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Climate Protesters and World Leaders: Same Planet, Different Worlds

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Climate Protesters and World Leaders: Same Planet, Different Worlds

UNITED NATIONS – This is the world we live in: punishing hot flashes, catastrophic floods, huge fires and weather conditions so uncertain that children took to the streets en masse in global protests to demand action.

But this is also the world we live in: a pantheon of world leaders who have deep ties to industries that are the world's largest sources of warming emissions, hostile to protests, or using climate science denial to make political points.

This sharp contrast comes at a time when governments face a challenge they have never seen since the dawn of the industrial age. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, they need to rebuild the engine of the global economy – to get out of fossil fuels quickly, the energy source on which the system is based – because they didn't take steps decades ago when scientists warned they should .

On Monday, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, you can see how far presidents and prime ministers are willing to go. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expects about 60 countries to announce what he has called new "concrete" plans to reduce emissions and help the world's most vulnerable cope with the consequences of global warming.

The problem is that the protesters on the streets and some of the diplomats in the General Assembly hall are living in separate worlds.

"Our political climate is not conducive to this discussion at the moment," said Alice Hill, a climate policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Multilateralism is under attack. We have seen the rise of authoritarian governments. "

"We see these pressures working against us," she said. "We have no leadership in the United States to help guide the process."

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President Trump, in fact, reversed dozens of environmental regulations, most recently reversing the rules on car emissions, saying they were an unnecessary burden on the US economy. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro wants to open the Amazon for new commercial activities. In Russia, Vladimir Putin presides over a vast and powerful petro state. China's state-owned companies are pushing for coal projects at home and abroad, as well as the country try on other ways to reduce emissions. India's Narendra Modi also plans to expand coal even when it defends solar energy.

At a press conference ahead of Monday's summit, Guterres was optimistic about what he described as a new willingness by governments and businesses to seriously address climate change. He said he expected "a very significant number of countries" to declare their goal of significantly reducing carbon emissions and to be carbon neutral by 2050.

"Suddenly, I began to feel that there was a momentum that was winning, and that was largely due to the youth movement that started a fantastic and very dynamic momentum around the world," Guterres said on Saturday, as a youthful climate of youth. United Nations. Summit has begun.

There will be some important no-shows at Monday's meeting. The United States, the largest economy in the world, has not even asked to rise to the podium. Nor is Brazil, home to most of the Amazon rainforest, often called the lung of the planet. Neither is Japan, an economic powerhouse and the world's seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

So, Mr. Guterres also moderated expectations. He told reporters at a briefing on Friday that he did not expect summit announcements that would produce emissions reductions that would measurably prevent temperatures from rising to dangerous levels. At the current rate, global temperatures are expected to rise above 3 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels by the end of the century, even if all countries on Earth meet their targets in the 2015 Paris pact, which calls for nearly 200 countries. voluntarily set targets to reduce their emissions. Many large countries, including the United States, are not on track to meet their commitments.

In the UN climate talks next year, countries face their next deadline to set more ambitious targets for reducing emissions. "The dome needs to be seen on a continuum," said Guterres.

In any case, Monday's summit, followed by huge youth protests around the world, showed the great distance between the urgency of climate action and the boundaries of diplomacy.

Organizers estimated participation in Friday's protests at about four million in thousands of cities around the world. Never has the modern world witnessed such a large and widespread climate protest, encompassing rich and poor societies, united by a sense of anger. “Climate emergency now,” said banners in several countries.

Whether youth protests can lead many world leaders to change their policies is a big question mark at best, said Michael B. Gerrard, a professor of law at Columbia University. Some of them are closely linked to the fossil fuel and extractive industries, he noted. Others have a history of overwhelming protests. And so the clamor, Gerrard said, may well fall into "intentionally closed ears."

Guterres said he was offering time to speak on Monday only to countries that are taking "positive steps" of various kinds. Russia must say it will ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement. India is expected to promise more ambitious renewable energy targets. All eyes will be on China – currently the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but on track to deliver on its Paris agreement – to see if it will announce that its emissions will start falling sooner than originally planned. .

Several dozen countries are expected to promise to reduce emissions to the point where they will be carbon neutral by 2050; Britain is the largest economy that has set this goal. Some of the most ambitious announcements may come not from nations but from banks, fund managers and other companies.

Still, protesters and diplomats have radically different expectations and even a different sense of time.

On Saturday at the youth summit Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist whose solo student strike helped ignite a global youth movement, signaled that pressure would continue.

Sitting next to Guterres, Thunberg picked up the microphone and said the millions of young people who protested around the world on Friday made an impact. "We showed them that we are united and that we young people are unstoppable," she said.

From Mr. Guterres came a tip. “I encourage you to continue. I encourage you to maintain your initiative, maintain your mobilization and increasingly hold my generation accountable. "

These protests boosted UN authorities' efforts to push for more ambitious climate action, but did not necessarily facilitate the work.

"The window of time is closing and it's too short for what we have to do," said Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Program. "Protests are helpful because they show national leaders in their societies, in their countries, that climate change policy is changing and adding momentum and pressure to act."

The United Nations itself is under pressure to do more to reduce its own carbon footprint. A letter signed by more than 1,700 employees urged Guterres to adopt greener travel policies, such as encouraging the use of trains whenever possible. The letter also urged the United Nations Pension Fund to dispose of fossil fuels.

Whatever comes out of Monday's meeting may seem unclear to those on the streets – the generation that will feel the intensifying impacts of climate change. This is the challenge faced by Guterres, who made climate action one of the world's top priorities at a time when several powerful world leaders rejected science.

"It's a great balance to team up with Greta Thunberg and Xi Jinping to fight Donald Trump," said Richard Gowan, who follows the United Nations for International Crisis Group. "Let's see if he can."

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

For more climate and environmental news, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

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