double the long-term average and breaking the record for a full season. Central America is still reeling from two back-to-back hurricanes, part of the most intense period for such storms in recent years. Last year such disasters cost the world $150 billion.

“COVID-19 lockdowns have temporarily reduced emissions and pollution. But carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising. In 2019, carbon dioxide levels reached 148 per cent of pre-industrial levels. In 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic. Methane soared even higher – to 260 per cent. Nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas but also a gas that harms the ozone layer, has escalated by 123 per cent. Meanwhile, climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge. Emissions are 62 per cent higher now than when international climate negotiations began in 1990.

“Every tenth of a degree of warming matters. Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent.  We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030. Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction — planning an annual increase of 2 per cent. 

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security. And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict. It is no coincidence that seventy per cent of the most climate vulnerable countries are also among the most politically and economically fragile.  It is not happenstance that of the 15 countries most susceptible to climate risks, eight host a United Nations peacekeeping or special political mission.

“As always, the impacts fall most heavily on the world’s most vulnerable people. Those who have done the least to cause the problem are suffering the most. Even in the developed world, the marginalized are the first victims of disasters and the last to recover.

“Dear friends, let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere…..”

You can find the full text of the speech here -https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-12-02/secretary-generals-address-columbia-university-the-state-of-the-planet-scroll-down-for-language-versions

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