The planet is getting hotter, and tackling that climate peril will grab the spotlight as world leaders gather for their annual meeting at the United Nations this week facing an undeniable backdrop: Rising tensions from the Gulf to Afghanistan and increasing nationalism, inequality and intolerance.
Growing fear of military action, especially in response to recent attacks on Saudi oil installations that are key to world energy supplies, hangs over this year's General Assembly gathering. That unease is exacerbated by global conflicts and crises from Syria and Yemen to Venezuela, from disputes between Israel and the Palestinians to the Pakistan-India standoff over Kashmir.
All eyes will be watching presidents Donald Trump of the United States and Hassan Rouhani of Iran, whose countries are at the forefront of escalating tensions, to see if they can reduce fears of a confrontation that could impact the Mideast and far beyond. Whether the two will even meet remains in serious doubt.
"Our fraying world needs international cooperation more than ever, but simply saying it will not make it happen," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. "Let's face it: We have no time to lose."
This year's General Assembly session, which starts tomorrow, has attracted world leaders from 136 of the 193 UN member nations. That large turnout reflects a growing global focus on addressing climate change and the perilous state of peace and security.
Other countries will be represented by ministers and vice presidents — except Afghanistan, whose leaders are in a hotly contested presidential campaign ahead of September 28 elections, and North Korea, which downgraded its representation from a minister to, likely, its UN ambassador. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled plans to attend and are sending ministers.
Last week, Guterres repeated warnings that "tensions are boiling over". The world, he said, "is at a critical moment on several fronts — the climate emergency, rising inequality, an increase in hatred and intolerance as well as an alarming number of peace and security challenges."
"We have a chance to advance diplomacy for peace," Guterres said. "This is the moment to cool tensions."
Whether that happens remains to be seen. Many diplomats aren't optimistic.
"It's a challenging time for the United Nations," said China's UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, whose nation is embroiled in a protracted dispute with the US over tariffs. "We are faced with rising of unilateralism, protectionism, and we are faced with global challenges like climate change, like terrorism, like cybersecurity. More importantly, we are faced with a deficit of trust."
As the world's second-largest economy and a member of the UN Security Council, "China firmly defends multilateralism, and China firmly supports the UN," Zhang said.
But divisions among the five council members — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — have paralysed action on the eight-year conflict in Syria and other global crises. On global warming, the Trump Administration remains at odds with many countries.
This year, the UN has stocked the agenda with a "Youth Climate Summit" ahead of a full-on climate summit for world leaders today. That's all happening before the leaders hold their annual meeting in the General Assembly hall. Guterres will give his state-of-the-world address at the opening, followed by speeches from Trump and other leaders including the presidents of Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. Rouhani is scheduled to address the assembly on Thursday.
Call for bold plans as agency issues troubling outlook
The head of the United Nations isn't planning to let just any world leader speak about climate change at today's special "action summit". Only those with new, specific and bold plans can command the podium, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
So sit down, Brazil. Sit down, Saudi Arabia. Sit down, Poland.
"People can only speak if they come with positive steps. That is kind of a ticket," Guterres said. "For bad news don't come."
Brazil's, Poland's and Saudi Arabia's proposals for dealing with climate change fell short, so they're not on the summit schedule. The US didn't even bother, according to a UN official.
Leaders from 64 nations, the European Union, more than a dozen companies and banks, a few cities and a state will present plans at the Climate Action Summit.
Underscoring the problem, the UN's World Meteorological Organisation released a science report showing that in the last several years, warming, sea level rise and carbon pollution have all accelerated.
Guterres wants nations to be carbon-neutral by 2050, to commit to no new coal power plants after 2020 and reduce carbon pollution by 45 per cent in the next century. Yesterday, 87 countries pledged to decarbonise in a way consistent with one of the international community's tightest temperature goals. The purpose of the summit is to come up with new green proposals a year earlier than the 2020 deadline that is in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
World leaders agreed in 2009 to try to keep warming to just 2C since pre-industrial times. Then in 2015 they added a secondary, tougher goal to keep warming to just 1.5C.
The new weather agency report showed that the world has warmed already by 1.1C. So that means the goals are to limit further warming to 0.9C from now or even 0.4C from now. Efforts to reduce carbon pollution need to be tripled to keep from hitting the 2C mark and must increase fivefold to limit warming to 1.5C since pre-industrial times.
As bad as that sounds, it's wrong and overly optimistic to use the mid-1880s as the benchmark, said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. He said that many studies, including the WMO's, are overlooking that the world warmed 0.2C from human causes between the mid-1700s and the 1880s.
The agency said the last five years were the warmest five on record and even 0.2C hotter than the first half of the decade, a significant jump in just a few years.
If the world keeps temperatures to the 1.5C goal instead of the 2C one, 420 million fewer people will be exposed to heat waves and 10 million fewer will be vulnerable to sea level rise, Nasa climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig said. A larger, more international report looking at climate change and oceans and ice will be released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Thursday.