UN chief to COP27: World must cooperate or perish on ‘highway to climate hell’

More than 100 world leaders will speak at summit, but experts say it may have limited impact because of those who aren’t showing up, are coming late, or are dithering

A farmer chops down what is left of a tree in a burnt down forest in Ankazobe, Madagascar, Nov. 5, 2022 (AP Photo/Alexander Joe, File)
A farmer chops down what is left of a tree in a burnt down forest in Ankazobe, Madagascar, Nov. 5, 2022 (AP Photo/Alexander Joe, File)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (AP) — The only way to “put an end to all this suffering” from “a highway to climate hell” is for the world to cooperate or perish, dozens of leaders were admonished as they gathered Monday for international climate talks.

More than 100 world leaders will speak over the next few days to try deal with a worsening problem that scientists’ call Earth’s biggest challenge. Nearly 50 heads of states or governments started to take the stage Monday in the first day of “high-level” talks at this year’s annual UN climate conference, known as COP27, with more to come in the following days.

Much of the focus will be on national leaders telling their stories of being devastated by climate disasters, culminating Tuesday with a speech by Pakistan Prime Minister Muhammad Sharif, whose country’s summer floods caused at least $40 billion in damage and displaced millions of people.

“The planet has become a world of suffering… is it not high time to put an end to all this suffering,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the summit host, told his fellow leaders. “Climate change will never stop without our intervention… Our time here is limited and we must use every second that we have.’’

El-Sissi, who called for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war, was gentle compared to a fiery United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said the world “is on a highway to climate hell.”

He called for a new pact between rich and poor countries to work closer together, with financial help and phasing out of coal in rich nations by 2030 and elsewhere by 2040. He called on the United States and China — the two biggest producers of climate-changing emissions — to especially work together on climate, something they used to do until the last few years.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, center right, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, center left, after a group photo at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

“Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish,” Guterres said. “It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact – or a Collective Suicide Pact.”

The fire and brimstone may not quite have the effect as they have had in past meetings.

Why? Because of bad timing and who isn’t showing up, is coming late or is dithering about it.

Most of the leaders are meeting Monday and Tuesday, just as the United States has a potentially policy-shifting midterm election. Then the leaders of the world’s 20 wealthiest nations will have their powerful-only club confab in Bali in Indonesia days later. Add to that, “there are big climate summits and little climate summits and this was never expected to be a big one,” said Climate Advisers CEO Nigel Purvis, a former US negotiator.

Leaders of two of the three biggest carbon polluting nations — China and India — appear to be skipping the climate talks, although underlings are here negotiating. The leader of the other top polluting country — US President Joe Biden — is coming days later than most of the other presidents and prime ministers on his way to Bali.

Participants visit the Israeli pavilion at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre, on the second day of the COP27 climate summit, in Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, on November 7, 2022. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was initially going to avoid the negotiations, but public pressure and predecessor Boris Johnson’s plans to come changed his mind. New King Charles III, a longtime environment advocate, won’t attend because of his new role. And Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine created energy chaos that reverberates in the world of climate negotiations, won’t be here.

“We always want more” leaders, United Nations climate chief Simon Stiell said in a Sunday news conference. “But I believe there is sufficient (leadership) right now for us to have a very productive outcome.”

In addition to speeches given by the leaders, the negotiations include “innovative’’ roundtable discussions that “we are confident, will generate some very powerful insights,” Stiell said.

The leaders showing up in droves are from the host continent Africa.

“The historical polluters who caused climate change are not showing up,’’ said Mohammed Adow of Power Shift Africa. “Africa is the least responsible, the most vulnerable to the issue of climate change and it is a continent that is stepping up and providing leadership.”

“The South is actually stepping up,” Adow told The Associated Press. “The North that historically caused the problem is failing.’’

Women carry belongings salvaged from their flooded home after monsoon rains, in the Qambar Shahdadkot district of Sindh Province, of Pakistan, Sept. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan, File)

Monday will be heavily dominated by leaders of nations victimized by climate change — not those that have created the problem of heat-trapping gases warming up the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuel. It will be mostly African nations and small island nations and other vulnerable nations that will be telling their stories.

And they are dramatic ones, droughts in Africa and floods in Pakistan, in places that could least afford it. For the first time in 30 years of climate negotiations, the summit “should focus its attention on the severe climate impacts we’re already seeing,” said World Resources International’s David Waskow.

“We can’t discount an entire continent that has over a billion people living here and has some of the most severe impacts,’’ Waskow said. “It’s pretty clear that Africa will be at risk in a very severe way.’’

Leaders come “to share the progress they’ve made at home and to accelerate action,’’ Purvis said. In this case, with the passage of the first major climate legislation and $375 billion in spending, Biden has a lot to share, he said.

While it’s impressive that so many leaders are coming to the summit, “my expectations for ambitious climate targets in these two days are very low,” said NewClimate Institute’ scientist Niklas Hohne. That’s because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine which caused energy and food crises that took away from climate action, he said.

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