UN chief wants a tax on profits of fossil fuel companies, calling them 'godfathers of climate chaos'


GENEVA — U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called Wednesday for a “windfall” tax on profits of fossil fuel companies to help pay for the fight against global warming, calling them the “godfathers of climate chaos.”

Guterres spoke in a bid to revive the world’s focus on climate change at a time when elections, inflation and conflict in places like Ukraine, Gaza and Sudan have seized the spotlight.

In a speech timed for World Environment Day, the U.N. chief drew on new data and projections to make a case against Big Oil. The European Union’s Copernicus service, a global reference for tracking world temperatures, said that last month was the hottest May ever, marking the 12th straight monthly record high.

The service cited an average surface air temperature of 15.9 degrees Celsius (60.6 degrees Fahrenheit) last month — 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than the estimated May average before industrial times.

The burning of fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — is the main contributor to global warming caused by human activity.

The World Meteorological Organization said the global mean near-surface temperature for each year from 2024 to 2028 is expected to range between 1.1 and 1.9 degrees Celsius hotter than at the start of the industrial era. The landmark Paris climate accord of 2015 set a target of keeping the rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“Beyond the predictions and statistics is the stark reality that we risk trillions of dollars in economic losses, millions of lives upended and destruction of fragile and precious ecosystems and the biodiversity that exists there,” Ko Barrett, the WMO’s deputy secretary-general, told a news conference in Geneva.

“What is clear is that the Paris agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius is hanging on a thread. It’s not yet dead, but it’s hanging by a thread,” she added.

“This forecast is affirmation that the world has entered a climate where years that are as hot as 2023 should no longer be a surprise,” Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor at Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability, said in an email.

A study released Tuesday by 57 scientists said that as the world keeps burning fossil fuels, Earth is likely to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit in four-and-a-half years.

U.N. experts and academics have repeatedly highlighted how rising temperatures can upend climate patterns and cause drought, flooding and forest fires. That can lead to climate migration, higher costs for farm products or insurance and greater public health risks linked to high heat or water scarcity.

“While some individuals may escape direct consequences, we will all be affected,” said Waleed Abdalati, who heads an environmental sciences institute at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Guterres appealed to media and technology companies to stop taking advertising from the fossil fuel industry’s biggest players, as has been done in some places with Big Tobacco.

He also repeated concerns about subsidies paid in many countries for fossil fuels, which help keep prices low for consumers.

“Climate change is the mother of all stealth taxes paid by everyday people and vulnerable countries and communities,” he said. “Meanwhile, the godfathers of climate chaos — the fossil fuel industry — rake in record profits and feast off trillions in taxpayer-funded subsidies.”

Guterres said global emissions of carbon dioxide must fall 9% each year to 2030 for the 1.5-degree Celsius target under the Paris climate accords to be kept alive.

“We need an exit ramp off the highway to climate hell,” Guterres said, while adding: “The truth is, we have control of the wheel.”

He called on the Group of 20 countries — which are holding a summit in Brazil next month and are responsible for about 80% of all carbon dioxide emissions — to lead. The richest 1% of people on Earth emit as much as two-thirds of all humanity, he said.

“We cannot accept a future where the rich are protected in air-conditioned bubbles, while the rest of humanity is lashed by lethal weather in unlivable lands,” Guterres said.

He appealed to “global finance,” alluding to banks and international financial institutions, to help contribute, saying “innovative sources of funds” are needed.

“It’s time to put an effective price on carbon and tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies,” Guterres said.

But all countries must join the fight, he said, including the developing world, such as by ending deforestation and meeting targets to double energy efficiency and triple the use of renewable energy by 2030.

For the first time, a promise of $100 billion a year in climate finance agreed in 2009 was fulfilled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Still, experts say that’s well below what’s needed to fill the finance gap, with estimates of the annual cost of the global energy transition in the trillions.

Some experts said Guterres’ alarmist rhetoric, including a reference to “playing Russian roulette” with the planet, could turn off some people.

“A phrase like this that conjures images of holding a gun to our head risks shifting the conversation away from the science and solutions and more toward the emotion,” Abdalati said, adding that “phrases like this serve as fodder for critics, who will claim this is hyperbole.”

U.N. officials acknowledge that the secretary-general has little power beyond the “bully pulpit” — his perch at the head of the world body — to encourage change.



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