What do you expect when an oil executive leads the climate talks?

By | December 18, 2023

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a climate journalist and non-fiction filmmaker. He is the Ted Turner Visiting Professor of Environmental Media at George Washington University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. read more CNN Opinion.

As someone who has been covering the climate crisis for more than a decade, I can say that the most insidious threat to climate action is not denial or apathy.

John D. Sutter-Beth Mickalonis

John D. Sutter-Beth Mickalonis

It’s doubt and confusion.

That’s why the news of COP28 in Dubai is so infuriating.

The COP – a peer-pressured international meeting aimed at averting catastrophic global warming – should be a moment of resounding clarity, when world leaders come together to reaffirm their commitments to abandon fossil fuels and to promote a future that is, you know, livable.

The message must be clear: the world can and must give up fossil fuels as quickly as possible in favor of cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar energy.

We have the technology and political levers we need to succeed.

Instead, the COP28 talks are mired in controversy and confusion.

The United Arab Emirates, an oil state, is hosting the talks. The COP chairman is Sultan Al-Jaberthe head of a renewable energy company and also the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Appointing an oil exec to lead global climate negotiations is not unlike the NRA facilitating an arms control symposium.

It’s no surprise, then, that Al Jaber made some, well, startling comments, including that giving up fossil fuels—which, again, should be the point of these conversations—risks sending us “back into caves.” He also falsely claimed that there is “no science” that supports a total phase-out of fossil fuels to achieve the temperature targets at the heart of the negotiations.

“Please help me, show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will enable sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to bring the world back into caves,” he said on November 21, in the days leading up to the crisis. until the COP28 summit. The comments were part of a conversation with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN special climate envoy, and were first reported by The Guardian, which posted a video of the discussion.

“There is no science, or no scenario, that says phasing out fossil fuels will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius,” he said, referring to a temperature target set out in the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming. up to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

This is evident from a report published on Sunday during COP28 by Future Earth, The Earth League and The World Climate Research Program, states that “a rapid and managed phase-out of fossil fuels is needed” to meet global climate goals.

Al Jaber attempted to walk back the comments at a news conference on Monday, saying he respects science and that the comments were subject to “misrepresentations.” “I have said time and time again that the phase-out and phase-out of fossil fuels is inevitable,” he said.

By then, however, the damage had already been done.

Observers are right to question Al Jaber’s intentions and the purpose of this entire process. And the public might understandably be confused about whether these efforts are worth it at all.

That’s tragic, especially in light of the long and frustrating history of fossil fuel interests sowing doubt in policy conversations about the climate crisis. The broad outlines of climate science have been well understood for decades.

But starting in the 1970s, fossil fuel companies took a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook and began injecting doubt and confusion into the established science. The consequences of that doubt still haunt political conversations about the climate crisis. It leads to years and decades of stalled or weak action.

It’s also frustrating because the public has few opportunities to focus on global warming – and the annual COP meeting is often one of those times when the world pays attention.

In the United States, only 35% of adults talk about the climate crisis at least occasionally, according to a 2021 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Slightly fewer – 33% – hear about it in the media at least once a week.

Not quite what you would expect, since the habitability of our planet is in danger. We live with the consequences of a world we have warmed today – in the form of wildfires, extreme weather, scorching drought and a growing extinction crisis in the natural world.

If there is a silver lining to the fact that Al Jaber’s comments have been hugely distracting and disruptive, it is that there is some benefit in clearly observing the predicament in which we find ourselves.

Heat-related fossil fuel pollution continues to increase year after year.

There are plenty of people and companies that benefit from it.

Perhaps the call for Al Jaber’s resignation is part of a short-term solution to restore the credibility of COP28 and all COP meetings to come. But there is a bigger point about which there must be absolute clarity in public opinion: we must demand a total phase-out of fossil fuels.

The world leaders at COP28 can and must deliver on that promise.

And the public must hold them accountable.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the producers of the 10 New Insights In Climate Science report.

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