With humanity already struggling to cope with rising seas, more powerful storms, deadly heat waves and rapidly changing ecosystems needed to sustain life, the global climate summit in Glasgow opened on Monday with a series of speeches that amounted to desperate pleas for action from nations large and small.
“Climate change is already ravaging the world,” President Biden said in a speech at the summit, known as COP26, on Monday afternoon. But even while global warming is causing widespread economic damage and upending lives, he said this was also a moment of opportunity to reshape the way humans live in better harmony with nature.
“We are standing at an inflection point in world history,” he said, calling climate change an “existential threat to human existence as we know it.”
“None of us can escape the worst that is yet to come if we fail to seize this moment,” he said.
Underscoring the urgency of the moment, with leaders of more than 120 countries gathered for the summit, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said that the effects of a warming planet were being felt “from the ocean depths to the mountaintops.”
“Sea level rise has doubled from 30 years ago,” he said. Oceans are hotter than ever, parts of the Amazon rain forest emit more carbon than they absorb, and in the last decade about four billion people were affected by events related to the changing climate.
“Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper,” Mr. Guterres said. “We are digging our own graves.”
The conference’s aim is to prevent the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with levels before the Industrial Revolution. That is the threshold beyond which scientists say the dangers of global warming — such as deadly heat waves, water shortages, crop failures and ecosystem collapse — grow immensely.
But Mr. Guterres said the idea that humanity is making enough progress was “an illusion.” He called on countries not to return to the summit every year to revisit their climate targets, but to take the opportunity to nudge one another on “until keeping to 1.5 degrees is assured, until subsidies to fossil fuels end, until there is a price on carbon and until coal is phased out.”
Many countries will press against such specific measures, and the absence of leaders from Russia and China from the meeting cast doubts on how united the world can be in the struggle.
China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, proposed a new emissions target that is largely indistinguishable from one it made six years ago. The United States, the largest historic emitter, has an ambitious emissions goal but has not been able to pass legislation to achieve it. And Australia, India and Russia have not made any new pledges to draw down climate pollution this decade.
Meanwhile, only a few wealthy countries have allocated money to help poor and vulnerable nations cope with the effects of climate disasters that those countries have done little to cause.
Those two factors make the likelihood of success at the conference, known as COP26, uncertain.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain kicked off the summit with an urgent call for action, likening climate change to a bomb primed to explode, even as he acknowledged the challenges ahead.
“The tragedy is that this is not a movie and the doomsday device is real,” he said. “Humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It is one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now.”
The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, poked holes in the climate promises of some countries that are based on technologies that don’t yet exist.
“This is at best reckless,” she said, and “at worst dangerous.”
President Biden told world leaders on Monday that “we only have a brief window before us to raise our ambitions” to fight climate change, warning that climate disasters were already imposing trillions of dollars of economic costs but offering hope that a shift to lower-emission energy sources could create millions of jobs around the world.
“Glasgow must be the kickoff of a decade of innovation and ambition to preserve our shared world,” Mr. Biden said in a speech that lasted just over 11 minutes, near the beginning of a session with fellow leaders at the U.N. summit on climate change, known as COP26.
The president touted the potential emissions reductions in a sweeping spending bill that Democrats are hoping to pass through the House and Senate soon, but which still has uncertain prospects to make it to Mr. Biden’s desk.
He did not lay out more ambitious short-term targets or pledges for American emissions reductions, beyond those he detailed at a climate meeting in April, although he said he would release on Monday a long-term plan to bring the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050.
He also did not call out China — as his national security adviser did earlier in the day — for insufficient action on emissions reduction. Instead, he called for global cooperation.
“We’re still falling short,” he said. “There is no more time to hang back or sit on the fence or argue amongst ourselves. This is a challenge of our collective lifetime.”
Mr. Biden said that in the days to come, his administration would detail new efforts to reduce emissions through forestry and the agriculture and oil and gas industries. And he pledged additional U.S. support for developing nations in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
“God bless you all,” Mr. Biden said, slightly tweaking his traditional speech-closing remarks, “and may God save the planet.”
The Biden administration ramped up its criticism of China on Monday as the U.S. president traveled to Glasgow for the climate summit, calling on the Chinese to increase their emissions-cutting ambitions.
The critique sought to portray China and its leader, Xi Jinping — who is notably absent from COP26 — as large-economy laggards in the race to limit rising temperatures. It was also aimed at shifting criticism away from America’s domestic struggles in pushing to reduce emissions.
Briefing reporters on Air Force One, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called the Chinese “significant outliers” among countries that have made commitments in an attempt to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Mr. Sullivan said that China had “an obligation to step up to greater ambition as we go forward.”
Asked about how the tense U.S.-China relationship was affecting climate talks globally, Mr. Sullivan heaped blame on Beijing, calling the country’s climate steps “deeply asymmetrical.”
“The United States, despite whatever difficulties we have with China, is stepping up,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We’re going to do 50 to 52 percent reduction by 2030. We’re coming forward with all of our commitments — we’re filling our end of the bargain at COP.”
China is “a big country with a lot of resources and a lot of capabilities,” he added, “and they are perfectly well capable of living up to their responsibilities.”
Diplomats from some of the world’s most vulnerable countries have avoided openly criticizing China. When asked about the new target that Beijing announced last week, which is largely indistinguishable from its 2015 target of peaking emission before 2030, many diplomats said only that all Group of 20 nations must be more ambitious.
“The world needs more,” Tina Stege, a climate ambassador for the Marshall Islands, said in a statement. “China can do more, and it should, as should all members of the G20.”
Alf Wills, a former chief negotiator for South Africa, said that developing nations were loath to publicly criticize China for several reasons. For one, Chinese diplomats can be instrumental in pushing wealthy nations to deliver funding for poor countries. For another, China now far outpaces the United States in delivering aid to the developing world.
“To a large extent China represents, from an economic perspective, pretty much an economic superpower,” Mr. Wills said, “particularly among developing countries.”
The 27 member states of the European Union, representing nearly 450 million people, come to Glasgow with a degree of smugness, having committed to a significant cut in carbon emissions.
In July, the European Union presented one of the world’s most aggressive and detailed plans to become a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. To force the issue, Brussels has committed in law to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases 55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.
But there are complicated and heated debates within the bloc about how to achieve such a reduction and about what qualifies as “green” enough to get subsidies. Some big, influential countries like France and Poland want nuclear energy to qualify, both to support existing infrastructure and to lessen traditional dependency on coal.
The proposals require that 38.5 percent of all energy be from renewables by 2030.
Others are eager to water down proposals to halt the sales of any new gas- and diesel-powered cars, even hybrids, in just 14 years.
But key to the plan is to increase the price of carbon emissions from nearly every sector of the economy, affecting things like the cement used in construction and the fuel used by cruise ships.
There is also a debate about whether and how high to impose carbon taxes on imports, a so-called carbon border tax, so that European companies do not face a competitive disadvantage from products produced in less environmentally stringent countries. And there are promises made about a fund, raised from new taxes on carbon, that could provide up to 70 billion euros (about $81 billion) to help governments help the people who are most affected.
While contentious, the proposals made by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, are an attempt to assert global leadership in the world’s effort to reduce emissions. European companies also hope to produce technological advances that they can sell to other countries.
Although the European Union produces only about 8 percent of current global carbon emissions, its cumulative emissions since the start of the industrial age are among the world’s highest. But as a huge market, it also sees itself as an important regulatory power for the world and hopes to set an example, invent new technologies to sell and provide global standards that can lead to a carbon-neutral economy.
David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, which must ratify any final deal, said in a statement about the Glasgow meeting that “we cannot afford for it to fail.”
A recent U.N. report on emissions, he continued, “makes clear that the current national plans to tackle climate change are nowhere near enough.”
“If we are serious about preventing a rise of more than 1.5 degrees,” he said, “then nice ambitions need to become clear and achievable policies.”
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, on Monday issued a blistering critique of the world’s failure to rein in global warming, calling on countries to return every year to review their climate targets — not every five years, as the Paris climate agreement spells out.
“Even if the recent pledges were clear and credible — and there are serious questions about some of them — we are still careening towards climate catastrophe,” he said at the opening ceremony of COP26, the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow.
“Our planet is talking to us,” Mr. Guterres said. “We must listen, and we must act.”
He was referring to analyses that have found that even if all countries meet their national targets to slow down emissions, the global average temperature is projected to rise 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of this century compared with preindustrial times. That would put the world on a path to more intense heat, fires and flooding.
Scientists have concluded that the best way to avert the worst consequences of climate change is to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Mr. Guterres’ call for yearly reviews is being pushed by a group of countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, but it is expected to face major pushback from many countries that will argue that it moves the goal posts of the 2015 Paris agreement.
Mr. Guterres said these annual reviews should be conducted until the world as a whole can meet the 1.5-degree target. And he also raised the bar with specific demands, including an end to subsidies for fossil fuels, a price on carbon dioxide emissions and a phasing out of coal.
There is no agreement among the world’s major polluters on any of that. Even as recently as Sunday, leaders of the Group of 20 wealthy nations — which produce 80 percent of the world’s emissions, led by the United States, China and European Union countries — emerged from a summit in Rome with an agreement only to end overseas funding for coal.
David Attenborough, one of Britain’s most trusted public figures and among the world’s most recognizable voices for Earth’s natural beauty, implored leaders to use the COP26 summit as a climate turning point, creating a more equitable world in the process.
The naturalist, whose narrative gravitas has focused attention on the planet’s health for decades, was among the earliest speakers at the conference on Monday alongside world leaders and climate activists.
“If working apart we are force powerful enough to destabilize our planet, surely working together we are powerful enough to save it,” said Mr. Attenborough, 95.
In his nature documentaries, Mr. Attenborough has guided viewers to the most beautiful corners of the planet, with his gentle but authoritative voice a comforting presence. But his work has never shied from politically thorny environmental issues, and he often speaks directly about the high stakes of climate change and the action necessary to address it.
On Monday, he focused his remarks on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, a measure that he said “defines our relationship with our world.” In the last 10,000 years, as the number stabilized, he said, civilization was made possible and humans took advantage.
But he warned that this stability was now under threat.
“Perhaps the fact that the people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation but young people alive today — perhaps that will give us the impetus we need to rewrite our story,” he said.
As Greta Thunberg joined scores of protesters on the streets outside the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow on Monday, an online petition that she helped start quickly drew more than a million signatures.
The open letter from Ms. Thunberg and other young climate activists — including Vanessa Nakate, Dominika Lasota and Mitzi Tan — accused political leaders of betrayal for not meeting their own goals to address global warming.
“Right now, world leaders are meeting for historic climate talks, but pledges without real action won’t cut it anymore,” Ms. Thunberg said. “We are catastrophically far from the crucial goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and yet governments everywhere are still accelerating the crisis, spending billions on fossil fuels.”
The impact of the youth campaign led by Ms. Thunberg was evident in the halls of the conference, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain borrowed from her scathing indictment of the political leaders.
“All the promises will be nothing but blah, blah, blah, to coin a phrase, unless we get real,” Mr. Johnson said.
Ms. Thunberg, 18, is not scheduled to speak at the 12-day summit, which started on Sunday. The activist, whose solo climate strikes in 2018 helped fuel a global youth climate movement, was quickly surrounded by a raucous crowd after stepping out of a gate at Glasgow Central Station, according to videos of the scene posted on social media.
She did not appear to speak to those who surrounded her, according to the videos. She kept her head down and followed the police officers who were escorting her through the crowd, which appeared to include photographers, young people and one heated man who admonished those gathered.
“Have some compassion. You’re not entitled to her,” he told a photographer in one of the videos.
Another man said: “Give her some space. This is not right.”
Ms. Thunberg told the BBC in an interview last week that she had not been officially invited to speak at the summit. She added that she thought the summit organizers had not invited a lot of young speakers because they “might be scared that if they invite too many ‘radical’ young people then that might make them look bad,” she said, using air quotations.
Frustrated over being ignored in the climate change fight, small island nations most affected by rising sea levels and hurricanes are turning to an international court in the hope of winning compensation to cover losses and better protect themselves.
On Sunday, as the COP26 summit began, the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda and the Pacific nation of Tuvalu set in motion a procedure before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to claim damages from major polluting countries.
“Litigation is the only way we will be taken seriously while the leaders of big countries are dillydallying,” said Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, who is the chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States. “We want to force them to respond in a court of law.”
While small island states “did not create the problems of climate change,” Mr. Browne added, “we are on the frontline of this fight because we are on the frontline of bearing the catastrophic consequences.”
The current climate accords do not include provisions for dispute settlement. But the tribunal based in Hamburg, Germany, has a mandate to settle disputes linked to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which obliges nations to protect the marine environment. A large majority of nations have ratified the convention, although the United States is among those that have not.
The tribunal has ruled on seabed mining, marine boundaries and fisheries, but it has never heard a case involving greenhouse gases and their effects on the oceans.
As a first step, the islands will ask the tribunal judges whether it is possible to claim damages from countries emitting greenhouse gases that warm and change the oceans. The islands hope that the judges will rule on whether excessive greenhouse gases are pollutants covered under the convention, a decision that could be groundbreaking because it could pave the way for lawsuits before the tribunal or other international courts.
Payam Akhavan, a lawyer representing both Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu, said such a ruling “could be a game-changer. The principle is that the polluter pays.”
The countries have joined forces because two signatories are required to start the process, but they expect other islands to join the legal effort.
Island states worldwide face varying challenges from the warming climate. Low-lying atolls, mainly in the Pacific, have seen rising seas erode territory and damage crops and drinking water. Volcanic islands in the Caribbean have suffered infrastructure damage because of a growing number of hurricanes.
Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, speaking before the global climate gathering on Monday, said that wealthy nations’ failure to act amounted to a “death sentence” for island nations like hers and much of the developing world.
“Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” she asked.
John Kerry, who helped clinch the Paris climate agreement in 2015 as secretary of state and who came out of retirement to become President Biden’s climate envoy, arrives on Monday with a carefully crafted message for the United Nations summit: It is critically important but not the last chance for action.
“Glasgow was never going to be, you know, the definitive one meeting,” he said in a recent interview.
That is in contrast to Mr. Kerry’s comments last month, when he described the summit as “the last best hope” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
The aim of the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. climate convention, or COP26, is to galvanize world leaders to cut planet-warming emissions enough to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees compared with preindustrial levels. At that point effects like sea level rise, devastated crop yields and the death of coral reefs become irreversible. Glasgow will be the first time since nations agreed in 2015 to curb emissions that leaders have been asked to ratchet up their targets.
Expectations for the Glasgow summit are high. A banner reading, “The world is looking to you, COP26,” greets arrivals at the airport.
“Where Paris promised, Glasgow must deliver,” Alok Sharma, the British politician who is president of the conference, declared on Sunday at the gathering’s formal opening.
But the reality is that leaders are aware that it will not. China, India, Russia, Australia and Saudi Arabia have issued either weak new plans or none at all to cut carbon emissions from fossil fuels this decade. And the United States, which has an ambitious target of cutting emissions roughly in half by 2030, is failing to pass legislation that could ensure meeting that goal.
Mr. Kerry noted that when Mr. Biden took office few countries had committed to targets that keep 1.5 degrees in reach. “We have pushed and cajoled and negotiated with countless countries,” he said, and now nations representing about 65 percent of the global economic output have ambitious targets for the coming decade.
“Glasgow was never ever going to get every country joining up,” Mr. Kerry said, adding: “It was going to galvanize the raising of ambition on a global basis, and the fact is that ambition will be more significantly increased in Glasgow than at any time.”
Mr. Kerry said he was already looking to next year to build on the pledges that countries have made and push them to do more.
“It is critical that countries lay out better plans,” Mr. Kerry said on Sunday in a call with journalists. “We fight to keep the 1.5 degree goal.”
Prince Charles called for “a military-style campaign” to combat climate change during an address to world leaders at the COP26 summit on Monday.
His remarks built on comments in Rome, where he described the conference that began on Monday as “the last-chance saloon” to avoid the most severe effects from climate change.
“The future of humanity and nature herself is at stake,” said Charles, who is known as the Prince of Wales and is the heir to the British throne.
“It is also impossible not to hear the despairing voices of young people who see you, ladies and gentlemen, as the stewards of the planet holding the viability of their future in your hands,” he told world leaders assembled at the Group of 20 summit in Rome on Sunday. He reminded them that they had an “overwhelming responsibility to generations yet unborn.”
He said that adequately addressing climate change would require “trillions of dollars of investment every year to create the necessary new infrastructure and meet the vital 1.5-degree climate target that will save our forests and farms, our oceans and wildlife.”
“Now,” he said, “after I suppose nearly 50 years of trying to raise awareness of the growing climate and environmental crisis, I am at last sensing a changing of attitude and a building up of positive momentum.”
The prince’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was initially scheduled to attend the climate meeting but is skipping it after being advised by her doctors to rest.
Organizing a global summit with leaders from more than 100 nations and tens of thousands of delegates and activists — while preparing for more than 100,000 protesters to fill the streets outside the conference halls — would be a daunting challenge at any time.
This is not any time. With the coronavirus still stalking the planet, officials at this year’s COP26 climate summit, already delayed a year because of the pandemic, are under pressure to address the dangers posed by a warming planet even as the invisible threat of the virus looms. As the summit kicked off, the official global virus death toll passed five million.
And just as the changing climate has already had some of the most devastating consequences on the world’s poorest nations, the failure to equitably distribute lifesaving vaccines has left the world divided between the protected and the exposed.
Vaccine inequity is also having an impact on the summit, with activists saying that the voices from some of the nations most affected by climate change are not being properly represented.
Dorothy Guerrero, of the advocacy group Global Justice Now, told reporters over the weekend that the refusal to give more manufacturers access to produce the vaccines was part of the reason that some delegates from developing nations were unable to attend.
“You are already saddled by the fact that your country was affected already for many decades, and you are the least responsible for this climate change,” she said at a news conference in Glasgow. “Yet you could not come here and raise your voice in this important meeting simply because you don’t have access to the vaccine.”
Britain offered to help any delegates who need a Covid-19 vaccination obtain one, but attendees are not required to be inoculated. Instead, delegates must show proof of a negative coronavirus test every day to be admitted to the conference center.
Many countries have vowed to do more to fight climate change, but those plans fall short of what is needed to avoid a dangerous rise in global temperatures.
The world’s four biggest emitters — China, the United States, the European Union and India — are responsible for just over half of global greenhouse gas output and are considered key to limiting future effects from climate change.
These charts show emissions pathways for the world’s 10 biggest polluters, based on data from Climate Action Tracker. They illustrate how emissions are projected to change through 2030 under current climate policies, how much each country has promised to curb its emissions, and what would be needed to limit total global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, a goal that many leaders and scientists increasingly say is necessary to avoid the worst effects from heat waves, droughts, wildfires and flooding.
If countries all follow through on their current near-term pledges, the world could potentially limit warming to roughly 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, according to Climate Action Tracker. But many scientists say that is still too risky.
To hold global warming to a lower level of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the world’s nations would all need to do much more, collectively cutting their fossil fuel emissions roughly in half this decade.
Here’s a look at some of the promises.
When President Biden was asked in Rome on Sunday about criticism of the world’s wealthiest economies to do more to address climate change, he noted to absence of two key players: China and Russia.
“Not only Russia, but China, basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change,” the president told reporters. “There’s a reason why people should be disappointed in that. I found it disappointing myself.”
One day later, as Mr. Biden joined more than 100 world leaders who have descended on Glasgow for a critical climate summit — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain — the leaders of China and Russia were among the most notable no-shows.
The presence of heads of state and government at the talks is not just symbolic. Real work gets done among leaders that cannot happen among lower-level diplomats. During the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, President Barack Obama barged in to a secret meeting being held by the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The discussions that came after helped clinch a deal, albeit a weak one.
So the high-profile absences this time have dismayed some experts.
“Even as most democracies are making ambitious climate commitments, the world’s most powerful autocrats in Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere are thumbing their noses, refusing to cut their emissions and even to show up at climate negotiations,” said Paul Bledsoe, who advised the Clinton White House on climate change and is now with the Progressive Policy Institute.
Mr. Putin said more than a week ago that he would not attend the summit, signaling that he had concerns about the coronavirus.
“The president unfortunately will not speak, because the option to participate by videoconference is not available in Glasgow,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman.
Mr. Peskov responded to Mr. Biden’s comments by saying that Russia was “already ahead of many countries, including those of Western Europe,” in transitioning to low-carbon sources of energy.
Mr. Putin, addressing the Group of 20 summit in Rome via video on Sunday, said that 86 percent of Russian energy consumption came from nuclear, renewables and natural gas. Critics note that while natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide of coal, it still generates pollution that is warming the planet, and its pipelines are vulnerable to leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Mr. Bolsonaro, under fire for his environmental policies, has not given a reason for his absence. He attended the G20 talks over the weekend, and he is visiting an Italian town that plans to award him honorary citizenship instead of going to the climate conference.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has pledged to make tackling climate change a priority, was also expected to travel to Glasgow after the G20 summit, but instead flew back to Istanbul, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday. The reason for skipping the climate talks was a protocol issue involving his delegation in Glasgow, an official told reporters. Turkey’s environment minister is expected to attend the conference in his place.
Mr. Xi is expected to issue a statement to the Glasgow summit. He has not publicly left China since the coronavirus spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan.