“Climate collapse has begun.” With these ominous words, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres kicked off this year’s U.N. General Assembly.
Guterres’ opening press conference, following heatwaves that shattered records on virtually every continent, was meant to spark urgency among the world’s decision-makers. “It is terrifying,” he said. “And it is just the beginning.”
With this warning in mind, as my own flight landed in New York, I pondered my purpose.
I was set to speak with a panel of youths on our hopes for the outcome of this assembly.
While some might label my hopefulness as naivete or delusion, for as long as one mangrove survives the heat in our warming city, I’ll continue in my refusal to see my world through a bleak lens and keep pursuing my lofty goal to halt climate change. But to borrow the words of American journalist David Wallace-Wells, “It’s time to panic.”
Guterres’ goal is for the 193 member states to commit to take enough action to catch up on the lagging sustainable development goals that must be achieved to ensure our survival. The 17 sustainable development goals, known as the SDGs, were entered into voluntarily by all nations in 2015 and are considered essential to achieve a sustainable future for us all by 2030.
In the UN’s most recent stock-taking, more than half of our targets show alarming deviations from the necessary course. In a last-ditch effort to get us back on track, Guterres packed the week’s agenda with a multitude of offensive plays, including an SDG Weekend, an SDG Leaders Summit and a Climate Ambition Summit.
At the SDG hub, I met youths from Bangladesh and Nigeria and had lunch with the Saudi Arabian delegation. In a nod to increasing diversity, females and youths dominate multiple panels, the U.N. defining “youth” as ages 18 to 35.
But as I looked around the assembly rooms, a few players I hoped would help lead the action were missing.
Children under 18, making up a third of the world’s population and facing the worst impacts of climate change, were virtually absent.
Indigenous peoples, our best stewards of the natural world, are included in low numbers.
And multiple world leaders have bowed out altogether, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Even President Joe Biden, who made his appearance Tuesday, did not attend the U.N. Climate Ambition Summit set for later in the week.
My takeaway was this: While our warming planet is expected to contribute to more than 3.4 million deaths per year by the end of the century, it won’t be climate change that does us in. Humanities’ greatest danger, the peril that threatens our very existence, is our disconnect from nature and from one another.
Symbiotic relationships that exist in the natural world have ensured the survival of millions of species. Yet as I scanned the seats that remained empty at this week’s General Assembly, I had to ask myself: Will we, the most intelligent species ever to roam the planet, care enough for our environment and each other to forge a future out of the mess we’ve made? And if those with the most to lose, those with the most instinctive know-how and those with the most power are notably absent, how do we possibly forge a sustainable future?
I’m trying to remain hopeful. But the clouds have rolled in and I can’t see the stars anymore.
Will Charouhis is a 17-year-old climate activist from Miami. He is the founder of Forces of Nature, a youth-led organization with a mission to stop climate change. This opinion piece was distributed by The Invading Sea website (www.theinvadingsea.com). The site posts news and commentary on climate change and other environmental issues affecting Florida.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Climate change teen environmentalist UN conference
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