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UN Secretary General Urges Public Pressure Against Climate 'Emergency'

Politics
UN Secretary General Urges Public Pressure Against Climate 'Emergency'
Covering Climate Now / YouTube screenshot

By Mark Hertsgaard

The United Nations Secretary General says that he is counting on public pressure to compel governments to take much stronger action against what he calls the climate change "emergency."


"Governments always follow public opinion, everywhere in the world, sooner or later," Antonio Guterres said Tuesday in an interview with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets. Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, added, "We need to keep telling the truth to people and be confident that the political system, especially democratic political systems, will in the end deliver."

Guterres refused to comment on U.S. president Donald Trump and the Trump administration's hostility to climate action, but a CBS News poll released on September 15 found that 69 percent of Americans want the next president to take action, while 53 percent say such action is needed "right now." Guterres said that "it would be much better" if the U.S. was "strongly committed to climate action," just as it would be better if Asian countries [notably, China and Japan] stopped exporting coal plants. Until then, he said, "what I want is to have the whole society putting pressure on governments to understand they need to run faster. Because we are losing the race."

With six days remaining before the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, the Secretary General cited the "fantastic leadership" of young activists as a leading example of how civil society can pressure governments to honor the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius and preferably to 1.5˚C. Recent election results across Europe—in which green parties gained significant public backing—also left Guterres optimistic that at next Monday's summit the European Union will announce that it promises to be "carbon neutral" by 2050, as the Paris Agreement mandates.

"Nature is angry," said Guterres, who recently returned from a visit to the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian unleashed what he called "total destruction." He further cited ferocious drought in Africa, melting glaciers, bleaching coral reefs, the hottest month in recorded history last July, and potential future sea level rise of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) as evidence that, "You cannot play games with nature. Nature strikes back."

"Don't bring a speech—bring a plan," Guterres famously told heads of state and government in the months leading up to this summit, and it appears that only leaders who followed his instructions will be allowed to speak at the plenary session. To gain a slot, a country had to commit to doing one of three things, said UN officials: be carbon neutral by 2050; "significantly" increase how much it will cut emissions (or, in UN jargon, significantly strengthen its Nationally Determined Contribution); or make a "meaningful" pledge to the Green Climate Fund, a pool of money provided by wealthy countries to help developing countries leave fossil fuels behind and increase their resilience against climate disruption. UN officials expect that 60 to 70 countries will have made sufficiently solid commitments by next Monday that their leaders will be invited to outline their country's plans from the dais, with each leader granted a mere three minutes to speak.

While emphasizing that he had no desire to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Guterres spoke positively about a proposal by a leading Democratic candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, for a Green New Deal that would be global. Most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates endorse one form or another of the Green New Deal, a program in which the U.S. government would create millions of jobs by investing in solar power, energy efficiency, and other measures to reduce heat-trapping emissions. But a new report by The Nation pointed out that only Sanders's Green New Deal meets the scientific imperative of cutting global emissions by 45 percent by 2030 on the way to carbon neutrality by 2050. Sanders's Green New Deal does this by pledging not only to slash emissions in the U.S. but to help developing countries cut their emissions as well.

"The Paris Agreement was very clear," said Guterres. "There was a commitment by the developed countries to mobilize $100 billion per year, from private and public sources, to support the developing world both in mitigation [i.e., reducing emissions] and adaptation [preparing against impacts]. Obviously, it is essential that all countries, including the United States, play a role in relation to this."

Rich and poor countries have wrestled with the question of whether and how much financial assistance the rich should give the poor ever since governments first began debating the climate problem at the UN "Earth Summit" in 1992. The poorer countries argue that the rich countries' emissions are the foremost cause of global warming and climate disruption, while poor countries are the ones that suffer most from that disruption. Rich countries generally do not dispute those facts and have paid lip service to providing assistance, but actual contributions have been modest. The U.S., for example, has contributed only $1 billion, and the Trump administration blocked any additional contributions.

Guterres said in the interview Tuesday that "of course" he was aware of the global dimensions of Sanders' Green New Deal, and he added that, "Any attitude from a country like United States to increase… finance to the developing world would be of course welcome." As required by UN protocol, the Secretary General was careful to add, "That doesn't mean that we want to interfere in the American election."

As a former elected official himself, Guterres also emphasized the need for governments to show the public that climate protection need not mean economic hardship. The Secretary General advocates in particular for climate-smart tax reform: reducing taxes on people's incomes while increasing taxes on heat-trapping emissions. "If I [as a politician] take money from you with an increased carbon tax but I give you nothing in return, people will be against [it]," said Guterres. Although rarely described this way, corporate subsidies for production of fossil fuels are also a form of tax. "Let's be clear: Subsidies are paid with taxpayers' money," he said, adding with a smile, "I really do not like to see my money as a taxpayer going to bleach corals and melt glaciers."

Guterres disputed a common criticism of a Green New Deal—that it will cost too much—by turning the question around. "What is the cost of the consequences of taking no action?" he asked. Depending on what governments do at the Climate Action Summit next Monday, and are pressured to do by civil society in the weeks and years to come, the world may learn the answer to that question soon enough.

This story originally appeared in The Nation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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