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Climate change is on the agenda as U.N. General Assembly meets in New York

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Global leaders are gathering in New York this week for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. Climate change is very much on the agenda. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has invited countries to a special climate summit. Then there are talks and events scheduled throughout the week and of course, protests. Tens of thousands of people marched in Manhattan yesterday in one of the biggest climate protests we've seen since before the pandemic.

FADEL: Yeah. And NPR's Rachel Waldholz was there, and now she's here with us from the climate desk. Good morning, Rachel.

RACHEL WALDHOLZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: OK. So, Rachel, you were at that march yesterday. What were protesters demanding?

WALDHOLZ: Protesters at this march were focused on basically one big thing. And that was phasing out fossil fuels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We need clean air, not another billionaire.

WALDHOLZ: And I should note that this protest was very much directed at President Joe Biden. So protesters were demanding the president act more quickly to move the U.S. away from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil and gas, which are the biggest drivers of climate change. You know, and actually, Biden has taken some really significant steps on climate change. So the Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, which passed last year, directed hundreds of billions of dollars to technologies like wind and solar and electric vehicles, all to cut U.S. emissions. But the organizers of yesterday's protests say that that is not enough, and they want Biden to stop approving new fossil fuel projects. Basically to use his executive powers as aggressively as possible to curb the production and use of oil and gas in the U.S.

FADEL: And these protests and this week at the U.N. General Assembly is coming after a summer of extreme weather - heat waves, deadly wildfire in Maui, absolute devastation after flooding in Libya. Would phasing out fossil fuels more quickly help prevent summers like the one we just saw?

WALDHOLZ: Well, the short answer is that we have already locked in a certain amount of warming. So now it's about preventing things from getting much worse. So our current level of warming already makes many types of extreme weather more likely. Heat and drought can make wildfires more intense. A warmer atmosphere makes heavy rain more common. That contributes to flooding. But scientists say if we want to avoid even more common extreme weather and other more catastrophic consequences of climate change, like really high sea level rise, we need to cut global emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade and reach basically zero emissions by 2050. So that means burning a lot less fossil fuels in the very short term. And right now we are not currently on track to meet those targets. A recent U.N. report found that countries need to cut emissions much faster, and a lot depends on what happens in this decade.

FADEL: Yeah. And right now, global powerful people all in New York. Climate is on the agenda this week. What should we expect from the climate ambition summit the U.N. chief is hosting?

WALDHOLZ: It's a good question because this is a new event and it's - basically, the secretary general is trying to spotlight exactly this issue. So he's asking countries and also companies to come to the summit with new plans to get on track to slash emissions more quickly. In fact, he made it clear that countries are only welcome to participate in this summit if they come with credible, new commitments to phase out fossil fuels or for wealthy countries, new funding commitments to help developing countries cut emissions or adapt.

When he announced the summit, he was really clear on this. He actually said, quote, "there will be no room for backsliders, green washers, blame shifters or repackaging of announcements from previous years," unquote. And apparently, that bar leaves a lot of countries out, 'cause so far, it's not entirely clear who is going to show up. Neither Biden nor Xi Jinping of China plan to be there. That's the world's two largest emitters, though Biden is sending his climate envoy, John Kerry. But ultimately, this is an effort by the U.N. to highlight countries that are taking more action and create some peer pressure for other countries to build some momentum in the lead up to big annual climate negotiations that are coming this winter in Dubai.

FADEL: That's NPR's Rachel Waldholz. Thanks so much, Rachel.

WALDHOLZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rachel Waldholz