U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres bluntly challenged the climate efforts of President Joe Biden and other world leaders Thursday in a message for a White House summit, charging that expanded oil and gas drilling and other policies of the richest countries amount to a “death sentence” for the planet.
The warning marked a public rebuke from the U.N.'s highest official of what he described as “the major emitters” of gases from burning fossil fuels that are heating the planet.
The challenge — recorded by Guterres in a video for the White House virtual climate summit — came as Russia's war in Ukraine and other threats to the world's short-term oil and gas supply are leading the U.S. and some other nations to up production of climate-damaging oil, natural gas and coal.
Biden opened the summit recounting his administration's billions of dollars in climate efforts and by announcing $1 billion in new climate finance for developing nations, as well as other recent and planned legislation and programs. In the U.S. and elsewhere, however, the renewed embrace of fossil fuels is creating conflicts with the climate efforts, plans and promises.
“Geopolitical divisions must not torpedo the world’s climate fight,” Guterres warned in his video.
“The science is clear: New fossil fuel projects are entirely incompatible” with keeping global warming within the limits that the U.S. and roughly 200 other nations committed to in the 2015 Paris climate accord, said the U.N. chief. Current national policies are taking the world to a level nearly twice as high, he said, calling that a “death sentence.”
“Yet many countries are expanding capacity. And I urge you to change course," said Guterres, whose calls for an immediate stop to new oil and gas drilling have sharpened since a d ire report from a panel of global experts last month indicated the world is heading rapidly toward more disastrous levels of warming.
Asked about the U.N. secretary-general's remarks, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. believes global warming requires “global collaboration and global action. And that's what you saw this president do.” Jean-Pierre declined to answer a question whether Guterres' video was viewed by Biden and others attending.
Guterres did not single out the U.S. or any other nation by name, but the policies he targeted, including expanded fossil fuel production, apply to the United States, strategic U.S. partners in the Gulf, and many others.
President Barack Obama initiated the Major Economies Forum as a way to get the world’s biggest economies and polluters talking among themselves about emissions cuts and climate finance. Biden revived the annual summits after President Donald Trump let them lag.
This year’s event comes during Russia’s market-disrupting invasion of Ukraine and reluctance by Saudi Arabia and other oil producers to increase their short-term pumping in response. Resulting spikes in gas prices last year posed political threats for Biden and other leaders in their home countries.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the U.S. will pump a record 12.4 million barrels of crude oil a day this year and top that with 12.8 million barrels a day next year. While praising many U.S. climate efforts, advocates especially fault Biden’s approval of the big new Willow drilling project in previously off-limits areas of Alaska, saying it will lock in increased production for decades to come.
“Behind the green screen of Biden’s climate promises, he continues to greenlight destructive fossil fuel expansion in project after project,” said Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program.
“We need a real reduction in the oil and gas burning up our future, starting with reversing the Willow approval and an end to all new fossil fuel project permits,” Su said in a statement.
Biden in opening remarks for the virtual summit announced $1 billion for the Green Climate Fund, an initiative that helps less-wealthy nations to fortify themselves against the rising seas and increased disasters of climate change, and to develop clean renewable energy.
Biden also said he would ask Congress for $500 million over the next five years to help slow the destruction of the Amazon, a vital natural reserve soaking up fumes from oil, natural gas and coal in South America.
Administration officials have been openly pessimistic about getting congressional approval for climate support abroad, especially with a Republican-controlled House.
The U.S. and other nations also are supporting investment for still-undeveloped technologies to one day do things like capture oil and gas emissions at scale.
The International Energy Agency and others call those steps important but inadequate in themselves, saying it is impossible to keep global warming to hoped-for limits without immediately halting new drilling projects and rapidly phasing down existing use.
Biden, a Democrat, pointed to climate achievements including the United States' record investments and initiatives in legislation passed last year, moves by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to mandate cuts in tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks and other emissions cuts, and U.S. efforts at home and abroad to cap massive methane leaks from natural gas production and promote electric vehicles.
“We're willing to do the hard work to limit global warming" to the amount pledged by the U.S. and roughly 200 other nations in the 2015 Paris climate accord, Biden told global leaders of countries and agencies shown listening on a grid of screens.
“That's what today is all about,” Biden said in his opening remarks, ahead of what were to be private consultations among leaders. “Coming together and candidly discussing how we can bridge the gap between our pledge ... and our policies.”
Biden's climate forum was markedly more subdued than those of his first years in office, with leaders of just seven nations — President Lula da Silva of Brazil and the heads of Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt, Germany and Mexico — shown on screen and listening to his opening remarks.