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A Lack of Leadership: U.N. Climate Action Summit

“YOU ARE FAILING US”

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, angrily spoke these words in her address on Monday to the United Nations General Assembly’s Climate Action Summit in New York City. “For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away?…Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic.” Thunberg told the assembled leaders that the world’s youth is watching them: “If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”

Harsh words for harsh times. Thunberg started her activism with weekly sit-ins outside the Swedish Parliament, then went on to establish a worldwide movement of school strikes every Friday known as Fridays for Future. Thunberg has spoken to leaders all over the world, and at renowned conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Thunberg emphasizes the gap between what politicians, corporations and the media are saying and what they are actually doing, and points out the danger of it, saying that we need to treat the climate crisis like the existential threat that it is.

On Friday, September 20, 2019—the Friday before the U.N. Climate Action Summit—one of the largest environmental protests in history took place as people marched in a Friday for Future in over 150 countries. Meant as the unofficial opening to the Climate Action Summit and a show of worldwide support, people around the world drew attention to the crisis. On Monday, however, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters—the U.S., China and India—offered nothing or very little in the way of commitments to a net-zero or greatly reduced carbon future, and the U.S. did not even attend the Summit. (President Trump “stopped by” after Thunberg’s speech.) The emissions limits set in the 2015 Paris Accord, from which President Trump withdrew the U.S., were supposed to be made stricter beginning in 2020, but countries are not even meeting the original requirements (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs).

The good news to come out of the Summit is that many wealthy countries announced 7 billion for the next round of funding for the Green Climate Fund. Those countries include: Germany, the UK, S. Korea, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France and Canada (but not the U.S.). Another tool of climate activism is divestment, and a consortium of pension funds and insurance companies with 2.3 trillion under management pledged to divest from carbon-intensive industries by 2050.

CAPITALISM TO THE RESCUE?

What the world lacks in leadership and political will might be compensated for by market forces. Over the past 25 years—a generation—the U.S. has made substantial investments to promote research, development and deployment of clean energy and its technologies. In the past 5-10 years, these investments have been paying off: utility-scale solar costs have declined by 86% and wind energy prices have fallen by 67%. Natural gas prices have decreased and stabilized due to easier extraction and greater supply. Despite President Trump’s repeal of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, market forces are leading the way toward a clean energy transition to solar, wind and natural gas. In addition, the storage of these renewable energy sources by batteries has become easier. With more energy efficient appliances and intelligent grids, electrical costs are decreasing across the board and the transition to clean energy will continue to become more evident in the next decade.

The reason markets can play a big role in creating a sustainable energy future is that the very principles on which markets are based favor renewable energy sources. First, markets favor low-cost energy sources, and currently natural gas, wind and solar are the lowest cost energy resources available to produce electricity. These resources are pushing out fossil fuels such as coal. Second, markets loathe uncertainty, and the Trump administration’s policy reversals offer anything but stability. Third, Wall Street likes low-risk investments, and aging coal and nuclear power plants are high-risk: in 2016, 44% of the U.S. coal supply came from companies that had declared bankruptcy.

In a Harvard Business Review study led by Jessica Long from Accenture’s Strategy and Sustainability group, CEOs from various industries indicated that sustainability and the climate crisis is definitely on their minds and their agendas. But the gap between what the CEOs are saying and doing is still large: only 44% of the CEOs in the study see a net-zero carbon future for their companies by mid-century. While denial of the crisis is no longer an issue in C-suites, shareholder pressure still is, and it just is not there yet. This is where leadership and personal responsibility enter the equation; will corporations and their CEOs step up in the climate crisis as some corporations have done with respect to gun violence?

MASS EXTINCTION

The world is in the midst of the early stages of a mass extinction; this has been well-documented and the fact is now the name for an environmental protest movement, The Extinction Rebellion. In her speech to Congress, Thunberg told members not to listen to her, but to listen to the scientists in order to truly understand the emergency of the situation we are in today. “If you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.”

Right now, there are heat waves killing 1,000 people annually in India and Pakistan. Right now, 500 and 1,000 year flood and storm events are happening every year. Right now, polar ice is melting so fast that the world’s sea levels could rise enough to wipe out coastal cities before mid-century—when Thunberg’s generation is middle-aged. Right now wild fires and droughts are so severe that “seasons” last twice as long, destroy twice as much, and kill hundreds of people. The Amazon burns, and we watch.

A mass extinction is underway, and humanity has a choice. We can become part of it, or we can save our species. As Thunberg said: “The world is waking up, and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

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