The world’s top diplomat, António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has recently been unusually blunt in his stance against fossil fuel producers. He accused them of “profiting from destruction.” He urged the government to stop funding coal and hold back new oil and gas projects. “History is coming destroyers of planets,” he said.
But who are these “planet destroyers”? He does not name them.
Not China, the world’s coal behemoth. Not Britain or the United States, which have ambitious climate laws but continue to issue new oil and gas permits. Not the United Arab Emirates, the petrostate where the chief executive of the state oil company is hosting the upcoming UN climate talks – a move that activists condemned as undermining the very legitimacy of the talks.
The contradictions show not only the limitations of Mr. Guterres, a 74-year-old politician from Portugal who has made climate change a central issue, but also the shortcomings of the diplomatic handbook on a problem as pressing as global warming.
“The rules of multilateral diplomacy and the multilateral summit are not conducive to the quick and effective response we need,” said Richard Gowan, who decodes United Nations rituals for the International Crisis Group.
The 2015 Paris climate agreement only requires countries to set voluntary targets for tackling climate pollution. Agreements that emerge from annual climate talks are routinely watered down because every country, including coal, oil and gas advocates, must agree on every word and comma.
The Secretary-General can persuade but cannot command, urge but not compel. He does not name specific countries, even though nothing in the United Nations Charter prevents him from doing so.
Despite his urgings, governments have only increased their fossil fuel subsidies to record levels 7 trillion dollars in 2022. Few countries have concrete plans to move their economies away from fossil fuels, and many are directly or indirectly dependent on coal, oil and gas revenues. The human toll of climate change continues to mount.
“He interpreted his role as a kind of truth teller,” said Rachel Kyte, a former UN climate diplomat and professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “The powers available to him as Secretary-General are wonderful but limited.”
This week, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, he put on a bit of a diplomatic wink-nod. At the Climate Ambition Summit he is hosting on Wednesday, he is only passing the microphone to countries that have done as he urged, and only if they send a high-level leader to show they are taking the summit seriously. “A naming and shaming device that doesn’t actually name and shame anyone,” Mr Gowan said.
The diplomatic jockeying over who would make the list was intense. More than 100 countries have sent requests to appear, and Mr. Guterres’ aides have in turn asked for more information to prove they deserve to be on the list. Some have been asked what you have done with the coal phase out. How much climate finance have you offered? Do you keep issuing new oil and gas permits? And so on.
“It’s good to see Guterres trying to hold his feet to the fire,” said Mohamed Adow, a Kenyan activist.
Mr Guterres waited until the last possible moment to release the list of speakers.
John Kerry, the United States’ climate envoy, is expected to attend but will not speak. (Mr. Guterres only gives the microphone to top national leaders.) It is unclear whether the head of the Chinese delegation this year, Vice President Han Zheng, will have a speaking role. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen provided the microphone. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will not attend the General Assembly conclave at all. Sultan al-Jaber, head of the Emirates oil company and host of the next climate talks, will speak.
Mr Guterres will also invite companies with what he calls “credible” targets to reduce their climate emissions to participate. Expect to count them on the fingers of one hand.
Mr Guterres, who led the UN refugee agency for 10 years before being tapped for the top job, did not always see climate change as his central issue.
In fact, he didn’t talk about it when he was chosen to head the United Nations in 2016. Climate was seen as a signature issue of his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, who passed the Paris Agreement in 2015. Mr Guterres instead spoke about the war in Syria, terrorism and gender equality at the UN. (His choice disappointed those who had been clamoring for a woman to lead the world body for the first time in its 70-year history.)
In 2018, a shift came. At this year’s General Assembly, he called climate change “defining problem of our time.” In 2019, he invited climate activist Greta Thunberg to the General Assembly, whose raw anger at world leaders (“How dare you?” she berated world leaders) fueled a social media clash with President Donald J. Trump, who pushed for the United States to withdraw since the Paris Agreement.
For his part, Mr. Guterres has studiously avoided criticizing the United States on behalf of the United States.
In 2022, when oil companies raked in record profits after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he perfected his language. “We need hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers accountable” he told world leaders at the General Assembly. He called for a windfall tax, urged countries to suspend fossil fuel subsidies, and appointed a committee to issue guidelines to private companies on what counts as “greenwashing”..”
This year he entered a contentious debate between those who want to capture and store, or “reduce” greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas projects, and those who want to keep oil and gas completely buried in the ground. “The problem is not only fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels, period” Mr. Guterres said in June.
Reactions from the private sector have been mixed, said Paul Simpson, founder and former head of CDP, an NGO that works with companies to tackle their climate pollution. Some executives privately say Mr. Guterres is right to call for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, while others note that most national governments still lack concrete energy transition plans, no matter what he says.
“The question really is how effective is the United Nations?” said Mr. Simpson. “It has the ability to make governments focus and plan. But the UN itself has no teeth, so national governments and companies must act.