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Climate Week: Youth, morality and the fate of the Amazon

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

Editor's Note: Climate Week took place from September 23 to September 29. Check Conservation News for coverage of this global forum.

If this year’s UN Climate Summit is remembered for anything, it might be the blistering speech that climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered Monday to world leaders in New York. 

"This is all wrong,” Thunberg said at the first day of the summit. “I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean."

"The eyes of all future generations are upon you,” she admonished. “And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you."

Earlier that same morning at the summit, Conservation International board member Harrison Ford — speaking in praise of a groundbreaking effort to protect the Amazon — closed his remarks with a few words about Thunberg’s generation.

“There is a new force of nature at hand, stirring all over the world,” he said. “They are the young people whom, frankly, we have failed. Who are angry. Who are organized. Who are capable of making a difference.”

“They will not be denied, because they are right. They are a moral army. And the most important thing we can do for them is to get the hell out of their way.”

Morality itself was a topic of discussion on the sidelines of the summit Monday. Indeed, the first two days of side events in New York grappled repeatedly with ethical issues, not the least the morality of an economy that drives deforestation and climate change. Several speakers — from scientists to indigenous activists to policy wonks — called for an end to the “infinite growth” economy in favor of one founded on the protection of nature.

Here’s a snapshot of just a few of the discussions Monday. 

Amazon pact gets a shot in the arm 

The government of France committed US$ 100 million to a new South American-led initiative, it was announced, with Conservation International pledging an additional US$ 20 million. 

The funding is aimed at supporting the Leticia Pact, an agreement signed earlier this month at a summit of seven of the nine Amazonian countries to address deforestation, fires and sustainable development in the world’s largest rainforest.

The pact, brokered by Colombian President Ivan Duque, represents a rare and high-level collective effort to protect the Amazon, where deforestation has been on the rise again after years of decline, and where large swathes of land and forest continue to burn

Science, policy and the church

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: 

A handful of scientists, an indigenous leader, a government minister and two Catholic priests walk into a conference room. 

This actually happened Monday. The resulting discussion, at a side event to the climate summit, was a heady mix of science, politics and philosophy aimed at addressing the 2015 encyclical published by Pope Francis, “Laudato Si,” which staked out the Catholic Church’s positions on ecology and climate change. 

One speaker at Monday’s discussion — one of three globally renowned scientists on the panel — started the conversation in no uncertain terms. 

“We in the scientific community feel that the overarching message that the Pope shared [in Laudato Si] is that we are threatening the very creation of God,” said Johan Rockström, chief scientist at Conservation International and co-director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

“It is the same thing as humans threatening the stability of the Earth’s systems.”

And the systems of the Amazon, Rockström’s counterparts noted, have never been in graver peril.

“Our concern is that in fact we are very, very close to the ‘tipping point,’ ” said panelist Carlos Nobre, Brazil's leading expert on the Amazon and climate change, referring to the point at which further deforestation will inexorably transform the Amazon forest into dry savannah

“What we are seeing unfold in the Amazon is very worrying,” he continued, stating that the length of the forest’s dry season has grown by three weeks in the past 40 years. “In areas that are heavily deforested,” he said, “it’s even longer — close to four weeks.”

The moral implications were clear for local and indigenous peoples who depend on the Amazon for their survival, one panelist intoned.  

“These people didn’t cause the problem, yet they face the price,” said Gabriel Quijandría, Peruvian vice minister for strategic development of natural resources. “That is absolutely inadmissible.” 

Fixing the Amazon, said Thomas Lovejoy — a distinguished conservation biologist often referred to as the “godfather of biodiversity” — must be a collective effort. “It’s not reasonable to expect Amazonian countries to pay for everything that has been done,” he told the panel. “Wealthier countries must contribute.”

As the conversation proceeded, another “tipping point” seemed to beckon: a shift in how the world views the Amazon.

“Suddenly the Earth is under so much pressure that we need to redefine the global commons,” Rockström said. No longer simply Brazil’s or Bolivia’s or Colombia’s problem, he said, the health of the Amazon — indeed, all of Earth’s remaining natural ecosystems — is “everyone’s preoccupation.” 

Rockström quoted Laudato Si: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

Another panelist, Peruvian indigenous leader Fermin Chimatani, echoed that sentiment. “Humanity is destroying God’s creation,” he said. “We are destroying the ‘common house,’ what we call it in our language.”

The question, ultimately, “is not nature but human activity,” said panelist Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, an Argentine Catholic bishop and the current Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. 

“We can change,” he said. “But if we do not, we will all suffer for the loss of the Amazon.”

It’s an emergency 

At a panel discussion earlier in the day, alongside the Club of Rome, Rockström helped to launch the Planetary Emergency Action Plan, making the case for declaring a planetary emergency and providing policy options for addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and human well-being. 

Calling for an emergency may sound drastic, Rockström said, but it was necessary.

“The kind of incremental change that governments are currently suggesting is just not taking the planetary change seriously. And we will fail to secure the future of humanity if this behavior continues.”

“We do not take a declaration of planetary emergency lightly. It’s such a serious step that we can only do it once.”

Quotes from Monday 

“Our trade agenda must be consistent with our climate agenda. We must end imported deforestation.” — French President Emmanuelle Macron

“Disaster response is going to be at the core of our sustainability efforts — the question is, how do you take learning about [extreme weather] events to think about the long term?”   — Ben Jordan, Senior Director, Environmental Policy, Coca-Cola Co.

“In the past, problems with nature were understood as a punishment from God. In reality, the sin is to damage nature — environmental damage is not a punishment from God, it is the sin itself!” — Gabriel Quijandría, Peruvian vice minister for strategic development of natural resources

What’s next 

Tuesday is Day 2 of the climate summit, with more side events and announcements expected. Check this space for updates. 


Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International

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Cover image: The Essequibo River, the longest river in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)


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