World needs to step up on AI and climate crisis, says UN secretary general

António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations speaking at Davos on 17 January 2024. Photo: World Economic Forum.

Speaking at the WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, UN chief António Guterres calls for better governance and oversight on AI and effective action on climate change.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos on 17 January 2024, UN secretary general António Guterres said that the world was failing on AI and the climate crisis, with leaders failing to address key risks.

“In the face of the serious, even existential threats posed by runaway climate chaos and the runaway development of artificial intelligence without guard rails, we seem powerless to act,” said Guterres, who claimed that as climate breakdown begins, countries remain hellbent on raising emissions. “Our planet is heading for a scorching three-degree increase in global temperatures (and) droughts, storms, fires and floods are pummelling countries and communities,” he said.

Highlighting that 2023 was the hottest year on record, Guterres warned of the danger posed by the vested interests of fossil fuel businesses. “The fossil fuel industry has just launched yet another multi-million-dollar campaign to kneecap progress and keep the oil and gas flowing indefinitely,” he said, issuing a warning to the sector. “Let me be very clear – the phaseout of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable. No amount of spin or scare tactics will change that. Let’s hope it doesn’t come too late,” Guterres said.

The UN secretary general said that action was needed now to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy. While the issues of climate and AI were being extensively discussed by governments, the media and world leaders present in Davos, Guterres said that there was no clear and effective global strategy to deal with either, “because geopolitical divides are preventing countries from coming together around global solutions”. The UN chief said it was no surprise that people all around the world were losing faith in governments, institutions and financial and economic systems, as a result.

Turning to the key issue of AI, Guterres argued for better governance and oversight of the emerging technology. Warning that every new iteration of generative AI was increasing the risk of “serious unintended consequences”, he highlighted a new report from the International Monetary Fund that claimed that AI will probably worsen inequality. According to the report, around 60% of jobs in advanced economies such as the US and UK are exposed to AI.

Guterres called on delegates at Davos to collaborate with the UN’s drive to develop a governance model for AI that is networked and adaptive. The UN’s Advisory Body on AI had already made initial recommendations on AI governance, which he said would harness the benefits of this incredible new technology while mitigating its risks.

“We need governments urgently to work with tech companies on risk management frameworks for current AI development and on monitoring and mitigating future harms and we need a systematic effort to increase access to AI so that developing economies can benefit from its enormous potential. We need to bridge the digital divide instead of deepening it,” said Guterres.