Protesters in London staged a demonstration against oil companies taking over COP 28, in support of climate justice, and in protest against fossil fuel financing

Protesters in London staged a demonstration against oil companies taking over COP 28, in support of climate justice, and in protest against fossil fuel financing

I’ve covered these COPs (to be more specific, Conferences of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) across four decades; they are simultaneously the world’s stage for talking about the most serious crisis our species has ever wandered into, and a shambolic trade show. (Literally: In 1997, I remember watching in Kyoto as the conference dragged on into overtime, even as workers were dismantling it in order to get the center’s next event, a children’s furniture makers convention, up and running). For journalists, the secret is to approach these gatherings with eyes wide open, clear that several things are happening at once.

One of those things, clearly, is disingenuous. The oil industry — which includes companies with logos familiar to us all, but also countries like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, which essentially function as oil companies — use these talks to try and blunt calls for change. That’s particularly clear this year for COP28, since Sultan Ahmed Al-Jaber, the conference chair, also runs the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and has been using preliminary meetings to drum up new business, as the BBC reported on Monday. My guess is that this blatant overreach means everyone will be more aware than usual that world’s foxes have gathered for a conference on henhouse protection.

But at least the hens can squawk. As every year, environmentalists will do their best to remind the world (and its journalists) of what’s actually happening. This is not always easy: Over the years, the COPs have done what they can to discourage advocates from speaking out and drawing attention to many of the contradictions — the very stories journalists should be seeking out. Those who would keep the conference more honest are usually consigned to some separate building, a free speech zone where they can give talks to each other without bothering the various parties theoretically at work crafting agreements. (They’re usually denied entrance to the press workroom.) But activists have figured out ways both subtle and blatant to make themselves heard. Reporters are well advised to attend the daily awarding of the Fossil Of the Day prize, which is awarded to the places “doing the most to achieve the least,” because it’s a good chance to see where pressure is being applied.

Meanwhile, nation states are doing the negotiating, working their way through a text, and offering up their pledges for climate action in the years ahead. These NDCs, or “nationally determined contributions,” are voluntary commitments — voluntary mostly because the rest of the world long since gave up on the idea that the U.S. Senate would ever approve an actual treaty with any teeth. Our political dysfunction is important context for stories about whatever progress is or isn’t made at COP28 because it means that there’s a kind of moving scorecard, as various NGOs estimate the total effect of these pledges on the eventual temperature of the planet.

And that scorecard is, as is becoming steadily clearer, rendered almost useless by the way we keep it. Under international rules, countries are held accountable for the emissions from whatever is burned within their borders. But a handful of powerful nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K., and Norway are chief examples — have begun to rein in their own emissions, even while expanding their export of fossil fuels. The atmosphere, of course, could care less where the emissions actually happen; the fossil fuel has to stay in the ground if we’re to prevent catastrophic heating, and these exports are growing so large that they threaten to undermine the entire logic of the U.N. process. The biggest current example involves U.S. liquefied natural gas; we’re already the largest dealer to the rest of the world, but if the industry gets all that it is asking for, within a decade exported U.S. liquid natural gas could produce more emissions than everything that happens in Europe. It’s a story that urgently needs more coverage.

The actual negotiations are really conducted between a handful of key countries — the U.S., China, and those within the European Union chief among them. Others, however, are able to sometimes shame them into deeper action. Perhaps the single most important result of the whole COP process to date — the 2015 promise in Paris that the world would try and hold temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius — came as a result of tiny island nations and impoverished African ones pushing for the target. Once it had been included in the preamble to the text, it became a kind of yardstick, spurring businesses and parliaments towards faster action. And at last year’s COP, which was conducted in a truly dismal convention hall miles outside an Egyptian resort, smaller nations were able to force through a framework for paying for “loss and damage” suffered by those countries that produce little in the way of greenhouse gases but bear the brunt of the suffering.

Those small victories, however, still require aggressive reporting and scrutiny. Journalists who look closer will see how these moments of progress also underline the general impotence of the whole COP process. There is now a loss and damage fund, but there is no real chance that, say, the U.S. Congress is going to put serious money into it (and the U.S. is, historically, by far the biggest emitter). National politics, governed by ideological and commercial power, remains far more real than U.N. agreement. So do economics. These don’t always prevent action; if activists can make climate change an important political issue, as they managed to do during the 2020 Democratic primaries, then progress becomes possible. And since solar and wind power are now cheaper than coal and oil and gas, there’s finally a kind of gravitational pull toward clean energy.

That gravitational pull, however, is not strong enough for the world to catch up with physics. We may well run the world on sun and wind in forty years, but if it takes forty years then it will be a broken planet with a lot of solar panels. The point of this whole exercise is to speed up that transition — or, if you’re the oil industry, to slow it down. That’s gotten more and more obvious in recent years, because the backdrop has become so dramatic. This year, for instance, saw the hottest temperatures on our planet in at least 125,000 years, which is to say before anything like human civilizations emerged.

So one way of looking at COP28 is as a test of whether those civilizations actually work.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports