December 2, 2020

State of the Planet, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Posted by Laura Guertin

Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.  —  State of the Planet, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, December 2, 2020

December 2020 is wrapping up with so much news across our national and international communities. Our Earth and space science community is no different, with the firehose of news starting on December 1st, celebrating Antarctica Day to mourning the loss of the Arecibo telescope instrument platform collapse in Puerto Rico. And of course, the AGU Fall Meeting kicked off with the incredible virtual platform and opportunities for engagement, extending December 1-17.

Separate from the AGU Fall Meeting, on December 2, UN Secretary-General António Guterres gave a special address titled State of the Planet ( The talk was given at Columbia University (side note – I learned that Columbia is starting a School of Climate) and was filled with so many important statements and points for reflection and action.

The timing of the date of this special address corresponds with the release of two new reports from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). According to the Secretary-General, these reports “spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe.” [see WMO press release & report, UNEP The Production Gap, 2020] The icons below summarize the pathway and focus of his talk:

Some of the talking points from UN Secretary-General António Guterres that stood out to me include:

  • To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken
  • Climate policies have yet to rise to the challenge
  • The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security….And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.
  • As always, the impacts fall most heavily on the world’s most vulnerable people. Those who have done the least to cause the problem are suffering the most.
  • The central objective of the United Nations for 2021 is to build a truly Global Coalition for Carbon Neutrality. I firmly believe that 2021 can be a new kind of leap year — the year of a quantum leap towards carbon neutrality. (*side note – today, Climate Central also released graphics and a solutions brief for Getting To Net Zero)
  • Nature needs a bailout. In overcoming the pandemic, we can also avert climate cataclysm and restore our planet. This is an epic policy test. But ultimately this is a moral test.
  • (…and these points are just from the first half of his speech!)

I encourage you to watch his talk for yourself and see what points you connect with.


This webpage is the landing page for all resources related to the special address. A direct link to the talk is available. A PDF of the 2020 State of the Planet speech can be downloaded, or the text is available on this webpage.

The speech ended with a call for what all global citizens need to work on in 2021. With COP 26, all nations must arrive with action plans in-hand, as each country has a common yet differentiated responsibility for climate action. Nature-based solutions, indigenous knowledge, the role of women, and international celebrations such as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and International Conference on Chemicals Management all play a part.

Next year, in short, gives us a wealth of opportunities to stop the plunder and start the healing. One of our best allies is nature itself.  —  State of the Planet, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, December 2, 2020

This would be an excellent speech to have students watch and discuss, and the level of material is completely accessible for introductory-level students/courses. I might start by sharing the Secretary-General’s final comments with the group, to help students keep in mind the human side of science and its role and impacts as they listen to the speech:

Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other. And we must do so together. Solidarity is humanity. Solidarity is survival. That is the lesson of 2020.  —  State of the Planet, by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, December 2, 2020