Greta’s UN Climate Summit Speech Successfully Predicted More Business as Usual From World Leaders


On Monday, the United Nations Climate Action Summit opened with a glossy video projected around the room. It hawked a hopeful message that climate catastrophe can be averted. With the lights turned down and music turned up, for a few minutes the summit felt like an IMAX movie experience. 

Unfortunately, the video is symbolic of the summit itself — all talk, little action,” Jesse Bragg, media director at Corporate Accountability, said via email.

A scathing speech by Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg and the passing presence of President Trump upstaged presentations from world leaders, who in some cases did announce pledges to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 but overall failed to offer visionary solutions for the rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses the UN Climate Action Summit
Secretary General António Guterres making opening remarks at the 2019 Climate Action Summit.

While UN Secretary General António Guterres instructed leaders to bring “concrete plans,” not “beautiful speeches,” the world’s biggest polluters, including the U.S. and China, made no further commitments to cut emissions, which will be necessary for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. 

Bragg’s advocacy group Corporate Accountability is staging protests during Global Climate Week, which kicked off with a worldwide climate strike on September 20. “We should not need a flashy video to persuade governments to act with urgency,” Bragg said. “The devastation the climate crisis is already bringing to every corner of the world and the science that demands they act should be enough.”

Greta Speaks Truth to Power as Those She Criticizes Applaud

The opening video’s optimistic message was dampened by Secretary General Guterres, who was the first speaker at the summit. Guterres pointed out that not enough was being done to achieve international climate goals since the 2015 Paris Agreement. His message reverberated throughout the day, despite many world leaders, CEOs, and heads of NGOs speaking about the positive steps being taken to slow global warming.

“You are failing us,” Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old environmental activist, said, addressing world leaders a few minutes after the UN Secretary General’s opening remarks. She chastised those assembled for not doing nearly enough to cut globe-warming emissions and warned them that the youth would never forgive them if they didn’t do more.  

Curtailing global temperature rise to the Paris goal of 1.5°C (2.7°F) “cannot be solved with business-as-usual and some technical solutions,” Thunberg said. “With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.” 

She went on: “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

Trump and Vice President Pence, who missed Thunberg’s speech, popped into the summit briefly before attending an event on religious freedom, making the Trump administration’s lack of commitment to combating the climate crisis abundantly clear. 

Donald Trump
President Trump, next to UN Secretary General António Guterres and Vice President Pence, at a meeting about protecting religious freedom taking place at the same time as the Climate Action Summit at the United Nations in New York City.

Thunberg’s stone-cold gaze at Trump as he passed her outside of the main assembly room received more media attention than Trump’s remarks at the meeting he attended.

Incremental Actions

Programming throughout the day offered leaders and spokespeople from a mix of countries a few minutes each to speak about what they are doing to prevent climate catastrophe. But none of the proposals called for an immediate transition away from coal, oil, and gas. Instead, speakers offered plans for transitions to clean energy over the coming decades

During a session focused on small island developing states, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley emphasized that many of the nations already suffering deaths from climate-fueled extreme weather are not the worst carbon emitters. She criticized the United Nations for not doing more to help island nations ravaged by recent storms.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley
Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley speaking at the UN Climate Action Summit, sharing the stage with Palau President, Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr.; Prime Minister of Saint Lucia, Allen Michael Chastanet; Maldives President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih; and International Renewable Energy Agency Director General, Francesco La Camera.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, speaking at the UN Climate Action Summit.

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced a conference planned for next year in Greece focused on protecting cultural and natural heritage from climate change. He said that Greece will adopt a new national policy for energy that will include banning single-use plastic starting in 2021, shutting down lignite coal-fired power plants by 2028, and increasing renewable energy sources to 35 percent by 2030. 

Mitsotakis warned that climate change is not an issue that can be put off for a few decades. He referenced the 102 lives lost in the village of Mati, in southeast Greece, due to a fire intensified by extreme weather conditions.

However, the prime minister made no mention that Greece is permitting oil and gas exploration off its coast, with agreements signed with at least four energy companies in 2018 and 2019.

At a session focused on moving toward a green economy, European Investment Bank president Werner Hoyer made a sobering point: The 50,000 Bahamians that had to evacuate after the recent hurricane likely won’t be able to return home for at least a year and a half. “They don’t have time for a dialogue,” Hoyer said. 

Oil and Gas and Climate Don’t Mix

The night before the UN summit, activists protested outside the Gramercy Park Hotel in downtown Manhattan, where oil and gas executives were gathered for a private dinner organized by the industry-funded Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). There, CEOs from BP and a dozen other multinational oil companies had the chance to mingle with environmentalists and government representatives.

A few of the protesters infiltrated the event, in an attempt to present a plaque saying “We Knew” to the corporate polluters, calling out years of climate science denial, but event security escorted the activists out before they had the opportunity. 

Climate justice activists protest outside the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative event
Climate justice groups protesting an “Oil & Gas Climate Initiative greenwashing soiree” taking place in the Gramercy Park Hotel the night before the UN Climate Action Summit.

Anti-fossil fuel messages projected on the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York
Projection on the Gramercy Park Hotel during a protest connected to the UN Climate Action Summit.

After a press conference outside the hotel, the group projected messages on the hotel’s facade: “System change not climate change;” “100 companies, 71 percent of global emissions, 13 of their CEOs in this hotel;” and “Make polluters pay. Make Big Oil pay.”

The activists pointed out that while OGCI claims to back the Paris Agreement, its member corporations, like ExxonMobil and Shell, have spent billions of dollars seeking to undermine climate action while knowingly fueling the climate crisis.

The Beef with Japan (and Trump)

The UN summit was a stark reminder that nations are not taking strong enough action to meet the benchmarks set by the Paris Agreement. By noon, the summit’s audience had dramatically thinned out.

This week in New York City, many more sessions dealing with the climate crisis are planned at the United Nations, and will be complemented by more protests against the fossil fuel industry.

Sparse attendance of UN Climate Action Summit panel in the afternoon
Sparse attendance during an afternoon session at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. 

Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan Minister of the Environment
Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan’s Minister of the Environment, before the start of the UN Climate Action Summit.

Meanwhile, President Trump is meeting with some of those who attended the Climate Action Summit but over issues not remotely connected to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Among them is Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan’s new Minister of the Environment, who was taken to task by Japanese media for his comments about looking forward to eating steak at a New York restaurant the night of the global climate strikes. (Raising beef cattle is a major contributor to methane emissions and deforestation.) Koizumi’s comment may have been a reference to the fact that Trump is trying to make a deal in which Japan would cut tariffs on beef and pork, in a move that would benefit U.S. farmers, but almost certainly not the climate.

At the end of the day, Thunberg was right: Another international meeting on climate change and another opportunity missed to set the world on course to ward off the climate crisis.

Main image: Greta Thunberg speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. Credit: All photos and video by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog

Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at

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