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World Leaders Gather at the UN in the Face of War, Climate Catastrophe and Global Worker Exploitation

70th session of the UN General Assembly, September 2015. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
70th session of the UN General Assembly, September 2015. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

The fate of the planet is in the balance. But so is the fate of humanity.

The United Nations General Assembly gathers this week at the UN headquarters in New York City. This is the annual meeting of the world’s elected officials (and several monarchs). Before them is the issue of the climate catastrophe, but also the warmongering of the U.S. against Iran. These are the two main issues.

Climate Catastrophe

Swirling around the heads of government, and their foreign ministers, are questions about the fate of the planet. Massive climate strikes last Friday set the tone, but—since these were widely anticipated—UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has convened a Climate Action Summit as well as several climate-related events. The expectation that anything will come of these meetings is slim. Next year, the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement are to assess the commitments they made in 2016. U.S. President Donald Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from that agreement, as the U.S. is miles behind its own commitments. Nothing good will come of these debates.

Meanwhile, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization has just released a new report, “United in Science,” which compiles the state of science on the question of the climate catastrophe. Three points caught my eye:

  1. Average global temperature for 2015-2019 will be the warmest of any equivalent recorded period. The temperature is 1.1°C above pre-industrial times.
  2. Current levels of CO2, CH4 and N2O represent 146 percent, 257 percent and 122 percent respectively of pre-industrial levels.​
  3. Growth of coal emissions resumed in 2017.

In other words, the situation is ugly, but the antidote is simply not available. Transfer to non-carbon fuels is not occurring at the necessary rate. The West has long ago used up its share of the carbon budget. It is not on track to reverse course. Instead, solutions for climate change are being forced on the developing world, where there remain serious problems of deprivation (including the basic question of hunger). The biggest carbon emitter on the planet is the U.S. military, but there is no discussion about shrinking its negative impact on the fate of the earth.

US War on Iran

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif—who is under U.S. sanctions—was in New York as part of the Iranian delegation. He once more stiffly disagreed with the U.S. and Saudi view that Iran had struck the Saudi oil facility. Both the Iranian government and the military have said that they did not conduct that attack, which they—and the Houthis—say came from Yemen.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and the Saudis—now with the UK in tow—insist that the attack was from Iran, and they threaten retaliation. Any attack on Iran will result in a regional war that will go from the edge of the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush mountains. If the U.S. hits Iran, Iran, which has developed its own military arsenal, will likely strike U.S. targets and U.S. allies. Zarif has said as much.

The Europeans oppose this war, which is why they will continue their meetings with Zarif on the Iran nuclear deal. They want to make progress on trade relations. Iran’s president concurs. He is now talking about the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) initiative. The Strait of Hormuz is the narrow opening between Iran and Oman, where many of the recent tense incidents have taken place with oil tankers. Iran’s diplomats have been traversing the countries that are around the Persian Gulf—not only to close allies such as Iraq, but also to countries such as Qatar and Oman. Thus far, there are no details on the HOPE initiative, but its creation signals that Iran is eager to get the regional powers to make a strong statement against war.


With the focus on climate catastrophe and catastrophic wars, no one seems to really pay any attention to the common and everyday plight of the world’s peoples. There is a list of problems faced by billions of people that remains on the UN agenda, but gets slipped to the sidelines. One of those key problems—raised by the International Labor Organization—is the future of work.

One of the great illusions of our time is that there are fewer workers now than a hundred years ago. This is not the case. There are now more workers than ever before—over 3 billion people in the global workforce.

Consideration of the deteriorating condition of work seems not to bother too many people. At Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, we just released a report on the workers who produce the iPhone. We found that these workers—hundreds of thousands of them—are more exploited now than the 19th-century English textile workers were. In fact, these iPhone workers are more than 25 times more exploited than those workers. The rate of exploitation of the iPhone workers is 2,458 percent.

What does this number tell us? It tells us that an infinitesimal part of the working day is devoted to the value needed by the workers as wages. The bulk of the day is spent by the worker producing goods that enhance the wealth of the capitalist. The higher the rate of exploitation, the greater the enhancement of the capital’s wealth by the worker’s labor.

So, there it is.

Reports from the UN show us that employed workers struggle with hunger and with lack of any security. Standards are eroded, and frustration increases. With hours as long as they are, many of the world’s billions are unable to keep up with the news about Iran or the climate catastrophe. Survival has become the start and end of their lives.

The fate of the planet is in the balance. But so is the fate of humanity. Climate strike, yes. But human strike too.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

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1 Comment

  1. Larry Stout September 23, 2019

    The UN (aka League of Nations 2.0) operates on the premise that the maxim “all politics is local politics” is untrue. The UN is proof positive that the human species is inherently incapable of meaningful cooperation in the most important matters. Our collective inventive genius has found no solution for that (and no work is being done on it).

    If you think Greta Thunberg’s scolding changed anything, you need to think again. Business as usual. To hell with the future.


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