Planet Days
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Planet Days

Humanity is choosing suicide over sustainability

In a bleak speech delivered at Columbia University, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared the state of the Planet “broken,” citing numbers from a troubling new report.

“Humanity is waging war on nature,” he said. “This is suicidal.”

Our unraveling world is already showing us the error of our ways, through record droughts, fires, pollution. And since the environment is connected to all aspects of society, the shockwaves of this suicide are felt everywhere.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security,” said Guterres. “And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

The key question now is if and how we can pull ourselves from this suicidal path and toward a more sustainable trajectory.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivers “State of the Planet” speech at Columbia University. Photo credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

After outlining the sobering reality of our situation, Guterres pointed to blueprints, which include the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate commitments, to guide that trajectory.

The secretary-general then outlined three imperatives to address the worsening climate crisis: achieving global carbon neutrality, mobilizing finance to align with the Paris Agreement, and boosting investments in climate adaptation, especially for the most vulnerable people and countries.

But, still, despite new technologies and sound economic arguments, many governments have failed to gain necessary traction, especially given the quickly shrinking timeframe to act.

That delay has already proved fatal, transforming the suicide anology into reality — extreme weather- and climate-related disasters have killed more than 410,000 people in the past decade, according to a recent report.

Of course, the U.N. can’t force countries to live up to commitments. Guterres consistently sounds the alarm on just how dire our situation is, but it’s not like he can single-handedly install offshore wind farms, electrify our energy grid, or transform the world economy.

That’s partially why he drums up the message of solidarity so much. Echoing his September speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Guterres again leaned into the message last week: “Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. That is the lesson of 2020.”

Solidarity is key to tackling a problem as global and expansive as climate change, while also tackling all the inequities that come with it. But solidarity has been extremely tough to attain, especially given the weakest-link and tragedy of the commons problems of climate change. And the disjointed nature of individual countries’ situations makes it even more complicated.

The U.S., for example, will likely face major hurdles to climate action thanks to a conservative Supreme Court and a possible Republican-controlled senate. As of now, the idealism of a green American economy seems just that — a rhetorical call to action that could see measured gains but nowhere near the leaps required for meaningful climate action.

Meanwhile, vulnerable countries, such as small island developing nations, don’t have the financial tools or resources to invest in many necessary adaptation measures even if they wanted to.

So far, these types of climate speeches have fallen on deaf ears, which is perhaps why Guterres’s tone gets more dire with each major address. That’s not to say things can’t change — whether we choose to grab hold of these solutions or fall back onto a suicidal path is still up in the air.

What’s clear, however, is that the State of the Planet is one more urgent call to action in a crisis that is becoming increasingly unmanageable.

An environmental newsroom with a flair for drama and a fanfare for Earth, informing and empowering people who prefer the planet liveable.

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Brandon Pytel

Brandon Pytel

Environmental writer living in Washington, DC. Opinions are his own.

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