Tackling the threat of climate change and COVID-19 were the dominant themes of leaders' speeches Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly annual debate.
"While the world was fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis also struck at full force," said President Andry Rajoelina of the African island nation of Madagascar.
Successive years of climate change-driven droughts have ravaged parts of his country. This year, swarms of locusts and armyworms have wiped out crops. The U.N. says more than 1 million Malagasy people in the country's south are "marching toward starvation" with thousands already in famine-like conditions.
"If we do not act, the crisis will continue and get worse," Rajoelina said of the consequences of global warming. "Madagascar calls upon each state to act in an equitable fashion and commensurate with their polluting activities."
In six weeks, nations will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for a progress report on the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. All signs point to the planet falling short of keeping global warming to a cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has focused much of his engagement this week on getting the robust commitments needed to reach that target.
Rich nations have benefited from growth that resulted in pollution, and now "have a duty to help developing countries grow their economies in a green and sustainable way," Johnson said in a Twitter post Monday. He is due to deliver his address late Wednesday.
Combating climate change was among the topics of discussion in separate meetings U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held Tuesday with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez ahead of their remarks to the assembly.
After the coronavirus pandemic kept heads of state from attending last year's General Assembly meetings, about 100 are attending this year's session in New York. Others are choosing to stay home and deliver recorded remarks.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivered his remarks in person on Tuesday and then returned to Washington, where he convened a virtual summit Wednesday on ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're not going to solve this crisis with half-measures or middle-of-the-road ambitions, we need to go big," he said. "And we need to do our part: governments, the private sector, civil society leaders, philanthropists. This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis."
He announced that the United States — which has already donated some 600 million vaccine doses to developing countries — is buying another 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to give to low- and middle-income countries. They will start shipping out in January 2022.
Entrenched geopolitical issues also came up.
In video remarks, Jordan's King Abdullah reiterated the need for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, while Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud chastised Iran over its nuclear activities.
"We support international efforts aimed at preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon," King Salman said. "We are very concerned at Iranian steps that go counter to its commitments, as well as daily declarations from Iran that its nuclear program is peaceful."
Only three female leaders were scheduled to speak Wednesday in a field of 30, highlighting the obstacles women still face in reaching the highest levels of government.
Meanwhile, it is mostly on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly debate that the real diplomacy takes place.
Wednesday evening the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — were to meet.
Britain's newly appointed foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said the group shares an interest in maintaining stability in volatile regions and in preventing terrorism.
"If we want to avoid Afghanistan becoming a haven for global terror then the international community — including Russia and China — needs to act as one in its engagement with the Taliban," she said.
G-20 foreign ministers also were to meet Wednesday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
Source: Voice of America