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Fossil Fuel Subsidies Mean Using Public Money 'To Destroy the World': UN Chief

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres's comment follows call by Pope Francis to "keep it in the ground"

 Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets with Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate activist at the Vienna International Centre on May 27, 2019.

 Secretary-General António Guterres (left) meets with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, at the Vienna International Centre on May 27, 2019. (Photo: UNIS Vienna/flickr/cc)

As Pope Francis called on global financial leaders to help keep dirty energy in the ground, the United Nations chief said Tuesday that fossil fuel subsidies amount to "using taxpayers' money... to destroy the world."

"Climate disruption is upon us, and it is progressing faster than our efforts to address it," said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Vienna at the climate-focused R20 Austrian World Summit.

While near-daily global disasters including floods, droughts, and wildfires make clear that the impacts of the climate crisis are already occurring, Guterres said, "there is a silver lining to the looming cloud."

That's because "if we do what we must to combat climate change, the benefits for societies around the world would be profound," he said, pointing to "cleaner water and air" and "reduced biodiversity loss."

But the scope of the task at hand is huge, explained Guterres, as it necessitates a total transformation of all aspects of society.

"What is needed for effective mitigation and improved resilience," he said, "is quite simply a rapid and deep change in how we do business, how we generate power, how we build cities, and how we feed the world."

Another key change, said Guterres, is to stop using taxpayer funds to prop up the coal, oil, and gas industries.

"We need to tax pollution, not people, and to end subsidies for fossil fuels."
—U.N. Secretary General António Guterres
"We need to tax pollution, not people, and to end subsidies for fossil fuels," said Guterres. He also debunked the wrongful assumption by some that fossil fuel subsidies improve people's lives.

"There is nothing more wrong than that," he said. "What we are doing is using taxpayers' money—which means our money—to boost hurricanes, to spread droughts, to melt glaciers, to bleach corals. In one word—to destroy the world."

"As taxpayers," continued Guterres, "I believe we would like to see our money back rather than to see our money used to destroy the world."

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The two-day summit also featured speeches by 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who launched the R20 climate initiative

Thunberg said that "for too long the people in power... have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit."

"We are not going to let you get away with it anymore," she said.

Schwarzenegger, in his remarks, praised young people like Thunberg who are school-striking and otherwise mobilizing to demand swift climate action.

"Their vision should lead us to action," said Schwarzenegger.

Their comments came a day after the Pope spoke to a group of financial ministers from around the world and urged them to back the goals of the Paris climate accord. "We must achieve what we have agreed upon, for our survival and well-being depend on it."

Among the worrisome signs he pointed to are that "Investments in fossil fuels continue to rise, even though scientists tell us that fossil fuels should remain underground."

Like the U.N.'s Guterres, the pontiff referenced the increasingly frequent extreme weather events, which he said "are only a dire premonition of things much worse to come, unless we act and act urgently."

Among the tasks the Pope said the financial ministers should take are "to put an end to global dependency on fossil fuels" and "to open a new chapter of clean and safe energy, that utilizes, for example, renewable resources such as wind, sun and water."

"Time is of the essence," Pope Francis added. "We await your decisive action for the sake of all humanity."

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