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Prime Minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson (right), writes down his contact details for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the COP27 summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. on Nov. 7.Stefan Rousseau/Reuters

With the world on “a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” the United Nations chief on Monday told dozens of leaders to “co-operate or perish,” on avoiding further climate catastrophe, singling out the two biggest polluting countries, China and the United States.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was not the only one preaching with tones of fire and brimstone, alternating with pathos and tragedy, trying to shake up the world’s sense of urgency at this year’s annual UN climate conference.

“Choose life over death,” former U.S. vice-president Al Gore urged. “It is not time for moral cowardice.”

That was before leaders of poorer climate-struck nations had their say, which often involved finger-pointing at richer countries.

Most of the leaders who pleaded for action came from poor countries that caused little of the pollution but often get a larger share of the weather-related damage. Several called on developed countries for reparations, which in climate negotiations is called “loss and damage.” Many were from Africa and small island countries.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh.MOHAMMED SALEM/Reuters

“Africa should not pay for crimes they have not committed,” the Central African Republic’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra said, adding that rich countries were to blame for the climate problem.

“Climate change is directly threatening our people’s lives, health and future,” Kenyan President William K. Ruto said, speaking on behalf of the entire African continent, which he said is looking at US$50-billion a year in climate-change damage by 2050. He said his country is choosing not to use many of its “dirty energy” resources, even though it could help the poor nation financially, and has instead opted for cleaner fuels.

Loss and damage “is our daily experience and the living nightmare of millions of Kenyans and hundreds of millions of Africans,” Mr. Ruto said.

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Seychelles President Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan said, “Like other islands, our contribution in the destruction of the planet is minimal. Yet we suffer the most.” He called on wealthier countries to assist “in repairing the damage you caused to us.”

Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, called for a massive overhaul of international development loans and a 10-per-cent tax on fossil-fuel companies, which she said made “$200-billion in profits in the last three months.”

“I don’t need to repeat the horror and the devastation wrecked upon this Earth over the course of the last 12 months since we met in Glasgow,” Ms. Mottley said. “Whether the apocalyptic floods in Pakistan or the heat waves from Europe to China or indeed in the last few days in my own region, the devastation caused in Belize by tropical storm Lisa or the torrential floods a few days ago in St. Lucia.”

Ahead of this year’s conference, known as COP27, leaders and experts have been ringing alarm bells that time is fast running out to avert catastrophic rises in temperature. But the dire warnings may not have the effect they have had in past meetings because of multiple other challenges of the moment pulling leaders’ attention – from midterm elections in the U.S. to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (third left), Israel's President Isaac Herzog (fourth left), Tunisia's Prime Minister Najla Bouden (third right, top), Lebanon's caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati (top right), Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (bottom right), and other world leaders and officials gather during the group picture opportunity ahead of their summit at the COP27 climate conference.AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

“In the fight for life on Earth, no one is a bystander,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah. “Every contribution counts. COP27 has brought us together to link forces and stand our ground. We are at the beginning of a long, challenging and urgent transformation.”

More than 100 world leaders will speak over the next few days at the gathering in Egypt, most from developing countries demanding greater accountability from the richest, most polluting nations. Much of their focus will be on telling their stories of devastation by climate disasters, including a speech Tuesday by Prime Minister Muhammad Sharif of Pakistan, where summer floods caused at least US$40-billion in damage and displaced millions of people.

“Climate change will never stop without our intervention,” the summit’s host, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, told his fellow leaders. “Our time here is limited and we must use every second that we have.”

Mr. El-Sissi, who also called for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war, was gentle compared to a fiery Mr. Guterres

The UN chief called for a new pact between rich and poor countries to make deeper cuts in emissions with financial help and phasing out of coal in rich nations by 2030 and elsewhere by 2040. He called on the United States and China – the two biggest economies – to work together on climate, something they used to do until the past few years.

“Humanity has a choice: co-operate or perish,” Mr. Guterres said. “It is either a climate solidarity pact – or a collective suicide pact.”

“Today’s urgent crises cannot be an excuse for backsliding or greenwashing.”

But bad timing and world events hang over the gathering.

Most of the leaders are meeting Monday and Tuesday, just as the United States has a potentially policy-shifting midterm election. Then the leaders of the world’s 20 wealthiest countries will have their powerful-only club confab in Bali in Indonesia days later.

Leaders of China and India – both among the biggest emitters – appear to be skipping the climate talks, although underlings are here negotiating. The leader of the top polluting country, U.S. President Joe Biden, is coming days later than most other leaders on his way to Bali.

“There are big climate summits and little climate summits and this was never expected to be a big one,” said Climate Advisers chief executive officer Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. negotiator.

French President Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie.LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was initially going to skip the negotiations, but public pressure and predecessor Boris Johnson’s plans to come changed his mind. King Charles, a long-time environment advocate, won’t attend because of his new role. And Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine created energy chaos that reverberates in the world of climate negotiations, won’t be here.

“We always want more” leaders, UN climate chief Simon Stiell told a Sunday news conference. “But I believe there is sufficient [leadership] right now for us to have a very productive outcome.”

In addition to the leaders’ speeches, the negotiations include “innovative” roundtable discussions that “we are confident, will generate some very powerful insights,” Mr. Stiell said.

The leaders showing up in droves are from the host continent, Africa.

“The historical polluters who caused climate change are not showing up,” said Mohammed Adow of Power Shift Africa. “Africa is the least responsible, the most vulnerable to the issue of climate change and it is a continent that is stepping up and providing leadership.”

“The South is actually stepping up,” Mr. Adow told the Associated Press. “The North that historically caused the problem is failing.”

For the first time, developing nations succeeded in getting onto the summit agenda the issue of “loss and damage” – demands that emitting countries pay for damage caused by climate-induced disasters.

Nigeria’s Environment Minister Mohammed Abdullahi called for wealthy countries to show “positive and affirmative” commitments to help those hardest hit by climate change. “Our priority is to be aggressive when it comes to climate funding to mitigate the challenges of loss and damage,” he said.

Leaders of poorer countries, joined by French President Emmanuel Macron, talked about the issue as one of justice and fairness.

“Our part of the world has to choose between life and death,” Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan said.