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‘Humanity Has Opened the Gates of Hell’ and 9 More Times the UN Secretary General Slayed

António Guterres has a way with words.

António Guterres.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres opened his welcome speech at COP28 in Dubai on Friday with a present-day image of a warming planet. Just days before, he told world leaders, he was standing on the melting ice of Antarctica.

“This is just one symptom of the sickness bringing our climate to its knees,” he said. “A sickness only you, global leaders, can cure.”

He was just winding up.

“We are miles from the goals of the Paris Agreement – and minutes to midnight for the 1.5-degree limit,” Guterres went on. “But it is not too late.”

He called for leadership, cooperation, and political will. Then he took his big swing.

“We cannot save a burning planet with a firehose of fossil fuels,” he said. Quoting Bob Dylan, he went on, “So allow me to have a message for fossil fuel company leaders: Your old road is rapidly aging. Do not double-down on an obsolete business model.”

For nearly six years, Guterres has been speaking to rooms full of the world’s most powerful people about the urgency of fighting climate change, and his sermons never seem to miss. The speeches tend to follow a certain formula. He enumerates the horrors that rising temperatures are already causing around the world. He pleads with leaders to be more ambitious. He issues spicy, no-holds-barred critiques of the fossil fuel industry.

But somehow he keeps them fresh, forceful, even poetic.

Rhetoric on climate change is often circular and stale. Especially at this time of year, you tend to hear the same clichés and platitudes like “It’s time to move from words to action” over and over. Greta Thunberg famously called the conference a bunch of “blah, blah, blah.”

So it’s especially striking to read or listen to Guterres’ poignant missives, full of metaphor and alliteration. He's constantly testing some new analogy or cultural reference to jar his audience out of complacency. And by the end, he’s usually provided at least one or two pithy one-liners perfectly engineered to make headlines.

Here’s a compilation of some of Guterres’s greatest recent hits.

"Humanity has opened the gates of hell."

Humanity has opened the gates of hell.
Horrendous heat is having horrendous effects.
Distraught farmers watching crops carried away by floods;
Sweltering temperatures spawning disease;
And thousands fleeing in fear as historic fires rage.

- September 2023, United Nations Climate Ambition Summit

“The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.”

The era of global warming has ended;
The era of global boiling has arrived.
The air is unbreathable.
The heat is unbearable.
And the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable.

- July 2023, press conference on historic heat

“The climate time bomb is ticking”

The climate time bomb is ticking.
But today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to diffuse the climate time bomb.
It is a survival guide for humanity.
As it shows, 1.5 degrees is achievable
but it will take a quantum leap in climate action.
In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts –

Everything, everywhere, all at once

- March 2023, launch of the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and, notably, about a week after the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once won the Academy Award for Best Picture)

“Your core product is our core problem.”

I have a special message for fossil-fuel producers and their enablers,
scrambling to expand production and raking in monster profits:
If you cannot set a credible course for net-zero,
with 2025 and 2030 targets covering all your operations,
you should not be in business.
Your core product is our core problem.
We need a renewables revolution, not a self-destructive fossil fuel resurgence.

- February 2023, briefing to the General Assembly on priorities for 2023

“Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction”

Today, we are out of harmony with nature.
In fact, we are playing an entirely different song.
Around the world, for hundreds of years,
we have conducted a cacophony of chaos,
played with instruments of destruction.

With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth,
humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction.
We are treating nature like a toilet.
And ultimately, we are committing suicide by proxy.

- December 2022, UN Biodiversity Conference

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”

Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing.
Global temperatures keep rising.
And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.
We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.

A window of opportunity remains open,
but only a narrow shaft of light remains.

- November 2022, COP27

“We are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.”

- March 2022, Economist Sustainability Summit

“An Atlas of human suffering”

I have seen many scientific reports in my time, but nothing like this.
Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering
and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.

- February 2022, launch of the Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

“We are on the edge of an abyss”

I am here to sound the alarm.
The world must wake up.
We are on the edge of an abyss —
and moving in the wrong direction.

COVID-19 and the climate crisis have exposed profound fragilities as societies and as a planet.
Yet instead of humility in the face of these epic challenges,
we see hubris.
Instead of the path of solidarity,
we are on a dead end to destruction.

- September 2021, address to the General Assembly


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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