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U.N. chief gives bleak outlook on climate change: 'This is suicidal'

A polar bear wanders on thinning sea ice in the Arctic. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday, Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world. File Photo by Norwegian Polar Institute/NASA
A polar bear wanders on thinning sea ice in the Arctic. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday, "Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world." File Photo by Norwegian Polar Institute/NASA | License Photo

Dec. 2 (UPI) -- United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday gave a dire assessment of humanity's fight against global warming, warning that the world's top priority must be protecting an Earth that's reacting with more "force and fury" than ever.

In an address at Columbia University in New York City, Guterres said the global climate has long been reacting to man-made changes, but emphasized there's still time to prevent a total biodiversity collapse led by warmer oceans and hotter deserts.

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

"Nature always strikes back -- and it is already doing so with growing force and fury."

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Guterres' remarks begin a month of U.N.-led climate actions and came 10 days before its climate summit on Dec. 12, which is the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Accords. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the landmark agreement after President Donald Trump withdrew three years ago.

New Zealand on Wednesday became the 33rd country to declare a climate emergency, launching a plan to make its public sector carbon neutral by 2025.

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Guterres said the costs of renewable energies are becoming more affordable and make more economic sense than ever before. He said 18 million green energy jobs stand to be created by the end of the 2020s.

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He added that companies must adjust their business models for a green economy, and that means making carbon-free investments.

"Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes. Deserts are spreading. Wetlands are being lost. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests," he said.

"Oceans are overfished -- and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually -- more than six times the current toll of the [coronavirus] pandemic."

Guterres said COVID-19 has slowed some of the climate progress intended for 2020, which must be readjusted for 2021. Some of that progress includes major climate-related international commitments.

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"[This] is on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally -- even with the cooling effect of this year's La Nina. The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels. This year, more than 80% of the world's oceans experienced marine heatwaves," he added.

"Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal. The North Atlantic hurricane season has seen 30 storms, more than double the long-term average and breaking the record for a full season. ... Last year such disasters cost the world $150 billion. COVID-19 lockdowns have temporarily reduced emissions and pollution, but carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs -- and rising."

Guterres said instead of looking to a return to "normal," the world should take advantage of the pandemic reset to create a more equitable and just world, which can permanently reduce its carbon footprint, stop the biodiversity crisis and embrace sustainable technologies.

If we don't, he said, we're living on borrowed time.

"This is a moment of truth for people and planet alike. COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold. We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path.

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"The door is open; the solutions are there. Now is the time to transform humankind's relationship with the natural world -- and with each other. And we must do so together.

"Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. That is the lesson of 2020. With the world in disunity and disarray trying to contain the pandemic, let's learn the lesson and change course for the pivotal period ahead."

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