When Diplomatic Language Is Counter-Productive

Climate-change straight talk is crucially important as the occurrence of enormous, unnatural disasters coincides with a man-made flood of obfuscation. Photograph from Getty

We look for positive news on the environment without hiding the perils. Bill McKibben, as always, prefers straight talk in all such matters:

The U.N. Secretary-General’s Searing Message for the Fossil-Fuel Industry

Forget diplomatic language—it’s a moment for some home truths.

On Monday morning, at the United Nations, the Secretary-General delivered his annual report on priorities—a kind of State of the Planet address. If you’re struggling to remember the name of the current Secretary-General, it’s António Guterres, who came to the job after, among other things, serving as the Prime Minister of Portugal. We’re used to the idea that “diplomatic language” is filled with euphemisms—“a full and frank exchange of views,” and so on. And, since Guterres is the world’s top diplomat, one might expect that he would be a master of this form of address. So I’m going to quote at some length from his talk today, concentrating on the section about global warming and the environment.

He begins by saying, in a sentence typed in bold in the official transcript, “We must end the merciless, relentless, senseless war on nature.” That war, he continues, “is putting our world at immediate risk of hurtling past the 1.5-degree temperature increase limit and now still moving towards a deadly 2.8 degrees.” Hence:

We need disruption to end the destruction.

No more baby steps.

No more excuses.

No more greenwashing.

No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.

He continues in the same vein, ending with this excoriation of the fossil-fuel industry, which has enjoyed record returns, in large part because of the war in Ukraine:

I have a special message for fossil-fuel producers and their enablers scrambling to expand production and raking in monster profits: If you cannot set a credible course for net-zero, with 2025 and 2030 targets covering all your operations, you should not be in business.

Your core product is our core problem.

We need a renewables revolution, not a self-destructive fossil fuel resurgence.

This is not the first time that Guterres has spoken so frankly. Indeed, for the past few years he’s been more outspoken than almost any other world leader about the fossil-fuel industry. In 2019, the Financial Times reported, major nations that continued to support the coal industry, which Guterres had taken a firm stance against, would not be invited to address the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit. Last year, in a speech to The Economist’s sustainability summit, he said, “Those in the private sector still financing coal must be held to account. Their support for coal could not only cost the world its climate goals. It’s a stupid investment—leading to billions in stranded assets.” A little later, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest study, he tweeted that it represented “a litany of broken climate promises. Some government & business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. They are lying. It is time to stop burning our planet.” A few months on, he returned to the theme: “It is immoral for oil & gas companies to be making record profits from the current energy crisis on the backs of the poorest, at a massive cost to the climate.”

Read the whole essay here.

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