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United Nations General Assembly 2019

This series decodes deals, political moves, and gossip at the world’s biggest political summit.

Thunberg at the UN climate action summit
Reuters/ Carlo Allegri
Thunberg at the UN climate action summit

While global leaders messed around, Greta Thunberg and 15 kids got down to business

By Olivia Goldhill

The United Nations’ secretary-general António Guterres wanted international leaders to bring plans, not speeches to the Climate Action Summit being held in New York today. Greta Thunberg and 15 other young people don’t seem to have much faith in these plans. On Monday, hours after Thunberg addressed assembled leaders at the summit’s opening ceremony, the group of activists announced they were suing five of the biggest carbon polluters in the world—Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey—for violating their rights as children by failing to adequately reduce emissions. 

“You are failing us,” Thunberg said, gazing at the crowd with fury. “We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.” Together with 15 international young people, each of whom have been affected by climate change, she filed a lawsuit arguing the carbon-polluting countries are violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states children have the right to life, health, and peace. The United States is the only country not to have ratified this convention, and so is not included in the lawsuit, despite its high levels of pollution.  

As the children filed a lawsuit, global leaders dutifully presented their plans to address the climate crisis. Though most acknowledged the need for specific action over platitudes—”We believe an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching,” said India’s prime minister Narendra Modi—their plans varied in substance. Modi, for example, said India plans to increase its renewable energy capacity to 450 gigawatts. But he did not mention coal, India’s largest energy source, or attempts to reduce national emissions.  

There were a few specific new plans from those mentioned in the lawsuit: Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, said the country plans to phase out coal by 2038 (a goal first announced earlier this year) and pledged Germany would achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And France’s president Emmanuel Macron called on the European Union to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% before 2030, up from its current commitment of 40%. 

But, collectively, the proposed plans aren’t strong enough. “The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control,” said Thunberg. Just ask her partners in the lawsuit.

Ranton Anjain, 17, from Ebeye, the Marshall Island, faces the threat of his country being swallowed by rising sea levels, and diseases from climate change. The heat has created outbreaks of dengue, a mosquito-borne viral disease, which were severe enough to create a state of emergency in the summers of 2018 and 2019. Ayakha Melithafa, 17, who lives on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, has reckoned with her city running out of water. And Deborah Adegbile, a 12-year-old from Lagos, Nigeria, now lives with an increasingly long rainy season, encountering frequent flooding that forces her parents to carry her to school. “A 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us,” says Thunberg, “we who have to live with the consequences.”