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Thunberg tells world leaders ‘you have stolen my dreams’

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Youth leaders at UN Climate Change Summit demand bold action

NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with environmental activist Greta Thunberg at the Youth Climate Summit on Saturday.—Reuters
NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with environmental activist Greta Thunberg at the Youth Climate Summit on Saturday.—Reuters

UNITED NATIONS: Teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg on Monday opened the United Nations Climate Action Summit with an angry condemnation of world leaders for failing to take strong measures to combat climate change. “How dare you,” she said.

Days after millions of young people took to the streets worldwide to demand emergency action on climate change, leaders gathered for the annual UN General Assembly aiming to inject fresh momentum into stalling efforts to curb carbon emissions.

A visibly emotional Thunberg, 16, said in stern remarks at the opening of the summit that the generations that have polluted the most have burdened her and her generation with the extreme impacts of climate change.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you,” said the Swedish teenager, her voice quivering.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Thunberg said, adding that the plans that leaders will unveil will not be enough to respond to the rate of the planet’s warming.

Thunberg has galvanized a new wave of climate change activism through her weekly Fridays for Future school strikes, which she began with her weekly, solitary protests outside the Swedish parliament.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned governments ahead of the event that they would have to offer action plans to qualify to speak at the summit, which is aimed at boosting the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat global warming.

In his opening remarks, he tried to capture the urgency of climate change and called out the fossil fuel industry.

“Nature is angry. And we fool ourselves if we think we can fool nature, because nature always strikes back, and around the world, nature is striking back with a fury,” Guterres said.

“There is a cost to everything. But the biggest cost is doing nothing. The biggest cost is subsidising a dying fossil fuel industry, building more and more coal plants, and denying what is plain as day: that we are in a deep climate hole, and to get out we must first stop digging,” he said.

Fresh off the climate strike that took hundreds of thousands of young people out of classrooms and into the streets globally, youth leaders gathered at the UN on Saturday to demand radical moves to fight climate change.

“We showed that we are united and that we, young people, are unstoppable,” Thunberg, who started the climate strike movement with her lone protest in front of her country’s parliament about a year and a half ago.

More than 700 mostly young activists attended the first of its kind Youth Climate Summit, according to Luis Alfonso de Alba, the UN special climate summit envoy.

Activists at Saturday’s gathering demanded money for a fund to help poorer nations adapt to a warming world and provide greener energy. They also insisted that the world should wean itself quickly from coal, oil and gas that cause climate change.

“Stop the criminal contaminant behaviour of big corporations,” said Argen­tine climate activist Bruno Rodriguez. “Enough is enough. We don’t want fossil fuels anymore.”

Jayathma Wickra­mana­yake, the UN Secretary-Gen­­­­eral’s youth envoy, cal­led climate change “the defining issue of our time. Millions of young people all over the world are alre­ady being affected by it.”

During Thunberg’s short lifetime, for example, the Earth has already warmed 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.34 degrees Celsius).

Fiji climate activist Komal Karishma Kumar said global warming is not just taking a toll on the planet but on her generation, especially people from vulnerable places like her Pacific island nation.

“Young people from different parts of the world are living in constant fear and climate anxiety, fearing the future, the uncertainty of a healthy life or a life for their children at all,” Kumar said.

She added: “I do not want our future generations to submerge with our sinking islands.”

After listening to Thunberg and other youth climate activists, a tie-less Secretary-General Antonio Guterres credited young people with transforming him from a pessimist to an optimist in the fight against global warming.

Guterres said he sees “a change in momentum” going into Monday’s Climate Action Summit taking place ahead of the UN General Assembly gathering of world leaders that starts on Tuesday, telling the youths “you have started this movement”. “I encourage you to keep your initiative. Keep your mobilisation and more and more to hold my generation accountable,” Guterres said. “My generation has largely failed until now to preserve both justice in the world and to preserve the planet.” Kumar told Guterres that “we will hold you accountable and if you do not, remember we will mobilise to vote you out.”

The youth activists brainstormed about what they could do to change the trajectory of an ever-warming planet and how they can help the world adapt to climate’s changes. There was the talk of hashtags, entrepreneurial ideas, and climate art and poetry.

“Be that hummingbird that puts out the forest fire by fetching water with its small beak as all the other animals, including the elephant, told her it was im­p­ossible,” said Kenyan activist Wanjuhi Njroge.

US President Donald Trump, a climate change denier who has undone every major US regulation aimed at combating climate change, made a brief appearance in the audience of the summit along with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

He did not give remarks but he listened to remarks by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who serves as the UN special envoy on climate action, called out Trump’s stealth appearance before he spoke on Monday: “Hopefully our deliberations will be helpful to you as you formulate climate policy,” he said to audience laughter.

Merkel announced Germany would double Germany’s contribution to a U.N. fund to support less developed countries to combat climate change to 4 billion euros from 2 billion euros.

Among the day’s other initial announcements was one from the Marshall Islands, whose president Hilda Heine said she would seek parliamentary approval to declare a climate crisis on the low-lying atoll, already grappling with sea-level rise.

Heine said her country and New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and others who form the “High Ambition” bloc at UN climate negotiations, will commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Over 60 world leaders and CEOs of energy and financial companies are expected to address the conference and announce climate finance measures and transitioning from coal power.

With climate impacts such as extreme weather, thawing permafrost and sea-level rise unfolding much faster than expected, scientists say the urgency of the crisis has intensified since the Paris accord was agreed.

The agreement will enter a crucial implementation phase next year after another round of negotiations in Chile in December. Pledges made so far under the agreement are nowhere near enough to avert catastrophic warming, scientists say, and last year carbon emissions hit a record high.

Over the past year, Guterres has called for no new coal plants to be built after 2020, urged a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies and asked countries to map out how to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

While some countries have made progress, some of the biggest emitting countries remain far behind, even as wildfires, heat waves and record temperatures have provided glimpses of the devastation that could lie in store in a warmer world.

In a measure of the gap between government action and the ever-louder alarms sounded by climate scientists, the United Nations Development Programme said that 14 nations representing a quarter of global emissions have signalled that they do not intend to revise current climate plans by 2020.

Pope Francis, in a message broadcast to the conference, called for honesty, responsibility and courage to face “one of the most serious and worrying phenomena of our time”.–Reuters/AP

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