‘We are Here to make History’: The United Nations Climate Summit 2014

Crowds at UN Climate Summit, rallying for change

By Matthew Rimmer

In the wake of the 400,000 strong Climate March in New York and the Flood Wall Street protest, the United Nations hosted a Climate Summit in New York on the 23 September 2014. The event was intended to be a catalyst for the development of a binding, fair, and ambitious international agreement upon climate change. 

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

In his opening address (video), United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon observed: ‘We are not here to talk. We are here to make history.’

The Secretary-General warned that ‘today the dreams of people throughout the world hang in the balance.’ He stressed that ‘climate change threatens hard-won peace, prosperity, and opportunity for billions of people.’

Ban Ki-Moon emphasized that climate change posed significant challenges: ‘The human, environmental and financial cost of climate change is fast becoming unbearable.’

Ban Ki-Moon hoped that there were also opportunities to develop a clean, healthy, fair, and stable world: ‘A low-carbon, climate resilient future will be a better future.’ He called for public and private investment in climate solutions, such as renewable energy: ‘We must work together to mobilise money and move markets.’ He noted: ‘Economists have shown that this comes at minimal extra cost, while the benefits to our people and our planet are monumental.’ Ban Ki-Moon also insisted: ‘We must begin to capitalize the Green Climate Fund.’ He also advocated a price on carbon: ‘There is no more powerful way to drive the market transformation we need.’

Accordingly, Ban Ki-Moon urged the members of the United Nations: ‘We must invest in climate-resilient societies that protect all, especially the most vulnerable.’ He emphasized: ‘I ask all Governments to commit to a meaningful, universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015, and to do their fair share to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius.’

The New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

Echoing his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, the New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned of the existential threat posed by climate change. He promised that New York will lead cities around the world in climate action:

Global climate change is the challenge of our generation. New Yorkers are facing the risks of rising sea levels, increased temperatures and heat waves, and increasing frequency of intense storms. The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 provided tragic evidence of these risks. Almost two years later, we are still recovering. Globally, rising sea levels will flood coastlines, droughts will disrupt livelihoods, and storms and other extreme weather will threaten lives and economic development. We are faced with an existential threat, and inaction is not an option.

The New York Mayor was focused upon civic environmentalism, and promised to improve energy efficiency in the city, and cut carbon emissions. He promised to reduce greenhouse gases produced by the city by 80% by 2050. (However, the long-term of nature of the target has received mixed reviews). The New York Mayor despaired of ‘the reckless way in which we live.’ He commented: ‘Our mutual need to survive should instill in us a kind of unity we so rarely experience.’

The United Nations Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Mike Bloomberg, also made an important report to the United Nations. He maintained that his recent research with the C40 and the Stockholm Environment Institute showed that ‘if all cities took on aggressive new efforts to reduce building, transportation and waste energy use, they could potentially reduce annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an additional 3.7 Gigatons (Gt) CO2e by 2030 over what national policies and actions are currently on track to achieve.’

Chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra K. Pachauri

Rajendra K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also address the Opening Ceremony of the United Nations Climate Summit. He presented a summary of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.

Pachauri had three main messages. First, Pachauri observed that ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear – and clearly growing.’ He noted: ‘We have abundant evidence that we are changing our climate.’ Pachauri observed: ‘The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.’

Second, he recommended that there was a need for a timely response: ‘We must act quickly and decisively if we want to avoid increasingly destructive outcomes.’ He made a sobering warning:

Our time to take action is running out. If we want a chance to limit the global rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius, our emissions should peak by 2020. If we carry on business as usual, our opportunity to remain below the 2-degree limit will slip away well before the middle of the century. More over, the longer we wait the higher the risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts. Food and water shortages. Increased poverty. Forced migrations that could increase the risk of violent conflict. Extreme droughts and floods. The collapse of ice sheets that flood our coastal cities. And a steady rise in our death toll, especially among the world’s poorest How on Earth can we leave our children with a world like this ?

Third, Pachauri insisted: ‘We have the means to limit climate change and build a better future.’ In particular, he highlighted clean technologies, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and stopping deforestation. Pachauri commented: ‘There are costs of taking action – but they are nothing compared to the cost of inaction.’

Pachauri said that human society faces a stark choice: ‘We can continue along our existing path and face dire consequences. Or we can listen to the voice of science, and resolve to act before it’s too late.’

Climate Reality Leader Al Gore

In his address (video) to the United Nations, Climate Reality leader Al Gore cited Wallace Stevens: ‘After the last no comes a yes, and on that yes, the future world depends.’ He was confident that we can solve the climate crisis.

Gore also published an op-ed, covering his key themes. He was hopeful of climate action, particularly with the rapid spread of clean technologies, and the rise of citizen leadership on climate change:

Major industrialized nations including Mexico, South Korea, members of the European Union, the United States and even China — the world’s largest greenhouse polluter — have committed to reducing their emissions and investing in clean, renewable energy. Moreover, the rapid spread of much cheaper solar and wind energy technology is empowering citizens to dream of and assert their independence from dirty fossil fuels. These factors, combined with an inspired group of citizen leaders, are opening the next chapter of the climate crisis. We have entered a period of consequences, but we are also now entering a period of hope.

Gore maintained that ‘The climate crisis is a generational struggle.’ He was confident that the crisis ‘can be solved and we will solve it.’

A number of Millennials posed ‘Why/ Why Not?’ questions in videos to the United Nations summit.

This was a powerful means of communicating the concerns of young people from around the world about runaway climate change.

Leonardo di Caprio 

The actor and United Nations messenger of Peace Leonardo di Caprio presented a powerful speech about the dangers of climate denial. He told the United Nations:

As an actor I pretend for a living. I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe humankind has looked at climate change in that same way: as if it were a fiction, happening to someone else’s planet, as if pretending that climate change wasn’t real would somehow make it go away. But I think we know better than that. Every week , we’re seeing new and undeniable climate events, evidence that accelerated climate change is here now.

Leonardo di Caprio emphasized that climate change was not rhetoric or hysteria: ‘It is fact’. He commented: ‘The scientific community knows it, Industry and Governments know it, even the United States military knows it.’ Leonard di Caprio told the Climate Summit: ‘You can make history … or be vilified by it’.

Leonardo di Caprio called for substantive climate action, including a price on carbon and an end to fossil fuel subsidies:

We need to put a pricetag on carbon emissions, and eliminate government subsidies for coal, gas, and oil companies. We need to end the free ride that industrial polluters have been given in the name of a free-market economy, they don’t deserve our tax dollars, they deserve our scrutiny. For the economy itself will die if our ecosystems collapse.

Leonardo di Caprio emphasized that ‘renewable energy is not only achievable but good economic policy’. He observed: ‘New research shows that by 2050 clean, renewable energy could supply 100% of the world’s energy needs using existing technologies, and it would create millions of jobs’.

In his speech, Leonardo di Caprio emphasized the need to respect ethics, human rights and climate justice: ‘This is not a partisan debate; it is a human one.’ Leonard di Caprio insisted that ‘clean air and water, and a livable climate are inalienable human rights’. He maintained that solving the climate crisis was a question of moral obligations, not merely politics: ‘Humankind must become accountable on a massive scale for the wanton destruction of our collective home.’

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

To conclude the opening ceremony (video), Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands warned of the impact of climate change upon small island states: ‘We deserve to do more than just survive. We deserve to thrive.’ She delivered a moving poem to her daughter — lyrically expressing the profound impact that climate change would have upon future generations.


The United Nations stage-managed the Climate Summit capably. In the final wrap-up, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon returned his key themes. He stressed: ‘The purpose of the 2014 Climate Summit was to raise political momentum for a meaningful universal climate agreement in Paris in 2015 and to galvanize transformative action in all countries to reduce emissions and build resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change’. Ban Ki-Moon said that he ‘asked leaders from government, business, finance and civil society to crystallize a global vision for low-carbon economic growth and to advance climate action on five fronts: cutting emissions; mobilizing money and markets; pricing carbon; strengthening resilience; and mobilizing new coalitions.’

Ban Ki-Moon stressed the importance of cutting carbon emissions: ‘Many leaders, from all regions and all levels of economic development advocated for a peak in greenhouse gas emissions before 2020, dramatically reduced emissions thereafter, and climate neutrality in the second half of the century.’

The United Nations Secretary-General emphasized that ‘Mobilizing sufficient public and private funds for low carbon, climate resilient growth is essential to keep within a less than 2 degree Celsius pathway’. Of particular importance is the capitalization of the Green Climate Fund. India made a notable contribution, by recommending that the Green Climate Fund enable the acquisition and licensing of intellectual property rights.

The United Nations Secretary-General was a strong advocate of carbon pricing: ‘Putting a price on carbon will provide markets with the policy signals needed to invest in climate solutions.’ Given this theme, it is little wonder that the conservative Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott declined to attend, given that his signature policy has been to repeal a carbon price in Australia.

Moreover, Ban Ki-Moon maintained that ‘Strengthening both climate and financial resilience is a smart investment in a safer, more prosperous future.’ He also recommended the development of co-operative partnerships: ‘Governments, business and civil society are creating the coalitions needed to meet the full scope of climate challenge.’

The United Nations Secretary-General hoped: ‘As we look forward to Lima, later this year, and Paris in December 2015, let us look back on today as the day when we decided – as a human family – to put our house in order to make it sustainable, safe and prosperous for future generations.’ He was optimistic about that ‘today’s Summit has shown that we can rise to the climate challenge’.

The Elders

However, some called for greater ambition for climate action. The Elders called for greater commitments from member states. Leaders such as Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Ernesto Zedillo called climate action ‘now, not tomorrow.’ Graça Machel, a former politician from Mozambique, and the widow of Nelson Mandela, commented: ‘There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today.’ She suggested that ‘the scale is much more than we have achieved.’ A number of civil society groups — such as 350.org, the Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club — remained of the view that community movements needed to apply pressure to politicians to ensure that they would honour their commitments, and show transformative leadership.

This article was originally published on Medium.com.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team