Record temperatures herald 'climate hell', UN chief warns after hottest ever May

Humankind poses meteor-like risk to its own survival, Antonio Guterres says on World Environment Day

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Reuters
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Humankind is on a fast track to “climate hell”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday after scientists announced the world experienced its hottest May on record and the 12th consecutive month of record heat.

The UN chief also said it was time for countries to ban fossil fuel advertising and likened humanity's role in the destructive warming of the planet to the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Speaking at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Mr Guterres said the world faces an 80 per cent chance of smashing past the 1.5°C target for limiting average temperature increases in at least one of the next five years, quoting a report from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

“Of the vast forces that have shaped life on Earth over billions of years, humanity is just one small blip on the radar,” he said in a speech marking World Environment Day.

“But like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, we're having an outsize impact,” he warned.

“In the case of climate, we are not the dinosaurs. We are the meteor. We are not only in danger. We are the danger.”

Mr Guterres also cited evidence from the European Union-funded Copernicus Climate Change Service showing that each of the past 12 months has set a new global temperature record for the time of year.

“We need an exit ramp off the motorway to climate hell,” he said. “The battle for 1.5 degrees will be won or lost in the 2020s.”

Under the Paris Agreement, countries committed to keeping global temperatures well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, aiming for a 1.5°C limit. Scientists have warned that exceeding 1.5°C could cause severe climate impacts, with every fraction of a degree being critical.

“Behind these statistics lies the bleak reality that we are way off track to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement,” said WMO deputy secretary general Ko Barrett.

“We must urgently do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, or we will pay an increasingly heavy price in terms of trillions of dollars in economic costs, millions of lives affected by more extreme weather and extensive damage to the environment and biodiversity.”

A longtime critic of oil and gas companies' role in driving climate change, Mr Guterres accused “the godfathers of climate chaos” of spending billions on “distorting the truth, deceiving the public, and sowing doubt” about climate change, while investing just “a measly 2.5 per cent” of its total capital on clean energy alternatives.

He called for a fossil fuel advertising ban and criticised financial institutions, as well as media and public relations firms, for supporting the industry's advertisements and accepting content sponsorships.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction,” Mr Guterres said. “Stop taking on new fossil-fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones.”

Countries should ban such advertising, he said, as many countries do for tobacco and other products that have proven harmful to human health.

The UN chief's speech coincides with climate talks under way in Bonn, Germany, aiming to set the stage for the UN Cop29 summit in Azerbaijan in November.

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Updated: June 05, 2024, 4:19 PM