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The UN secretary-general reminded Davos of the true cost of climate change

AP/Markus Schreiber
Time to worry.
  • Adam Rasmi
By Adam Rasmi


Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Businesses are increasingly acknowledging the risks posed by climate change, and developing strategies to ward off its potential impact on their bottom line. But UN secretary-general António Guterres sought today to remind the global elites gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos of climate change’s human toll.

In an interview with Quartz reporter Eshe Nelson streamed live on Facebook, Guterres called climate change the “defining issue of our time.” He warned that humanity was “losing the race” against reversing climate change.

Over the last decade, an average of 24 million people each year have been displaced by climate change, with more expected to be displaced as time goes on. But unlike other categories of refugees, people forced to flee the effects of environmental disasters do not benefit from formal protection measures.

“We have a very solid legal regime to protect refugees that are victims of persecution, or that are victims of war,” Guterres said. “The same does not apply to people that move because of climate [change].”

Attendees at this year’s Davos gathering listed climate change as one of their primary concerns. They consider it, alongside weapons of mass destruction and cyber vulnerabilities, as having the most potential to cause damage in the year ahead.

Businesses are starting to take climate change’s potential cost impacts more seriously, a report by the environmental nonprofit CDP shows. Coca-Cola is worried about how water shortages will hit production; insurers are bracing for the skyrocketing costs associated with wildfires and hurricanes; and even Disney is unnerved by the potential impact of soaring temperatures on theme park visits.

Despite these concerns, and measures put in place since the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, the global community has struggled to clamp down on emissions levels. After leveling off between 2014-2016, emissions rose again in 2017, and look set to have risen a further 2.7% in 2018. More worryingly, the UN warned last November that temperatures are set to rise between 3-5°C by 2100, blowing past the Paris target of keeping increases below 2°C. The consequences of temperatures rising above 1.5°C are far-reaching.

In his interview, Guterres also touched on unrest in Venezuela, the humanitarian crises in Yemen and Syria, the push for gender parity at the UN, and the global economic slowdown. He even dished out on what his favorite book is: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

But he returned in his closing remarks to the environment. Government action might be the most effective way to curb climate change, but individual action was also required, Guterres said. “If we also change our patterns of consumption,” he said, “we are contributing to solving the most dramatic problem that humankind is facing.”

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