Interview: New UN climate chief takes the fight personally

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — For the United Nations’ new climate chief, the fight is personal.

As a former engineer who says he knows “how to make things work and get things done,” it wasn’t just what Simon Stiell did before he became a top U.N. official, it was where.

Stiell was the environment and climate resilience minister on the small island nation of Grenada until he started his job as the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change a few weeks ago. It’s now his job to make sure the world cuts about half emissions of heat-trapping gases — which are helping trigger unprecedented frequent weather disasters — in just eight years, or as he puts it, two World Cups or two Olympics away.

“Living half my life in a climate-vulnerable nation gives me a deep appreciation,” Stiell, 53, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve lived through two hurricanes ( Ivan in 2004 and Emily in 2005). I’ve seen my country flattened through hurricanes. I’ve seen sea level rise around my ankles. ... And I’ve also been in government finding solutions and responsible as the lead policymaker in how we build a more resilient nation with the limited resources that we have.”

And Grenada, which had losses that doubled its annual gross domestic product, is far from alone. In Pakistan, for example, a third of the country is under water.

"Billions of dollars in damages, lives lost, millions displaced. How do they recover from that?” Stiell asked from the 10th floor of the U.N. headquarters, overlooking the East River. Rich polluting countries will have to pay to help poorer countries that are climate victims, like his, he said.

Polluters paying for what their emissions have done is just as important as cutting what comes out of smokestacks and tailpipes, Stiell said. High-emitting countries reimbursing poorer, vulnerable nations — called “loss and damage” in the world of climate negotiations — is now so important it is one of four pillars of the fight against climate change. The others are cutting emissions, adapting to a warmer and wilder world, and rich nations financially aiding poor nations to develop green energy and adapt.

“Loss and damage has to be addressed,” Stiell said. “It’s a very difficult conversation, but it’s a conversation that has to be had. Positions have softened over the years from nonacceptance and refusal to discuss this to a point now where these are agenda items in the negotiations. So that is a step forward.”

Rich nations pledged several years ago to spend $100 billion a year in aid to poor nations to help them adapt to climate change and develop cleaner energy systems, though not as compensation for damage. Even those pledges, however, especially from the United States, have not been fulfilled. Stiell hopes they are getting close.

Coming from a country hit hard by climate gives him “a deep understanding,” but Stiell says his new job means “I also have to factor in the positions of some of those richer nations” and bring everyone together.

Poorer countries see an ally.

“It’s a huge job, and it’s good to see someone from a climate vulnerable country taking the helm. As someone from Grenada, he doesn’t need reminding what is at stake,” said Mohamed Adow of think tank Power Shift Africa. “For too long the perspectives of the global north have held sway at the climate talks and led to foot dragging and inaction. We’re starting to see this change, but it really needs to be accelerated.”

Since 2015, small island nations with little economic and political power have been using their moral authority to get big concessions from the rest of the world, said longtime climate negotiations analyst Alden Meyer of the think tank E3G.

In Paris for the 2015 agreement, small island nations forced the rest of the world to agree to a stricter temperature goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times and a mechanism that requires nations to increase their emission cut targets every five years, Meyer said.

“They have clear moral authority and are showing they can build pressure on the bigger players,” Meyer said.

Stiell is living out of a hotel in Germany, where the U.N. climate agency is based, until international climate negotiations in Egypt in November. He isn’t as focused on wins from the upcoming climate talks as he is about something longer term. He said he’s aiming at 2030 and the need for dramatic pollution cuts to keep temperatures from passing the 1.5 degree goal — something that’s looking less likely because it is only a few tenths of a degree away and approaching fast. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times.

“We tend to look at incremental progress. And incremental progress isn’t going to provide us with the transformational shifts that we need,” Stiell said.

Taking that 2030 goal and “working backwards will actually increase the pressure,” Stiell said. “So it is not to say let us kick the can down the road. It’s the complete opposite. It's bringing the can forward right at our feet. ... We’re close to running out of time."

Because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis it triggered, countries have stepped backwards on their commitments to phase out coal, Stiell said. “But hopefully it is a temporary regression, and those countries are going to accelerate as the crisis diminishes, which it will."

The United States, the second biggest carbon polluter, took “a major step forward” and is sending a signal to the rest of the world with the Inflation Reduction Act that President Joe Biden signed this summer. China, the top carbon emitting nation, is also doing more, Stiell said.

“Is it as far as they need to go? Is it as fast as it needs to go? No. But this requires collective effort,” Stiell said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres regularly ratchets up the rhetoric. This week, he has called on nations to institute a windfall profits tax o n fossil fuel companies that could then be used to help compensate climate-change victims and people facing high energy and food prices.

Stiell said Guterres' role is that of a “truth-teller” in carrot-and-stick negotiations with countries, while his new job is that of an arbiter “bringing parties together.”

“It’s hard. It’s frustrating,” Stiell said. “But ultimately the critical focus is achieving that goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. And that requires extraordinary action.”


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