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U.N. climate conference opens with alarming warnings about the global climate

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The United Nations' annual climate conference has opened to stark warnings about greenhouse gas emissions threatening the globe. Over the next two weeks, around 100 world leaders, including President Joe Biden, are expected to speak at the COP 27 conference. It's being held in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. And questions are being raised about why that country should be the host. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us from there now. Hey, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

NADWORNY: So, Ruth, today, the conference heard a warning from the head of the United Nations. Can you tell us about that?

SHERLOCK: Antonio Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, used his opening remarks to remind the world of the urgency of what's being discussed here. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: 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.

SHERLOCK: So he said much of this conference should be about what he called a climate solidarity pact, where emerging and developed economies work together to lower carbon emissions. He said the only alternative to climate solidarity is, and I quote, "collective suicide".

NADWORNY: What are some of the topics being discussed at COP 27 so far?

SHERLOCK: Well, one key discussion here will be the question of loss and damage. That's the debate over whether, and how, wealthier countries that are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions should pay reparations to emerging economies. Some of those economies have been hit the hardest by climate change, with things like flooding and agricultural loss through drought. But it's a sort of tug of war between rich and developing economies. Many wealthier nations have resisted addressing this because they fear massive liabilities. Some say the cost of those losses could be hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

One concrete development from today, though, is that the U.N. has announced an early warning system to forecast dangerous weather, like extreme storms and floods around the world. And that's going to focus, first, on helping the poorest and most vulnerable populations. And we do expect some developments in the drive to cut global carbon emissions. And next week, leaders are supposed to try to work on a joint statement for all countries.

NADWORNY: As I mentioned, some have questioned whether Egypt is the right choice to host this summit. It's a country criticized by human rights groups for its repression of freedom of speech and human rights violations. How do you think this will impact the conference?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, it's a real issue here. I mean, Human Rights Watch says that dozens of environmental activists have been arrested in the lead-up to this summit. They say that Egypt does allow, you know, some activism on some climate-related topics, but other issues, like major government infrastructure projects or industrial pollution, are red lines. And experts I've spoken with here today say that these arrests have had this kind of chilling effect, with many local organizations choosing to stay quiet, not to protest.

Past global climate gatherings have been these lively and energetic events, with crowds of thousands of people gathered outside the conference halls trying to push for change. But there's none of that here. I'm told that some protests will be allowed but only for a small number of protesters that have been carefully vetted. And they're going to be kept in a designated area that I'm told is some distance from the entrance of the conference hall. I should say, though, that some people are using this conference as an opportunity to try to kind of highlight the cases of jailed activists. The sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, the Egyptian British activist who's been jailed for much of the past decade, well, she's come to the conference to try to push for his release.

NADWORNY: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.