Who Is António Guterres? Transcript
Who is António Guterres? Obviously, he’s the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He’s also one of the most outspoken world leaders on the issue of climate change today. But what exactly qualifies him for that role? What has he achieved in his own life that entitles him to make pronouncements on this or any other topic? And what useful contributions does he make to solving the difficult questions of climate policy?
For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson, and this is a CDN “Backgrounder” on “Who is António Guterres?”. For starters, the job of UN Secretary-General is a bit peculiar. The UN has no real clout in this world, despite various delusions that it’s a “world government” or the conscience of humanity or something. It’s actually a gathering of delegates from sovereign states, most of which are fairly nasty, squalid, or both. The UN has no army or police force to impose whatever decisions get taken by its General Assembly, its Security Council, or its panoply of pseudo-courts. In the end, the only influence the UN Secretary-General has comes from diplomacy, namely being a credible, well-informed trustworthy leader.
The current officeholder, António Guterres, was born in Portugal in 1949. He was considered a bright student who studied physics and electrical engineering at the Technical University of Lisbon. He worked briefly as a professor before embarking on a political career in 1974, during a socialist uprising that marked the end of the rule of long-time dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. As a member of the Socialist Party, Guterres served in several cabinet and opposition leadership posts from 1974 to 1988, then he became leader of the Socialists in Parliament after 1988, and Secretary-General of that party from 1992 to 2002.
To give the man credit, he avoided the most radical left-wing fever swamps, partly because he was a devout Catholic, and he was chosen as Prime Minister after his party’s victory in the 1995 elections. Something that might come as a surprise to his current progressive fan base is that, as Portuguese Prime Minister, he opposed abortion and said publicly that he “did not like homosexuality” and that it “bothered him." But let’s take a look at his practical accomplishments. Well, that didn’t take long. His two terms as Prime Minister were marked by lack of achievement, plummeting popularity, and a
catastrophic defeat handed to his successor. But like many failed politicians, he quickly transitioned to the vast, unaccountable international political bureaucracy. He had already been made one of 25 vice-presidents of the socialist international in 1992, and he served as its president from 1999 to 2005. And a schmoozer and shaker, he became UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005, replacing the improbably named Ruud Lubbers. In that post, he oversaw a vast bureaucracy of some 10,000 staff in 126 countries and raised a lot of money without really solving much of anything. But he did appoint Angelina Jolie as special envoy.
Guterres served 10 years in that job, after which he was elected UN Secretary-General in 2016, taking office the next year and holding it ever since. From the start, he focused on the climate change issue. In 2019 he posed on the cover of Time Magazine photoshopped into rising sea levels on Tuvalu. Since that media splash, he has not let up on the promotion of climate alarmism.
Now here we insert one of our characteristic CDN quibbles. Tuvalu is not sinking. It’s actually growing. Due to mechanisms that scientists have carefully documented for many years, as sea levels rise, coral atolls like Tuvalu rise with them, and so most such atolls are actually gaining land surface, not losing it, which is something Guterres could have found out if he’d bothered to ask any of the tens of thousands of well-paid staff under him to do a bit of reading on the subject. But he didn’t. Instead, he opted for a lurid and completely misleading bit of propaganda to try to manipulate public opinion and global climate policy. So whoever he is, he’s not a sober purveyor of facts. On the contrary, since that 2019 photo, he’s repeatedly misrepresented the facts and the science on the subject he claims to care so much about and know so much about.
In 2020, Guterres said “Climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent, more deadly, more destructive, with growing human and financial costs”. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said no such thing. And he returned to that theme a year ago with more apparent detail, claiming “The number of weather, climate and water-related disasters has increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years.”
The trouble here is, nothing of the sort has happened. His words don’t connect to real-world facts. They do sound good, but only until you start trying to decipher them. For instance, in 2021 he said, “The climate is changing, and the impacts are already too costly for people and the planet.” But what does that even mean? What impacts is he talking about? What costs, and for whom? What does too costly for the planet mean? Does it go bankrupt? Also, he says it's because the climate is changing, so does he think we have the option of switching to a world where the climate never changes, or that we’d somehow be better off if we could? His words simply make no sense once you try and think them through.
But Guterres frequently goes beyond simply saying meaningless things and makes statements that are meaningful but untrue. In 2021, he was claiming the latest IPCC Report sounded a “Code Red for humanity”, a clickbait phrase not found anywhere in the actual publications. Since the IPCC’s a UN body and he’s head of the UN, you might think he’d have some concern for its integrity and credibility. Alas, no. Instead he spews the scariest-sounding verbiage he can think of without giving any thought to the human consequences. After the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report he hollered, “this report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.” But as we pointed out in our video Eco-Colonialism, this sort of false, anti-energy rhetoric is the real threat, not to the abstract thing he calls “the planet”, which is certainly not about to be destroyed, but to the very real people who live on it, especially those who are trying to escape persistent poverty and achieve better lives.
Continuing with his penchant for ever-more extreme scaremongering, in the spring of 2022 Guterres said that same assessment report put us “firmly on track toward an unlivable world”. It’s another very quotable line that’s impossible to parse and appears nowhere in the actual report.
And then in July 2023 he did the usual alarmist trick of claiming that climate breakdown was happening exactly as predicted, faster than predicted and was already here and about to arrive. And then he famously said, “the era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable.”
Now it’s tempting to dismiss that as just harmless political rhetoric, since obviously if the air were unbreathable people couldn’t breathe it and they would die. But remember, he’s the Secretary-General of the United Nations, someone whose words are supposed to carry significant diplomatic weight and have some thought behind them. And remember, here he’s not just overstating things a little, he’s spouting stuff that’s obviously false and bizarrely exaggerated. What exactly is meant to be boiling? And while air pollution is bad in many third world cities, largely because they don’t have modern, clean, fossil-fuel
based energy systems, where exactly is the air unbreathable because of warming? Also, where is the heat unbearable, other than hot places that have always had unbearable heat, and if you can’t bear the heat, what happens to you, you just bear it anyway? It just makes no sense.
Undeterred, he declared in September 2023 that “Climate breakdown has begun.”
Okay, what exactly is breaking down? Is the general circulation of the atmosphere flying apart? Is the Hadley Cell flipping over? Is the jet stream flying off to space? Is the Asian monsoon moving to Greenland? Also, is the planet’s climate system really so unstable that it would break down with a tiny bit of warming, and if it is, why didn’t it break down in the past when it was warmer than today, for instance, during the Holocene Climate Optimum? When exactly this so-called breakdown began and what its symptoms are he didn’t bother to specify. Logic and details aren’t the sorts of things that he feels any need to provide. Instead, he waves away criticism as, you guessed it, a fossil fuel industry conspiracy:
“For decades, the fossil fuel industry has invested heavily in pseudoscience and public relations – with a false narrative to minimize their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.”
So, unlike his critics with their “pseudoscience” and “false narratives” aimed at public relations, he offers gems like this one from September 20, 2023: “Humanity has opened the gates of hell.” Oh really? Where are they? We’d actually like to go and get a selfie, maybe with old Nick. When exactly did it open? How wide did it open? What’s coming out? But again, to ask such questions is to mistake his rhetoric for an attempt to communicate facts or offer solutions. Let’s try that one. We’ve got a code red 5-alarm hell breakdown boiling going. Our thesaurus has spontaneously combusted. Now what? Apparently something. In early 2023 he said:
“We are nearing the point of no return, of overshooting the internationally agreed limit of 1.5°C of global warming. The facts are not in question. Our actions are. We are at the tip of a tipping point. But it is not too late.”
Okay, we get it: tipping points, overshooting, the mythical 1.5°C, the usual clichés, including that business about it not being “too late”.
Great. It’s not too late. But it's not too late for what? We get that he cares a lot. But what does he actually do or want us to do? At a COP meeting in late 2022 he said “Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction”. No, not a climate COP. A biodiversity COP. And the sad thing is that in this case he does have a point; the pressure that humanity is putting on ecosystems really does spell trouble for many interdependent living things. But, given that problem, the last thing we need is billions of people desperate for usable energy, clearcutting trees and scouring the countryside for sticks. But, that’s exactly what his kind of energy policy causes. Except, for some reason he doesn’t seem to care about those kinds of disasters.
And another thing, in his time as Secretary-General there have been six climate COP meetings. And what have they achieved? Guterres is meant to be good at diplomacy, deal-making, bringing people together, winning contentious votes. And certainly he has caused, attended, presided over and otherwise engaged in more summits than most people have had hot dinners, including a “Summit on Climate Ambition” less than two months before COP28 in late 2023. So where’s there anything in this record worth writing home about?
Interestingly, in early 2022 he seemed to concede that under his leadership the UN wasn’t accomplishing anything. But rather than tone down the rhetoric and seek real solutions he doubled down, saying “’We must go into emergency mode and put out this 5-alarm fire. All these challenges are, at heart, failures of global governance. From global health to digital technology, many of today’s multilateral frameworks are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.”
And has he fixed any of them? Including the one he runs? Well, no. It’s not who he is. In the end, he’s a political hack who has discovered that flinging around unhinged rhetoric to trigger alarmist headlines from a media desperate for website clicks is much easier than actually solving real-world problems confronting real-world people. But, the problem is, beyond a certain point, a tipping point if you will, your rhetoric gets so cartoonish and silly that people just tune you out. In fact, if there really was a sinister
conspiracy of well-funded deniers who wanted to undermine climate action, the first thing they would do is arrange for a clown like António Guterres to be appointed the world’s chief climate spokesman, and then watch him destroy the credibility of the whole movement with his ridiculous rhetoric.
For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson, and António Guterres is, well, a consummate UN guy, a windbag’s windbag, and someone who commands attention on climate in inverse proportion to the testable factual content or usefulness of anything he says.