Corals and Climate Activism at the UN

This past February I had the amazing opportunity to lay out of my morning class and the even more amazing opportunity to see the Secretary-General of the UN speak in person. Antonio Guterres has made a name for himself as one of the United Nations’ greener Secretary-Generals, and his speech at the United Nations Association of the USA’s Global Engagement Summit was no exception.

Speaking to an audience of over a thousand students, Guterres stressed the importance of our generation’s activism against climate change (including, notably, 13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, who has spent the past several months picketing outside UN headquarters, and who was invited in briefly to enjoy the warmth of the indoors). “When I look out at all of you, from dozens of states and universities around the country, I see ambassadors,” announced the Secretary-General. “Ambassadors for understanding, cooperation, and connecting the world of the United Nations with the grassroots. There is no more important issue today – and I would single out this problem because it’s probably the most dramatic we are facing – [than] climate change.”

Out of the litany of issues discussed at the Global Engagement Summit – ranging from famine in Yemen, to gender equality, to nuclear nonproliferation, all before lunch – climate change came up repeatedly as the most daunting challenge of our time. Guterres throughout his tenure has urged member states to act on climate, with varying levels of success. (Notably, the United States recently disavowed several different international agencies, and could be out of the Paris Agreement by as early as next fall.)

UNA-USA Global Engagement Summit at the United Nations in New York, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019. (Photo/Stuart Ramson for UNA-USA)


Just a week after the Global Engagement Summit, the United Nations observed World Wildlife Day, and chose for the first time to focus on marine life. At a star-studded panel featuring Sylvia Earle, the Secretary-General of CITES, and ambassadors from Youth for Wildlife Conservation and other NGO’s, the United Nations renewed its commitment to tackling thorny global issues like treaty enforcement on the high seas. And, although recent months have brought significant victories for ocean creatures – perhaps most bizarrely, Leonardo DiCaprio recently shamed Russia into opening up their whale jail – the odds are still daunting.

Beleaguered by plastic pollution, the paper’s pet issue of seismic surveying, and countless other challenges, the ocean has been struggling even before New York City decided to start dumping old subway cars into it. Notably, up to 90% of the world’s warming has been absorbed by the ocean, which the ocean is increasingly unhappy about. From stronger storms to coral calamity, ocean warming doesn’t keep me awake at night quite as much as midterms or law school applications but, like, it’s up there. Beyond the buzzwords, however, there is tremendous room for hope.

The United Nations’ tagline for World Wildlife Day this year was #DoOneThingToday. My one thing was finding a bunch of cute whale pictures and pasting them into this article (hey, not all of us can be Jane Goodall) but I encourage you to take their pledge, or at the very least decide what kind of shark you are. From cutting back on plastic to not wearing sea turtles, each of us can do something. And, if the recent massive public lands bill and re-authorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the United States shows us anything, progress is possible. Don’t be “shellfish,” do what you can to turn the tide, and any other ocean puns you can think of.

On March 15th, students across the country are mobilizing for climate action. Want to get more involved and take action on global issues? You can join the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) for free here, and register for UNA-USA’s Lobby Day on Capitol Hill this summer here.


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