For anyone paying attention, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ opening address to the General Assembly high-level general debate, in New York on Tuesday was stunning in its dire tone and deeply worrisome in what it foreshadows for humanity.
Guterres starkly laid out a slew of crises that he said, “threaten the very future of humanity and the fate of our planet.” It was perhaps the bleakest opening to any United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in decades and certainly the sharpest of his tenure since 2017.
“Our world is in big trouble. Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther,” he said.
The fact that the secretary-general’s remarks came in the shadow of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin dangling a nuclear threat over Ukraine served to heighten the dangers that were being pointed out.
In the context of the Russian war on Ukraine, he specifically spoke of the serious disruption in the supply of food and fertilizer out of Ukraine and its devastating long-term impact.
“To ease the global food crisis, we now must urgently address the global fertilizer market crunch. This year, the world has enough food; the problem is distribution. But if the fertilizer market is not stabilized, next year’s problem might be food supply itself.
We already have reports of farmers in West Africa and beyond cultivating fewer crops because of the price or lack of availability of fertilizers. It is essential to continue removing all remaining obstacles to the export of Russian fertilizers and their ingredients, including ammonia. These products are not subject to sanctions — and we will keep up our efforts to eliminate indirect effects,” he said.
To add a sting to his observations, Guterres said millions of people of the Horn of Africa are on the “edge of famine” because of the Russia-Ukraine war.
However, he did single out the Black Sea Grain Initiative which “has opened the pathway for the safe navigation of dozens of ships filled with much needed food supplies. But each ship is also carrying one of today’s rarest commodities: hope.”
“Ukraine and the Russian Federation — with the support of Türkiye — came together to make it happen — despite the enormous complexities, the naysayers, and even the hell of war. Some might call it a miracle on the sea. In truth, it is multilateral diplomacy in action,” he said.
But that was the only upbeat aspect of his 25-minute address. He said high gas prices could seriously impact the production of nitrogen fertilizers which in turn could “morph into a global food shortage.”
“We need action across the board. Let’s have no illusions. We are in rough seas. A winter of global discontent is on the horizon. A cost-of-living crisis is raging. Trust is crumbling. Inequalities are exploding. Our planet is burning. People are hurting – with the most vulnerable suffering the most. The United Nations Charter and the ideals it represents are in jeopardy. We have a duty to act.
And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction. The international community is not ready or willing to tackle the big dramatic challenges of our age. These crises threaten the very future of humanity and the fate of our planet. Crises like the war in Ukraine and the multiplication of conflicts around the globe. Crises like the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. Crises like the dire financial situation of developing countries and the fate of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Guterres said.
A particular point that could be of both interest and concern to those in Silicon Valley was what he said about new technologies and social media platforms.
“Crises like the lack of guardrails around promising new technologies to heal disease, connect people and expand opportunity. In just the time since I became Secretary-General, a tool has been developed to edit genes. Neurotechnology — connecting technology with the human nervous system — has progressed from idea to proof of concept. Cryptocurrencies and other blockchain technologies are widespread.
But across a host of new technologies, there is a forest of red flags. Social media platforms based on a business model that monetizes outrage, anger and negativity are causing untold damage to communities and societies. Hate speech, misinformation and abuse — targeted especially at women and vulnerable groups — are proliferation,” he said.
Going directly to the heart of some Silicon Valley giants’ very business model, he said, “Our data is being bought and sold to influence our behavior, while spyware and surveillance are out of control — all, with no regard for privacy. Artificial intelligence can compromise the integrity of information systems, the media, and indeed democracy itself. Quantum computing could destroy cybersecurity and increase the risk of malfunctions to complex systems. We don’t have the beginnings of a global architecture to deal with any of this.”
These are extraordinary observations coming from the UN secretary-general and may signal some kind of concerted global action to challenge the unfettered march of these technologies and platforms.
Guterres also took on the world’s most dangerous crisis—climate change. “There is another battle we must end — our suicidal war against nature. The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time. It must be the first priority of every Government and multilateral organization. And yet climate action is being put on the back burner — despite overwhelming public support around the world. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to be slashed by 45 per cent by 2030 to have any hope of reaching net zero emissions by 2050,” he said.
Saying humanity has “a rendezvous with climate disaster” he said emissions are going up at record levels — “on course to a 14 per cent increase this decade.”
“Planet Earth is a victim of scorched earth policies. The past year has brought us Europe’s worst heatwave since the Middle Ages. Megadrought in China, the United States and beyond. Famine stalking the Horn of Africa. One million species at risk of extinction. No region is untouched,” he said.
Continuing to paint dire future, he said, “And we ain’t seen nothing yet. The hottest summers of today may be the coolest summers of tomorrow. Once-in-a-lifetime climate shocks may soon become once-a-year events.”
With that as the backdrop, he directly attacked the fossil fuels industry. “Let’s tell it like it is. Our world is addicted to fossil fuels. It’s time for an intervention. We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account. That includes the banks, private equity, asset managers and other financial institutions that continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution.
And it includes the massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny. Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation. Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster — and more time averting a planetary one,” he said.
Advocating the “polluters must pay” principle, much hated by the petroleum giants, he said, “Today, I am calling on all developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies. Those funds should be re-directed in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis; and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices.
As we head to the COP 27 UN Climate Conference in Egypt [twenty-seventh session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], I appeal to all leaders to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement [on climate change]. Lift your climate ambition. Listen to your people’s calls for change. Invest in solutions that lead to sustainable economic growth,” he said.
While at it, Guterres also addressed the biodiversity crisis. “The world must agree on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework — one that sets ambitious targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, provides adequate financing and eliminates harmful subsidies that destroy ecosystems on which we all depend,” he said.