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‘Cooperate or perish’: UN chief’s urgent warning to world on ‘highway to climate hell’

“Cooperate or perish,” the United Nations chief has told dozens of leaders gathered for international climate talks, warning them that the world is “on a highway to climate hell” and urging the two biggest polluting countries, China and the United States, to work together to avert it.
This year’s annual UN climate conference, known as COP27, comes as leaders and experts have raised increasing alarm that time is running out to avert catastrophic rises in temperature.

But the fire and brimstone warnings may not quite have the effect as they have had in past meetings because of multiple other challenges of the moment pulling leaders’ attention — from midterm elections in the US to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Sameh Shoukry, president of the COP27 climate summit, left, speaks during an opening session in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP)

More than 100 world leaders are about to discuss a worsening problem that scientists’ call Earth’s biggest challenge, yet observers say at COP27 it will be hard to make progress given all that is happening in the world.

“Is it not high time to put an end to all this suffering,” the summit’s host, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, 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-Sisi, 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 with our foot on the accelerator”.

He called for a new pact between rich and poor countries to make deeper cuts in emissions 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 economies — to especially work together on climate, something they used to do until the last few years.

“Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish,” Guterres said.

“It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact – or a Collective Suicide Pact.”

Guterres insisted “today’s urgent crises cannot be an excuse for backsliding or greenwashing”.

Chadians pose for a photograph at the entrance of the COP27 UN Climate Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP)

Nearly 50 heads of states or governments were taking the stage on Monday in the first day of “high-level” international climate talks in Egypt, 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 on Tuesday with a speech by Pakistan Prime Minister Muhammad Sharif, whose country’s summer flood caused at least $US40 billion ($61.8 billion) in damage and displaced millions of people.

Several leaders missing amid bad timing

But bad timing and world events were hanging over the gathering.

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.

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.

Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, centre right, speaks to Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, during the COP27 summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Monday, November 7, 2022. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP) (AP)

Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy is representing the country at the summit, rather than Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Albanese described this year’s conference as one of “implementation” rather than new policy, citing a “very busy schedule of Parliament” and next week’s G20 meeting in Bali as reasons not to attend.

“I can’t be in all places at once. It’s as simple as that,” he said last week.

“If we could do that, then I’d achieve it. And I’m sure that if I was going people would say why aren’t I attending Parliament.”

Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine created energy chaos that reverberates in the world of climate negotiations, also won’t attend.

“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.

Much of the focus on Africa, not rich polluting countries

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.”

A man holds a sign to protest climate change denial at the entrance of the COP27 UN Climate Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP)

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

Monday will be heavily dominated by leaders of nations victimised 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.

The sun rises over Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the COP27 UN Climate Summit is taking place. (AP)

“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.”

Host leader, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will kick off the leaders’ speeches. Guterres keeps ratcheting up his rhetoric about how little time is left with each public talk.

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 $US375 billion ($579.5 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 Climate Analytics’ 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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