John Kerry and Sultan al-Jaber

U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry and COP28 president and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company CEO Sultan Al Jaber sit side by side.

(Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s Time to Boycott COP-OUT 28

To keep pretending, year after year, decade after decade, that the U.N. process is working when everyone can see that it is failing, is its own kind of denial.

Every year, the world’s governments gather at what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, calls a Conference of the Parties, or COP, to talk about lowering carbon emissions while they just watch emissions continue to rise. It is time to start calling these annual UNFCCC gatherings what they are: COP-OUTs.

The U.N. climate negotiations are failing so miserably I have been thinking for years these COP-OUTs should be boycotted by civil society with the UNFCCC excoriated for its failure to adhere to its stated mission to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” Earth to U.N.: We are already experiencing dangerous human climate interference at current levels of carbon pollution. Negotiations that allow even more lethal pollution are in direct contravention of the UNFCCC’s publicly declared goal.

So I was encouraged when climate visionary Naomi Klein called for a civil society boycott of COP28 last fall. I expected to hear a groundswell of support for her oppositional approach to the COP-OUT charade. Instead, all I heard was crickets. Some outside-the-box ideas take time to catch on, I guess. If only we had the luxury of time.

When the world is on fire, you don’t invite the arsonists to the negotiating table to argue for their right to toss on more fuel.

A boycott of climate negotiations may seem counterintuitive to those wanting to affect climate policy, but civil society is largely relegated to the sidelines at COP conferences anyway. Why lend the political facade the veneer of legitimacy with our presence? Why not instead use our power to withdraw their social license to speak in our name? I don’t know about you, but my government is not representing me at these annual negotiations. Chasing after 30 years of failure is not a recipe for success. We have lost too many precious decades playing the game the U.N.’s way. To keep pretending, year after year, decade after decade, that the U.N. process is working when everyone can see that it is failing, is its own kind of denial. The UNFCCC has to recommit to its mission.

COP28 is already shaping up to be the biggest COP-OUT of them all. Taking the dressed up climate pageant to a new level of absurdity, the COP28 conference being held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from November 30 to December 12 is being chaired by—get this—an oil baron. The president of COP28 is Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Lest you think the Biden administration truly gets that we’re in a climate emergency, John Kerry, Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, publicly praised Al Jaber’s appointment as “a terrific choice,” as if the idea of an oil baron presiding over international climate talks wasn’t preposterous on its face.

In a July TED Talk, former Vice President Al Gore described how the fossil fuel industry has “brazenly seized control of the COP process, especially this year’s COP in Dubai,” reminding us that fossil fuel companies had more delegates at COP27 “than the combined delegations from the 10 most climate-impacted countries.” Then Gore shared this:

And now this year’s host, which is a petrostate, has appointed the president of COP28, in spite of the fact that he has a blatant conflict of interest, he’s the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company... Their emissions are larger than those of ExxonMobil, and they have no credible plan whatsoever to reduce them. So this is the person in charge of the COP. He’s a nice guy. He’s a smart guy. But a conflict of interest is a conflict of interest.

There should be a worldwide outcry demanding that Al Jaber step down over this clear conflict of interest.

I don’t deny that vital strategic initiatives get hammered out at these U.N. conferences. The governments of the Global North, for instance, have a moral obligation to support serious climate financing for the Global South, which despite having done the least to contribute to climate breakdown is bearing the brunt of some of its most lethal impacts. So I respect the decision of those civil society leaders who feel compelled to attend and participate. But let’s not pretend that the incremental UNFCCC approach has a snowball’s chance in hell of actually saving civilization and the living world from collapse.

We need to stop thinking things will get better with the next COP-OUT, when things just keep getting worse. The hostile takeover of the international climate negotiations by fossil fuel industry arsonists is an unconscionable betrayal of our children’s trust and of all generations to come. Big Oil has not only been lying to the public for decades, it is knowingly perpetrating ecocide and crimes against humanity.

When the world is on fire, you don’t invite the arsonists to the negotiating table to argue for their right to toss on more fuel. You arrest the arsonists and mobilize firefighters to contain the worldfire. I don’t have a ready answer to what is the best alternative to the U.N. process, but when what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to try something else.

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