Price of entry to today’s climate summit? More action.

By Sara Schonhardt | 09/20/2023 06:54 AM EDT

President Joe Biden and other world leaders will skip the so-called climate ambition summit in New York.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is seen at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. He's holding a climate summit Wednesday. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

NEW YORK — When U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced he was hosting a special climate summit in tandem with the yearly meeting of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly, he outlined what he wanted: no nonsense.

“There will be no room for backsliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years,” he said in December.

The summit kicks off Wednesday in New York — and some leaders of the world’s biggest emitters won’t be there, including President Joe Biden.


“There’s no doubt that the absence of so many leaders from the world’s biggest economies and emitters will clearly have an impact on the outcomes of the summit,” said Alden Meyer, a senior associate at E3G. “By saying that leaders need to come and deliver results and commitments, not just rhetoric, the secretary-general has, rightly I think, raised the stakes, but that has made it more difficult for some leaders to get over those hurdles.”

The event, which is meant to push nations to accelerate climate action, is the last time high-level officials will meet before global climate talks open for two weeks of intense negotiations in the United Arab Emirates in November. With top leaders skipping this week’s event, it has raised questions about the ability, or willingness, of countries to increase the steps they’re taking to reduce carbon emissions, and whether the United Nations is capable of inspiring, or cajoling, nations to address an environmental crisis that Guterres says is out of control.

Leaders who won’t attend include British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the world’s two largest emitters: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Biden, who has made climate action a pillar of his agenda.

In a speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden outlined the case for dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And his advisers said climate change was a theme throughout their meetings in New York. Biden’s absence from Wednesday’s summit was chalked up to his busy schedule.

“The reality is there’s a huge number of events, summits, high-level meetings” on the president’s agenda, said a senior administration official who spoke with reporters earlier this week.

“He will be meeting with a number of counterparts to talk about how we galvanize action on climate,” the official said. “It will feature in virtually every meeting that we have here.”

During Biden’s address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, he highlighted his administration’s actions through the Inflation Reduction Act. And he emphasized the dramatic effects of climate change globally.

“We see it everywhere. Record-breaking heat waves in the United States and China. Wildfires ravaging North America and Southern Europe. A fifth year of drought in the Horn of Africa. Tragic, tragic flooding in Libya,” Biden said. “Together, these snapshots tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and begin to climate-proof the world.”

A climate reboot?

The General Assembly has increasingly become the staging ground for climate action. A 2019 climate summit drew attention to rising voices when youth climate activist Greta Thunberg took the stage and condemned world leaders for failing her generation.

A year later, China pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions before 2060, and in 2021, Xi said Beijing would stop funding new coal-fired power plants internationally.

That same year, Biden said he would work with Congress to quadruple its international climate finance commitment to $11.4 billion by 2024, to help developing nations fend off the worst impacts of global warming. It was a General Assembly that put a spotlight on urgency.

Climate action has faced fits and starts since then — complicated by geopolitical rivalries and ripples from Russia’s war in Ukraine. But the pace of climate change has only accelerated, and report after report shows that leaders aren’t doing enough.

Wednesday’s climate summit follows a summer of disasters and a dire report card from the United Nations that shows countries are falling short of the commitments they made eight years ago at climate talks in Paris to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. This summer was the hottest ever recorded on Earth.

Global temperatures have risen 1.1 C since the Industrial Revolution, leading to “unprecedented” effects around the globe that are often felt the most by those who have contributed the least to climate change, said Selwin Hart, Guterres’ special adviser on climate ambition.

The summit will showcase first movers and doers who are taking credible action, while implementing plans to keep the 1.5 C goal alive, he said.

A speakers list for the morning session includes Egypt — the host of last year’s U.N. climate talks — as well as Brazil, Germany, Pakistan, France (despite Macron’s absence), South Africa, Vietnam and a host of smaller, developing countries, including Barbados. That country’s prime minister, Mia Mottley, has been a leading voice pushing to change how finance flows to climate-vulnerable countries.

After those leaders’ statements, Guterres will host a meeting among international financial institutions to discuss aid for climate-related losses and damages.

Ahead of the summit, members of the high-ambition coalition, an intergovernmental group formed by the Marshall Islands, called for “systematic transformations” across all economic sectors, driven by a global phaseout of fossil fuels. They include the leaders of France, Denmark, Chile, Kenya, and the island nations of Vanuatu and Palau.

“Until we stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, the harm we are causing, particularly to the poorest and those least responsible for the climate crisis, will deepen, and the need to continuously adapt will never end,” they said in an open letter.