The 74th Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly took place from 17 – 30 September in New York City. This annual meeting of 193 governments from across the globe is the main policy and decision-making body of the UN where every state within the General Assembly has one vote on some of the most critical issues of our time.
While this is meant to be a symbol of equality among nations, those of us who bear witness to a broken world know that unjust structures of society complicate what equality actually means. We live in a world where climate change-related disasters and climate-induced migration pose an existential threat to human security, human rights, economic prosperity, and cultural and ecological preservation. Most importantly, we know that there are some nations and communities for whom addressing the climate catastrophe is not only a moral and ethical call, but a life-defining one. They bear the devastating impact of a problem to which they have barely contributed.
These messages and related stories from around the Anglican Communion were among those shared by the Anglican Communion Office at the United Nations (ACOUN) to the UN General Assembly. This year’s Assembly featured a “Summits Week” of five high-level Summits for Heads of State. Most notably, the week began on 23 September with the Climate Action Summit, convened by the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, with a focus on the urgent need to address the climate emergency.
The Climate Action Summit was meant to ignite new commitments from all attending governments, to draw upon best practices of multi-stakeholder partnerships, and to accelerate much-needed action. Yet, as we came to the end of the Summits Week, very few of the commitments made were substantial enough to address the crisis we face. While commitments to enhance contributions to the Green Climate Fund were made by France, Norway, the Republic of Korea, and Sweden, and climate finance spending was pledged by some countries, including from the UK, Qatar, Spain, and Singapore, ambitious strategies for implementation were absent from most governments’ speeches. The week ended with many observers noting that government’s fell drastically short of what is required.
Even worse, many of those who are most affected by the climate emergency or came to New York carrying messages of those in dire need did not even make it into to the room. The “moral conscience” of civil society was silenced, and besides the powerful speech made by Greta Thunberg, decision-makers were almost entirely shielded from the “truth-telling” that they urgently needed to hear.
Nevertheless, the ACOUN lifted up urgent calls for action and the work of Anglican churches, agencies and networks around the Communion who are addressing challenges by responding to disasters, building resilience, and calling for action from their own leaders. We also joined the impressive and inspiring mobilization of young people around the world that preceded the Summit demanding stronger and more effective measures to combat climate change.
As we know, many small island developing states (SIDS) like The Bahamas, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives are among those most affected by climate change. Despite the fact that they are among the lowest polluting countries in the world, we were inspired by their leadership in making commitments at the Summit, and at the SIDS Summit later that week. It is our hope that the other countries who fell short of the required ambitious response took note of this courageous and humble leadership.
If the UN General Assembly is supposed to be the great equalizer of all countries, it fell short this year when it came to climate action by all Member States. There are questions to be asked of all our political leaders.. How do we redress the inequality between responsibility for and response to the climate emergency? Between apathy and action? Indifference and inspiration? Each of us are called to play our part. We are called to transform unjust structures of society. How will you respond?