​Activists speak out against LNG and fossil fuels at COP28.

Activists from more than 250 environmental groups speak out against LNG expansion and fossil fuels at COP28 on December 8, 2023.

(Photo: CBD Climate/X)

The Future of Climate Action Doesn’t End With the Outcome of COP28

Language doesn’t translate into action; it just gives activists one more weapon to use when they return from Dubai to the nations, states, cities, and towns where actual change does or does not get made.

For two weeks every December, the giant global climate meeting—this year with at least 70,000 delegates, lobbyists, activists, and journalists enjoying the tacky spaceport that is Dubai—provides a cascade of feelings. This year that intensity is concentrated on a sentence in the “global stocktake” section: There’s much drama around whether it will include the phrase “phaseout of fossil fuels.” Friday morning’s update: Canada, gentle giant of the north, has been drafted to draft the relevant sentence.

“We have been asked by the UAE presidency to help find common language that will be acceptable to all parties,” its environment minister Steven Guilbeault toldThe Guardian. “This is what we will be doing in the coming days with many of our allies both north and south,” he said.

“I am confident we have to leave Dubai and COP28 with some language on fossil fuels. Will it be everything we want it to be? We’ll have to see. Even if it’s not as ambitious as some would want, it would still be a historic moment. I’ve been coming to COP since COP1 in 1995 in Berlin. It would be the first time in almost 30 years of international negotiations that we can agree on language regarding fossil fuels.”

I hope every American fighting the good fight in Dubai is ready to come home and fight the real fight here.

Which should tell you something about the climate negotiations, by the way: That it’s taken 28 annual sessions to maybe include some language about the thing that is, you know, the source of the problem is a reminder of the fundamental flaw in the whole process. It is designed less to solve a crisis than to guard the interests of the world’s powers (both political and economic) as they relate to that crisis. This week it’s the head of the Saudi delegation and the conference chair, from host UAE, who are playing the villain, but it’s always somebody. What that means is, the outcomes at COP are just a reflection of the current state of the world’s zeitgeist; if we’ve done enough work to mobilize enough people, then that political pressure is reflected in progress in negotiations.This doesn’t mean the COPs are absurd—given the realities of power, you have to have some forum that lets the world talk things out and pressure each other, and most of the people in attendance are doing useful work. But the COP gives the appearance that it is somehow legislating, which it is not. Let’s say, for instance, that Guilbeault manages to convince everyone to include some phrase about phasing out fossil fuels into the text. It will be vague, ambiguous, unconnected to any particular time—and it will have no authority.

That doesn’t mean it’s useless—the decision, at the behest of small island nations, to include the 1.5°C target in the Paris text arguably reoriented the way the world thought about the climate challenge, and produced real change. But it does mean that language doesn’t translate into action; it just gives activists one more weapon to use when they return from Dubai to the nations, states, cities, and towns (and stock markets) where actual change does or does not get made. Canada, for instance, is currently building big new pipelines to increase its production of tarsands oil and natural gas; if Guilbeault produces good language in the draft he’ll have handed Canadian activists a cudgel with which to beat him around the head and shoulders (and its possible that that’s what he wants; he was, after all, the longtime director of Greenpeace Quebec). But it won’t produce change by itself: Alberta, for instance, continues to threaten to break up the country if any kind of cap is imposed on its oil business.

An even better example is the world’s largest hydrocarbon producer and exporter, the US of A. Our representatives to the COP—which so far have included the vice-president (Kamala Harris), the former secretary of state and now climate envoy (John Kerry), and the former chief of staff to Obama and now a senior adviser to the president (John Podesta)—may or may not sign off on “phaseout” (as I explained last week, Kerry is plumping for ‘phaseout of unabated fossil fuels.’) But even if they do, it won’t necessarily mean much—so far this same constellation of worthies has approved every single proposed new LNG export facility that now threaten a final destabilization of the planet’s climate.

And even if they did the right thing, well—one Donald Trump, currently leading in presidential polls, said last week that he would happily come to work as a ‘dictator’ on the very first day of his presidency, in order to ‘drill drill drill.’ If anyone thinks he will be slowed by the language of an agreement initialed by a bunch of functionaries in Dubai, I’d like to sell you the deed to the world’s tallest building, which as it happens is in Dubai.

So the most important thing that happened this week at the COP may have been the attack on those LNG export plans by 250 environmental groups, an attack voiced eloquently as always by Louisiana activist Roishietta Ozane, who said “there’s nothing natural about natural gas.” Say, for argument’s sake, that those groups won (and stay tuned—by next week I’ll have info on how you can help; for the moment, save up some bail money). If they did, and the Biden administration decided to halt this biggest of all fossil fuel buildouts, then the phaseout of fossil fuels would have taken an actual step. I hope every American fighting the good fight in Dubai is ready to come home and fight the real fight here.

And even if we win that fight on LNG, we still need to defeat Trump come November, or else the effort to rein in coal, oil, and gas will take at least a four-year hiatus, and not just in America. Our political dysfunction is at the root of the failures of the COP negotiations (the rest of the world long since figured out that the U.S. senate would never have 66 votes for an actual treaty, so instead we have this jury-rigged system of voluntary pledges). But we can, as President Joe Biden showed with the IRA, overcome that dysfunction from time to time; the better we do, the better the planet does.

A new poll released Friday morning by CNN should give us heart—it shows three quarters of Americans want government policies that would slash emissions in half this decade; I mean, damn, half of Republicans think so. That’s the result of past activism, and it shows we can win this fight. But the action is right here, and in all the right heres around the planet, as much as it is in Dubai.

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