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Greta Thunberg opened the United Nations Climate Action Summit with a damning message.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.
The 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg gained world recognition when she began cutting school on Fridays to protest climate inaction outside of Swedish Parliament last fall. This past Friday, Thunberg joined forces with youth climate leaders around the world to convene a global climate strike, demanding governments treat the climate crisis with the level of urgency it demands. Four million people participated. On Monday morning, activists also blocked major intersections in Washington, DC.
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” she said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
The United Nations held the long-awaited summit on an unseasonably warm Monday in September.
On the Sunday before the summit, leading climate scientists convened by the World Meteorological Organization released a report that showed that current global climate plans would lead average global temperatures to rise by between 2.9 degrees Celsius and 3.4 degrees Celsius by 2100—a level of warming they say would be catastrophic. It also found that 2015-2019 was the warmest five-year period on record.
Backed by the report, before the summit, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on civic leaders to commit to bold climate action plans. “This is not a climate talk summit. We have had enough talk. This is not a climate negotiation summit. You don’t negotiate with nature. This is a climate action summit,” he said.
But many say they didn’t follow through.
“While countries were expected to come to the Summit to announce that they would enhance their climate ambition, most of the major economies fell woefully short,” said Andrew Steer, President & CEO of World Resources Institute.
The intent of the summit was for leaders to update and expand the promises they made at a 2015 U.N. convening in Paris. The Paris Accord aims to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
But many scientists believe that agreement is completely inadequate. In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a groundbreaking study that showed reaching 1.5 degrees of warming could result in unprecedented climate disaster—and that some of the consequences could be irreversible. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s new report, Earth has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius.
“You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency, but no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that,” said Thunberg in her Monday morning speech. “Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”
Some civic leaders did strengthen their commitments: 66 countries announced efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. But the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, the United States, China, and India, were not among them.
Though he wasn’t expected to attend, President Trump showed up to the United Nations headquarters—but only for 15 minutes. Guterres described President Trump’s appearance at the Climate Action Summit as a “step forward,” albeit with a wry smile on his face.
Thunberg shot Trump a death stare.
In a dig at Trump, a representative for Chinese President Xi Jinping said that unlike “certain countries,” China will fulfill its obligations as laid out in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, but Chinese officials made no promises to strengthen their climate plans (though former California Governor Jerry Brown—regarded as a climate hero by some and a fraud by others—did announce a plan to create a California-China Climate Institute in partnership with the nation’s chief negotiator at the Paris agreement).
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his administration would more than double the country’s renewable energy output. Gutteres called the effort “fantastic,” But the prime minister made no promise to phase out of the use of fossil fuels.
“You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is,” said Thunberg in her opening remarks, before countries announced their pledges. “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
On Monday, Thunberg and 15 other youth aged 8 to 17 from 12 countries also presented an official complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. “Right here right now is where we draw the line,” she said.
“The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”