United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is seen during a conversation with Professor Tensie Whelan, director of NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business, on “Climate Action: Mobilizing the World.” Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

The effects of climate change are alarming, well underway, and require the full implementation of the Paris Agreement with or without the United States as a willing partner, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told students, business leaders and academics Tuesday in New York City.

Guterres repeatedly called for the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change with “increased ambition,” yet also appeared to look beyond the administration of President Donald Trump, which has both questioned climate change and threatened to withdraw from the historic Paris treaty.

“If one country decides not to be present, and we are talking about countries with an important global reach, like the United States, or China, if one country decides to leave [a geopolitical space], I can guarantee someone else will occupy it,” he said. “It is very clear now when one look at today’s world — and it is not only the Russias, the Chinas, that are occupying the ground, look at the Saudi Arabias, the Irans, which means that sometimes this has consequences.”

Guterres’ comments came as the Trump administration continues to deliberate over whether it wants to withdraw from the international climate change treaty that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global average temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“Allow me to be blunt — the world is in a mess. Countries and communities everywhere are facing pressures being exacerbated by mega trends like food insecurity, water scarcity, massive movements of populations. The list can go on and on. But one overriding, mega trend finding its way at the top of that list is climate change,” he said during his prepared speech.  

The U.N. chief — who did not mention Trump directly during his 25-minute opening remarks — noted that China is the only country with a long-term economic plan with an eye on sustainability. Corporations are increasingly following suit, recognizing that climate change mitigation and adaption plans make for profitable results. In the U.S. and China, new renewable energy jobs now outstrip those in the oil and gas industries, he said.

“Thousands of private corporations, including major oil and gas companies, are taking their own action,” Guterres said. “They know that green business is good business. It is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind. Those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future.”

“The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind. Those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future.”

— António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general

Guterres presented a new five-point global climate action plan at the New York University Stern School of Business, marking his first public announcement about the ambitious strategy.

The plan calls for intensified political engagement on lowering global temperatures; stronger, “integrated” U.N. support for countries; and engagement with governments and private sector actors, such as the coal, oil and gas industries on sustainable energy transitions. The plan will also work to mobilize resources for adaptation, resilience and implementation of national climate change action plans, and facilitate new and existing partnerships, including with the private sector.

Guterres also announced plans to convene a U.N. climate summit in 2019 for the first, formal review of the Paris Agreement’s implementation.

“It's also clear a journey from Paris is well underway and support from across all sectors is profound. There will be bumps along the paths. That is understandable … but with everyone’s participation the world can bring the Paris Agreement fully to life,” Guterres said.

The Paris Agreement on climate change has been ratified by more 147 parties, including the U.S., China and India — the world’s largest emitters. But withdrawing from the landmark treaty was one of Trump’s campaign pledges. Since his inauguration, Trump — reportedly set to soon make a public announcement on the matter — has gone back and forth over whether the U.S. will formally exit or alter the agreement, and how it plans to abide by its terms. The U.S., specifically, has pledged to reduce their carbon emissions from 26 to 28 percent by 2025, from 2005 levels. Trump’s present environmental policies place the U.S. off track for this target.

The majority of Americans have been shown to support the deal, commitments for which do not officially begin until 2020.

Guterres touched on his strategy to continue to engage the U.S., prompted by a question from a NYU student on how to work with a “skeptic” administration that wants to cut U.N. funding.

“It is very simple. When you disagree with someone you try to convince them, of course. We are engaging with the American administration that we believe it is important for the U.S. not to leave the Paris Agreement,” he said. “But even if the U.S. decides to leave, it is very important for the the U.S. society as a whole — the cities, the states, the companies, the businesses — to remain engaged with the Paris Agreement, so it is very clear that governments are not everything.”

“We are also doing our best with the administration and Congress to make the U.S. understand that funding development aid, funding policy, general funding of organizations like the U.N. are also in the interest of the American people.”

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.