Top United Nations officials joined leading experts today in urging decisive action on a global scale to combat the challenges posed by climate change.
"We cannot continue with business as usual," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a General Assembly meeting on the issue at UN Headquarters in New York, citing the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which affirmed earlier this year that global warming is directly linked to human activity.
Mr. Ban called for "new thinking" to tackle the challenge, since how it is addressed "will define us, our era, and ultimately, our global legacy."
The Secretary-General is convening a high-level meeting on climate change when the new Assembly session starts in September.
In his statement today, Mr. Ban also highlighted the need for a comprehensive agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to deal with the matter. The Kyoto Protocol -- the international community's current framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions -- expires in 2012, and he said that countries must agree to a successor pact to be ready for ratification three years before that date to allow countries to make it law in time.
A "Greening the UN" project has been launched to minimize the world body"s impact on the environment, he added.
Also voicing the need for urgent action, the President of the General Assembly emphasized the "cruel irony" of the disproportionate effects of climate change on the countries least responsible for it.
"Greater variations of rainfall, combined with rising sea levels, will lead to more extreme weather, particularly in parts of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America," Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa said, at the opening of today's meeting.
"We therefore have a special responsibility to help those countries most affected to adapt to climate change."
She added that this assistance, which includes investing in climate-friendly energy production and energy efficiency, as well as technology transfers, will help to ensure the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of targets aimed at slashing a host of social and economic ills by 2015.
Such efforts "should not be at the cost of economic growth, but to achieve it," she said, noting that "a global consensus can only be secured if all countries can share in the benefits from action to address" climate change.
Sheikha Haya also said the debate itself was "carbon neutral," with the carbon emissions from both UN Headquarters and from the air travel to bring experts to New York having been off-set by investment in a biomass fuel project in Kenya.
The two-day plenary session that kicked off today is the first-ever devoted exclusively to climate change, seeking to translate the growing scientific consensus on the problem into a broad political consensus for action following alarming UN reports earlier this year on its potentially devastating effects. The event will include a thematic debate and interactive panel discussions with climate change experts.
The meeting seeks to build momentum towards the high-level meeting in September and the upcoming negotiations under the Climate Change Convention in December in Bali, Indonesia.