The Climate Treadmill Speeds Up At COP28, But Critics Say It’s Still Not Going Anywhere

The Dubai climate summit showed how fossil fuel companies and their allied politicians captured the UN process. Decades of obstruction have gridlocked efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions from oil, gas and coal.

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A young activist of American indigenous origins, Licypriya Kangujam, is removed by security after she forced herself onto the stage in a protest against fossil fuels extraction during COP28's "Uniting on the Pathway to 2030 and Beyond" session on December 11, 2023 in Dubai. Credit: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images
A young activist of American indigenous origins, Licypriya Kangujam, is removed by security after she forced herself onto the stage in a protest against fossil fuels extraction during COP28's "Uniting on the Pathway to 2030 and Beyond" session on December 11, 2023 in Dubai. Credit: Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Esa Sharon Mona Ainuu, Niue minister of natural resources and environment, was in tears as she met the press on Dec. 11, near the end of COP28 in Dubai. After 12 days of meetings, any references to a fossil fuel phase-out had suddenly been stripped out of the text by Sultan al-Jaber, the presiding officer at climate talks, who just a few weeks earlier said there is “no science” showing a fossil fuel phase-out is needed to stop global warming.

“What am I going to tell my daughter,” she said, choking up repeatedly as she described how parts of Niue, her island home in the Polynesian Pacific, are already being swallowed up by rising seas. “It saddens me that I came all this way, and this is what we got.”

She said the delegations from the vulnerable Pacific Island nations arrived optimistic that the world finally understood the threat of global warming and was going to do something about it, but found the final text was “A disappointing message to our people.”

“Sea level rise is just getting worse. Our food sources are gone and people are drowning,” she said. But, “the text is really something in favor of oil countries.”

Esa Sharon Mona Ainuu, Niue minister of natural resources and environment answers media questions Dec. 11 at COP28 in Dubai. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News
Esa Sharon Mona Ainuu, Niue minister of natural resources and environment answers media questions Dec. 11 at COP28 in Dubai. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News

In the end, a clear statement on phasing out fossil fuels, sought by more than 100 countries at COP28, was replaced with weaker language suggesting a speedy transition away from oil, gas and coal energy, and much of the world was disappointed, with leader after leader from developing countries saying it was not enough to meet the urgency of the moment. 

To add insult to injury, the final plenary this year adopted the watered-down version in the absence of representatives of some of the most vulnerable countries, including most of the Alliance of Small Island States, who afterward questioned the legitimacy of a decision that’s supposed to rest on global consensus. Many long-time participants and observers said those tense moments reflected the continued dysfunction of global climate governance. 

Understanding why the COP process is struggling requires going back more than 30 years to the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, when 179 countries agreed on a “blueprint for international action on the environment,” that would “focus on the impact of human socio-economic activities.”

Records of the Earth Summit show the gathered countries knew they would have to juggle social, economic and environmental concerns, which would require “new perceptions of the way we produce and consume, the way we live and work, and the way we make decisions.”

It could have been a transcendent moment for humanity if the countries of the world, guided by science, had acted on the best impulses they showed at the Earth Summit, but a political and economic backlash was already building, bringing the push for transformative change to a near standstill. Addressing climate change became an increasingly complicated and futile attempt to bargain with the physics of global warming, the clock ticking.

Since the Rio meeting, greenhouse gas emissions have increased nearly every year, accounting for more than 50 percent of all the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age, about 1850. The rate of global warming has accelerated, polar sea and glaciers are melting faster than ever and some forests and coral reefs, as well as other ecosystems, have already been wiped out. 

As COP28 started in early December, the average global temperature hovered around and exceeded the aspirational 1.5 degree Celsius target of the 2015 Paris Agreement several months in a row, and scientists warned about imminent climate tipping points that could throw ecosystems and the communities that depend on them into chaos.

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The UNFCCC tried to grapple with the growing petro-fueled climate problem in the 1990s, but never really called out the problem by its name: fossil fuels. Instead it set long-term emissions and temperature targets that seem disconnected from real-world impacts. And it used a politically sanctioned scientific group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to come up with complicated, and some would say, magical, formulas to achieve those goals. 

In recent years, it’s also become more clear that the climate crisis is deeply linked with questions of environmental and social justice, and how continuing legacies of racism and colonialism drive environmental degradation and hinder changes to slow global warming as well as drive nationalistic violence. That’s a lot to throw into the long-simmering pot of a climate elixir for which all 198 countries have to agree on a recipe. 

This year, for the first time, the COP’s final main document included a specific reference to the need for a transition away from fossil fuels. But without a real timetable or any way to enforce the language, it may be too little and too late, said some observers who were hoping for more progress in Dubai.

Endless Tic-Tac-Toe

Like every preceding edition, COP28  failed to heed the Earth Summit’s clarion call for deep societal transformations, said Harjeet Singh, head of political global strategy with Climate Action Network International, a nonprofit civil society umbrella group representing tens of thousands of people in member groups from every continent.

Instead, it seemed like the latest round in a 30-year game of tic-tac-toe, said Singh, adding he puts most of the blame for the 30-year deadlock on  the United States and the countries of the European Union. The U.S. and Europe have spewed by far the most climate-harming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the last 150 years, and also benefited the most economically from unbridled fossil fuel burning, but at the expense of hundreds of other less developed countries, Singh said.

“I have been following negotiations since 2008 and those countries have never set a good example, even when they had a very clear obligation to lead the world in reducing emissions starting in 1993,” the year after the Earth Summit Declarations were signed in Rio, he said.

Instead of immediately setting to work in the spirit of the Rio conventions, the biggest developed countries started on a path of delaying and blocking any real progress, like by focusing on a voluntary cap and trade program for emissions and other incremental targets, or moving the goalposts, by trying to shift the burden to larger developing countries, primarily China and India.

Every new target requires a new process, which helps obstruct and delay action, he said, adding that there are different forms of subtle obstructionism that aren’t as obvious as Saudi Arabia flat-out refusing a certain phrase in a document.

“Not having a definition of climate finance,” he said,  “is a type of obstruction. If you don’t allow an executive committee to put loss and damage numbers on the agenda, it’s a type of obstruction. There’s hard obstruction and there is soft obstruction. You just keep on muddying the waters and coming up with excuses.”

It all deflects from the need for rapid and deep greenhouse gas emissions cuts in the richest and most developed countries and creates a certain “year-on-year narrative,” Singh said of the annual kicking of the can down the road. 

“The biggest question,” he said, is, “‘have you done your fair share? Have you played your part? Your part is commensurate with the greenhouse gases that you have pumped into the atmosphere.’”

In developed countries, he said, “You’re able to bail out banks. You have money for everything, but not meeting your global responsibility.”

“Look at how many years we have lost,” he said. “We don’t realize how minutes are being lost and then suddenly a year is gone, and then, 30 years.”

An International Carbon Rodeo

It’s hard to see how it would make up for that lost time to host the climate conference in a city like Dubai, which brashly celebrates fossil-fueled hyper-capitalism with the world’s largest indoor ski slope, oil-barrel decor in downtown pubs and Maseratis and muscle cars rented by the hour on a luxury, beachfront promenade where a few electronic billboards tout how 198 countries are “reinventing the energy systems of tomorrow at COP 28.”

About 3.3 million people live in greater Dubai and during COP28, it was perpetually smoggy, as pollution from refineries and wells mingled with vehicle exhaust and road haze, along with desert dust to smear the sky a dirty yellow-gray. Clusters of exotic glassy high-rise towers topped by extravagant penthouses are interspersed with vast oil and gas production and distribution facilities. Many of the energy and service industry workers in Dubai are from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other parts of Asia, some of them displaced from their homes by recent climate disasters.

A downtown Dubai hotel decorated for Christmas during COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News
A downtown Dubai hotel decorated for Christmas during COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News
A sports car for rent along a main street in Dubai during COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News
A sports car for rent along a main street in Dubai during COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News

The conference center itself has an “Olympics meets Roman Circus” vibe, with the future of the planet being debated in futuristic buildings clustered around an obligatory display of international flags. Near the entrance, open-air broadcast booths hosting major TV channels overlook a formal protest zone, so network cameramen can keep their iced coffee on a shady table while simultaneously filming Indigenous people protesting the loss of their land and culture to sea level rise driven by global warming. 

The demonstrations are permitted in the delegate zone are closely regulated by the United Nations for content and timing, and outside the he U.N. controlled Blue Zone, in Dubai city, public climate protests are unheard of to non-existent, and it’s the second year in a row the summit was in an authoritarian country with little tolerance for spontaneous civic activism. 

The announcement that COP29 will be in Baku, Azerbaijan, can feel like a dark, eerie affirmation that some countries don’t participate in the global climate talks in good faith, but rather remain committed to a fossil fuel future.

Phasing out fossil fuels was the rallying cry for thousands of protesters at COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News
Phasing out fossil fuels was the rallying cry for thousands of protesters at COP28. Credit: Bob Berwyn/Inside Climate News

Beyond the flags near the entrance plaza, COP28 delegates headed for the various national centers strolled past a futuristic two-story open-air dome with an evening light show and electronic music that could herald the entrance of an intergalactic villain in a sci-fi movie, and on the fringes are tens of thousands more people who don’t represent countries or people, but are there in the service of climate capitalism. 

Seemingly all-mighty petrodollars are currently being rebranded as green carbon dollars under various schemes involving some variation of trading permission to keep emitting for a promise to protect some trees or suck CO2 out of the air in the future, but recent research and reports show many are marked by some shade of greenwashing, according to the many watchdog groups trying to track the carbon rodeo.

“It’s a jamboree, a circus that goes on once a year, a distraction,” said Aaron Thierry, an ecologist at Cardiff University. “COP gets us all to focus our energies and attention there, as though it’s where decisions really get made.” 

That leaves many people thinking that the problem will be solved because important, top-level government people are talking about it. The message is, “we can’t act ourselves,” outside of the U.N. process, he added. “We are supposed to wait until our governments make the decisions at this determined place and time,” he said.

But that, he said, is misguided. “Let’s put the attention back on where decisions get made about where to build things at the local level, not at the global level,” he said.

Waiting for a COP to fire the silver bullet that will stop climate change is dangerous because, when it fails each year, it “creates a fatalistic view that nothing’s getting done,” he said. And it immediately ratchets up expectations for the next COP. 

Especially for young people, the repeated disappointment has led to deep despair and feelings of betrayal, as their future is increasingly imperiled.

“I think that we can look elsewhere for more hopeful progress,” he said.

When Push Comes to Shove

Most people in their thirties probably can’t remember a world without the annual climate talks, and they watched the climate crisis worsen steadily during that same time, which, by any measure, is hard to reconcile. The historical context includes dramatic political shifts in the years preceding the Rio conference, including the emergence of Thatcherism and Reaganism, political ideologies based on self-reliance and free market economics, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Globalized capitalism looked like the big winner, Naomi Klein, a professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia and author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate,” writes in her seminal book about the political and historic roots of the climate crisis.

But those ideologies collided directly with the nascent global effort to address global warming with a collectivist approach that was driven by the moral clarity of the Rio declarations and focused on fairness and global economic and social equity, recognizing that nobody is really safe unless everyone is safe. 

Instead, Klein said, the “greed-is-good” ideology won out, and multinational corporations were able to swamp the climate efforts as they grew deregulated, consumption-based economies around the world. 

Other critics of mainstream political economics showed that the intense high-speed global flow of goods, services, capital and people—which they called hypercapitalism—disrupted societies, and efforts to stop global warming, partly by enabling commercial interests to penetrate every aspect of human experience,” to the point that consumption becomes part of our cultural and social DNA.

Klein’s book explains how fossil fuels power nearly every aspect of hypercapitalism, and how corporations recognized that any meaningful international climate rules would be a big threat to the booming business model based on deregulated global capitalism. 

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests,” Klein writes. “A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that requires collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reigning in of the forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.”

So, just as the world tried to grapple with the petro-fueled climate crisis in a collaborative, voluntary framework, fossil fuel companies, related industries, and their pro-free trade political allies set up a global trading system that was fundamentally at odds with the UNFCCC’s consensus-based approach to climate policy.

Climate policy became a low-value chip in a high-stakes international poker game, as the immense costs of unbridled carbon pollution became apparent during the 1990s, and conservatives also created a false narrative that effective climate policy would threaten progress and prosperity, Klein writes. Then-dominant free market ideology dictated that innovation and profits—not regulations—would solve climate change.

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This faith in market-based solutions prevailed as most developed western countries had a big hand in steering the UNFCCC away from being able to adopt any binding or enforceable climate rules. As climate negotiators set about designing voluntary, consensus-based climate measures, those same countries enacted much stricter global trade agreements that challenged effective climate policy, Klein explains. 

A move by one country to charge high taxes on imported carbon-intensive products like steel or aluminum could be challenged in trade court and potentially lead to expensive financial penalties or retaliatory trade measures. This inherent contradiction persists today, she argues, keeping the world on the climate treadmill.

The final COP28 document was hailed as a signal to markets that the fossil fuel era is ending, but that apparently didn’t impress oil company investors, at least for the short term, because in the days after the conference ended, share prices of most major fossil fuel companies increased, and energy companies are once again expecting record year-end profits. 

Like previous climate summits, COP28 became a target for climate disinformation campaigns that are often funded by fossil fuel companies and their adjacent industries. Such campaigns include troll and bot social media accounts making contradictory claims about the UNFCCC and generally sowing chaos and muddying the conversation. 

Reporting by Drilled highlighted that at the conference in Dubai, major corporate media players once again published prominent pro-fossil fuel advertorial content that can confuse the average citizen about the gravity of global warming.

Politics, Not Science, Drives Global Climate Policy

Ideological threats to effective global climate policies are growing, according to political researchers who are tracking the emergence of conservative and extreme right-wing nationalistic parties all over the world, including the United States, and showing how those ideologies usually include a systematic denial of climate change. 

In the U.S., presidential politics have had a big impact on climate policy in recent years, with Obama guiding the country into the Paris Agreement, Trump pulling out and Biden rejoining the global pact just one day short of a deadline. But the impact was probably even greater in the 1980s, said Marc Hudson, researching industrial decarbonization policy at the University of Sussex. 

In the early ‘80s, atmospheric scientists were held in high regard because they had discovered the ozone hole and offered sound guidance on how to fix it, which nations headed in creating the 1987 Montreal Protocol, widely touted as a successful U.N. environmental treaty. There was widespread political awareness that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning were dangerous.There was also a broad willingness to tackle the problem, with some European leaders suggesting that a treaty similar to the Montreal ozone pact would work to govern CO2 emissions.

“You get the right people in the room, you get them to sign a treaty and then you start to do something about it,” Hudson said, describing the world’s pragmatic response to the potential loss of the life-sustaining ozone layer. 

The stage seemed set for climate action, but the Reagan administration felt like it had been forced into that deal, Hudson said, and didn’t want that to happen again, because it flew in the face of free market primacy. 

Instead of a clear policy instrument like the Montreal Protocol, “What we got was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Hudson said. “And the crucial part of that phrase there is governmental. Governments say what’s acceptable in those reports, and the reports are the basis for decisions at the UNFCCC. And there’s an endless history of things being watered down.” 

Exxon’s influence on global climate policy was documented as early as 1990, Hudson said, as the company sought to weaken language in the very first IPCC report. By the time George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, U.S. climate policy was not in the hands of Earth scientists, but of Cold War physicists and free-market conservatives who ran think tanks like the national-defense focused George C. Marshall Institute, he added. With fossil fuel funding, the Marshall Institute began promoting climate change denial in the late 80s.

US President George Bush, center, signs the Earth Pledge with his wife, Barbara, on June 12,1992, during the UN-sponsored Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images
US President George Bush, center, signs the Earth Pledge with his wife, Barbara, on June 12,1992, during the UN-sponsored Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro. Credit: J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images

Given the first Bush presidency, he said, it’s not surprising that American representatives during the formative years of the UNFCCC guided it toward a toothless approach based on the unrealistic belief that the economic system that caused the problem could also solve it.

The U.S. position was that it would not agree to anything in Rio that included specific targets or timetables for emissions reductions, Hudson said, with Bush threatening to boycott the summit if they were included. Countries pushing for mandatory measures backed off and agreed to the compromise language that guides COP outcomes to this day.

“At that time, there was real gloating,”  Hudson said, “with conservative lobbying groups in the U.S. publicly stating that they were victorious” in the battle over climate policy.

Thirty years and 28 U.N. climate summits later, the consequences of that compromise are obvious.

“The only reason we’re having to have these bloody conferences is because in 1992, targets and timetables for emissions reductions by rich countries got taken out of the text,” he said. “The battle was lost in 1992.”

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