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Wildfires and floods bring nations together for ‘a serious moment’

Widespread impact of climate change along with ongoing military conflict gives world leaders pause
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the World Law Congress at the United Nations, Friday, July 21, 2023. Trudeau returns to the UN on Tuesday for two days of meetings with world leaders, environmental crusaders and civil-society luminaries at a time when urgent climate priorities and geopolitical uncertainty are likely to dominate the agenda.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

At the annual UN General Assembly, that traffic-snarling symposium of international hand-wringing and high dudgeon now underway in New York City, the peril of climate change is always a prominent topic.

But as Taylor Swift might say, it hits different after the summer of 2023.

The year saw a record-setting wildfire season in Canada, more than 11,000 dead from catastrophic flooding in Libya and a record 23 separate billion-dollar weather disasters in the U.S. in just the first eight months.

And it’s far from the only existential crisis that will confront Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he arrives Tuesday for two days of meetings with world leaders, environmental crusaders and civil-society luminaries.

His trip comes on the heels of news Monday that Canadian intelligence agencies are investigating what Trudeau called “credible” information linking India’s government to the killing of a prominent Sikh leader in British Columbia.

Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on relentlessly, the global angst augmented by last week’s ominous meeting in Vladivostok between President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The uneasy truce of the UN’s own Black Sea grain deal has collapsed, all but cutting off the developing world from one of the planet’s most vital sources of food, cooking oil and fertilizer.

West Africa has seen no fewer than eight military coups since 2020, most recently in Niger and Gabon, while Haiti remains racked by political chaos and gang violence, all in the midst of an unchecked cholera outbreak.

And the UN’s ambitious effort to check off a laundry list of sustainable development goals — a particular focus for Trudeau — has largely stalled, hampered by political intransigence and sluggish post-pandemic economies.

“It’s a serious moment in the life of the world,” said Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, who cites climate, conflict and sustainability as the three biggest challenges facing this year’s multilateral mosh pit.

“There was sort of a school of thought that said, ‘Every day, everything’s getting better, it’s not getting worse.’ Right now, we can’t say that.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged as much in his news conference Thursday.

“We will be gathering at a time when humanity faces huge challenges — from the worsening climate emergency to escalating conflicts, the global cost-of-living crisis, soaring inequalities and dramatic technological disruptions,” he said.

“People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess. Yet in the face of all this and more, geopolitical divisions are undermining our capacity to respond.”

In the U.S., the climate alarms are flashing red.

A report Monday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration catalogued the highest number of climate-related disasters ever recorded in a single calendar year — one that still has three months to go.

So far, 2023 ranks as the ninth-warmest in the continental U.S. in 129 years, with new temperature records being set just last month in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida and a potentially historic hurricane season now underway.

“The world is increasingly coming to grips with the reality that climate change is not a future event, it’s a current event,” Rae said.

“It’s a today issue, and it’s as much about resilience, adaptation and really investing in infrastructure and other ways of protecting people’s health and safety for the current crisis, which will be ongoing.”

The sense of urgency was palpable on city streets all over the world Friday and through the weekend, with massive protests unfolding throughout Europe, southeast Asia, Africa and the U.S.

Thousands marched in cities across Canada, part of a co-ordinated show of force in advance of the UN meetings and Climate Week in New York, where the protests culminated Sunday in a massive rally that attracted tens of thousands.

“Climate must be a centrepiece of inside and outside organizing — an electoral and popular force that cannot be ignored,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the climate standard-bearer for progressive Democrats.

“This issue is the biggest issue of our time, and because of that we must be too big and too radical to ignore.”

Instead of talking about ambitious but unrealistic new emissions targets, the UN will instead press members on how they plan to hit existing ones, said Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of the climate group Destination Zero.

“This is a moment of honesty and inflection,” Abreu told a news conference last week.

“We need to get real about the fact that despite the targets that we have been setting over the course of the last decade, we are not delivering on those promises.”

In particular, Guterres will be focused on some of the biggest gaps between promises made and promises kept, one of which is the transition away from fossil fuels, she added.

“Countries — including, in particular, major producers like Canada — will be asked how they plan to align their production of fossil fuels … with their promises under international climate treaties,” Abreu said.

“There is an open question as to how Canada will align the positions that it’s taking in those international fora with the action that it is taking here at home.”

One such action reared its head Monday when the federal government, which has been under pressure from Indigenous communities to rescind its support for the controversial Line 5 pipeline, did precisely the opposite.

Government lawyers filed a brief urging a U.S. appeals court to reverse a June 2026 deadline to shut down the cross-border oil and gas conduit if it can’t be rerouted around an Indigenous reserve in Wisconsin in time.

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