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'Act Now With Courage and Resolve': What Leaders Are Saying at COP24

A news digest from day two of the United Nations climate conference, in quotes.
American actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, on December 3rd, 2018.

American actor and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the COP24 summit in Katowice, Poland, on December 3rd, 2018.

The ceremonial opening of day two at COP24 started off with a bang (or whatever sound an accordion makes) on Monday in Katowice, Poland. The former mining town is being hailed as a symbol of the industrial transformation that made Poland one of the top coal-producing countries in Europe—and of the green transformation that's coming for the final coal strongholds in the Polish rust belt.

The COP24 village, as Polish President Andrzej Duda noted in his opening statement, is on the very site where a coal mine once operated. But that mine is long closed, and green areas, such as parks and forests, cover nearly half of Katowice.

Duda was one of the long list of speakers to kick off the conference—including top United Nations officials, environmental ministers, heads of state, and more than one celebrity—in an opening ceremony that lasted over four hours. The language varied, but there were several common threads: To overcome the climate crisis, we must increase climate ambition, ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels, and, above all, preserve unity in the spirit of the Paris Agreement. We'll see in two weeks' time if the following words are enough to help inspire action.

"The choice before us all has never been so stark. Act now with courage and resolve ... or, God forbid, ignore the irrefutable evidence, and become the generation that betrayed humanity and our responsibility to future generations."

Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji and outgoing COP president, who cited both the dire new IPCC report and the latest U.N. Environment Program Emissions Gap report, which found that nations need a five-fold increase in climate ambition to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Bainimarama asked the room of delegates to "heed the science and summon the political will" to take action, before it's too late.

"Here in Katowice, we must recapture the spirit of Paris."

—Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands. Everyone agrees that the negotiations will be difficult. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres noted that it will require "a firm political will for compromise"—not something that's always in strong supply at international, multilateral negotiations. But if the talks fail, the reality of climate change in a world that warms beyond 2 degrees Celsius will be much harder to endure. "What affects us all, should concern us all," Rutte said.

"Saving the Arctic is needed to save the globe."

—Sauli Väinämö Niinistö, the president of Finland, also recalled the recent IPCC report, which "showed us how radical a difference half a degree can make." The world is on a dangerous track, the Finnish president said, but there is still time to act, which is why the Arctic country is committed to banning the use of coal for energy by 2029, among other moves. But no single country can prevent catastrophic climate change, and Finland is already feeling its effects: Niinistö noted that the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

"Science has done its work, so we have to do ours."

—Pedro Sánchez Perez-Castejón, the president of Spain, reaffirmed the country's commitment to one of the main tenets of the Paris Agreement—increasing climate ambition over time—and urged other nations to do the same. He also called Spain a pioneer on the path to a "just transition."

"Our generation is the first to experience the rapid increase in temperature around the globe, and it will probably be the last generation to hold the key to beat the climate crisis."

—Alexander Van der Bellen, the president of Austria, echoed the Fijian prime minister, calling climate change the key challenge of our time. The alpine ecosystems that blanket the country are especially sensitive to global warming, and Van der Bellen endorsed the European Commission's plan to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050 before ceding the rest of his time to his time to his "dear friend Arnie [Schwarzenneger]," the former governor of California.

"You're wrong when you say that America dropped out of the Paris Agreement."

—Arnold Schwarzenegger, former governor of California, reminded the delegates to look beyond Washington, D.C., and criticized the U.N. for treating sub-national leaders as a "sideshow" at the global climate conference. State and local governments control 70 percent of the United States' emissions, Schwarzenegger noted, which means that the majority of climate action will take place at local and regional levels.

"We feel as if we have been penalized for the mistakes we never made.... It is incumbent upon the international community to ensure that justice is done."

—Bidhya Devi Bhandari, the president of Nepal, who noted the developing nation's extreme vulnerability to natural disasters, which have only grown worse thanks to climate change. Nepal has faced devastating droughts and floods, both of which threaten the country's food supply. Climate finance is always a major issue at the COPs, and, in 2015, the world's largest economies promised to give at least $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations like Nepal prepare for and mitigate the climate change-induced problems that they had little to no hand in causing. While some countries have increased their contributions to the Green Climate Fund, others, like the U.S., have reneged on their promise to contribute.

"Leaders of the world: You must lead. If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."

—Sir David Attenborough, the voice of countless nature documentaries, is also the voice of the public at this year's COP. Leading up to the conference, the U.N. asked the public to send in their thoughts on climate change, and Attenborough, in the "People's Seat," relayed their message to the policymakers at the conference: "The world's people have spoken. Their message is clear: Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now."