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Climate takes center stage at UN as global temperatures hit record

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With the world on track to break the record for the hottest year in history, world leaders, business leaders, celebrities and activists have converged on midtown Manhattan for Climate Week and the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit, again focusing the world's attention on the climate crisis.

The annual climate gathering coincides with the start of the United Nations General Assembly, bringing heads of state and top government officials together with private-sector leaders to focus on climate change in a year marked by a record number of billion-dollar disasters, including eight severe floods.

The main event will take place Wednesday when U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host his own Climate Action Summit, a high-profile event meant to reverse backsliding on Paris climate agreement goals and to encourage governments to adopt serious new actions to combat climate change.

"There is lingering doubt that ... we can meet our climate goals. There is too much backtracking; so we're really hoping that this summit can be used as a moment to inspire people," Selwin Hart, special adviser on climate to the secretary-general, said in an interview.

As of Monday, the U.N. had not announced which world leaders or officials would get one of the coveted speaking slots at the climate summit. Over 100 countries' officials have told Guterres they want to speak, but his team has been weeding out the applications over the last few days, prioritizing countries that plan new actions to advance their previous climate targets.

Hart said the assignment of speaking slots was not intended to embarrass any leaders or country, but to show that these are the first "that are getting things done."

The meeting comes 10 weeks before the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates, and is one of the last high-profile gatherings aimed at getting countries to come forward with new climate actions and plans to shift away from fossil fuels after the G7, G20 and meeting of the BRICs countries - Brazil, China, South Africa, India and Russia - fell short of getting leaders to agree to phase out fossil fuels.

The nearly 40-member Alliance of Small Island States will use Climate Week as a platform to call on the leaders of developed countries to make stronger moves to end the use of fossil fuels and to support the global ramp-up of renewable energy such as wind, geothermal and solar power.

"It is disheartening to witness the lack of ambition on what truly ails us – emissions from fossil fuels," the small islands alliance said in a statement. "We implore the international community to use the platforms of the UNGA and New York Climate Week to signal unequivocal support for Small Island Developing States," it said, using the acronym for the U.N. General Assembly.

Climate Week has become a focal point for climate protestors eager to call out what they see as government inaction and industry greenwashing - corporations advertising environmental-friendly actions while continuing to pollute -- amid glossy events and high-level speeches.

As many as 75,000 activists marched through midtown Manhattan on Sunday calling for an end to fossil fuels, while hundreds of protestors planned disruptive action near Wall Street on Monday to demand an end to fossil fuel financing.

"We’ve had enough false promises, greenwashing, and half measures. Countries must deliver by coming to the Summit with clear plans to immediately end oil and gas expansion and policies for a fast and fair phase out of all fossil fuels," said Romain Ioualalen, global diplomacy manager at Oil Change International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on phasing out fossil fuel production.

Meanwhile, at several hotel ballrooms and other venues across Manhattan, around 2,600 people have registered for in-person attendance at Climate Week events featuring over 200 speakers from the private sector, governments and nongovernmentalion (NGOs.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Jonathan Oatis)