Each COP meeting is a version of Last Chance Saloon. At the annual Conference of the Parties for the UN body responsible for combating climate change, even the most apocalyptically inclined have to tell themselves and everyone in earshot that “it’s not too late” to turn things around. Despite twenty-eight years of failing to kick the fossil fuel addiction, too much is riding on the outcome for it all to be just “blah blah blah,” in the deathless words of Greta Thunberg.
This year, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the UAE’s oil boss, was named president of the climate summit—a sharp slap in the face to those who thought, with good reason, that the world’s $4 trillion fossil fuel industry should be taking a back seat. As Dubai readied itself for COP28, Al Jaber’s Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, one of the world’s largest, announced plans to grow its production capacity by 7 percent and its capital expenditure by 18 percent over the next four years. A shocking number of lobbyists from the oil and gas industries were issued badges—more than 2,450 by one count—each with a seat at a table ostensibly prepared for their last feast. They had come to peddle false or ungrounded climate solutions like “low-carbon” biogas and blue hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, carbon markets, and “abated” emissions.
Despite the stench of petroleum hanging over the proceedings, delegates had aspirations to deliver a strong final agreement with language decreeing a phase-out of fossil fuels. COP28 would also be the first to take inventory (through a process called the Global Stock Take) of how much progress each country had made since the 2015 Paris Agreement in reaching its emissions reductions targets. If they fell short, as inevitably they all did, the final agreement was supposed to hold nations to account.
Typically, there is a bad guy at each COP, singled out as a scapegoat for the failure to make significant progress. In the past, the United States, China, Russia, and India have all played this role. This year, the smart money was on Saudi Arabia, the most influential member of the OPEC cartel. All eyes were on the meetings being taken by Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, who had sounded the alarm by publicly opposing any language about a “phase-down,” let alone a “phase-out.” Al Jaber himself was on record proclaiming that a phase-out would “take the world back into caves.” In the meantime, a leaked report suggested that he had been using the run-up to the conference to pursue new oil deals. It looked as if the fix was in.
Because a climate summit in Dubai was too surreal to miss, I decided to attend my first COP this year. In 2015, however, I had been barred entry from the UAE, along with three other comrades from the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition, for conducting research on the conditions of migrant workers in that country. By all accounts, it is not easy to get yourself removed from the list of personae non gratae. Still, COP28 seemed like my best shot at returning to the Gulf state. Human rights advocates from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), who had all been banned in 2013, had their visa applications approved for the conference. So I opted to apply through New York University’s accreditation with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I was issued an observer pass, but unlike other members of the NYU delegation, my visa application was rejected. James Lynch, from the labor rights organization FairSquare, was in the same boat. A Financial Times reporter, who planned to file a story about our denials, sent an inquiry to the Dubai visa office. Within an hour, my visa was approved. I flew on short notice to join the 70,000 professional talkers, dealmakers, activists, and hawkers of green gizmos who filled the vast exhibition grounds built for Dubai’s Expo 2020.
The conference was split into the Blue Zone, where the delegate sessions and horse-trading would be conducted, and the Green Zone, designated as a space for civil society. As a gesture to the COP’s tradition of counter-summit protest, rallies would be permitted in the Blue Zone, which was under international jurisdiction, though the requirements for approval were draconian. After many days of haggling, Amnesty and HRW were allowed to stage a protest about the plight of political prisoners, most notably UAE’s premier human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor, but only if captions from the images detailing the detainees’ names and sentences were removed. The country’s first pro-Palestine rally since 2009 also took place. By contrast, the much larger Green Zone, whose pavilions resembled a vast trade fair, was UAE territory, where protests were illegal.
In many ways, the UAE was an appropriate COP host, because it showcased all of the vices that need to be vanquished if we are going to have anything approaching a green society. For all its efforts to diversify its economy through investments in tourism, finance, and real estate, the UAE’s dependence on oil is unshakable. Decadent Dubai, with its bustling air of a capitalist entrepôt that welcomes retirees and vacationers from all corners of the planet, is an environmental nightmare. Its traffic infrastructure and soaring glass towers yield a culture whose reliance on cars and air conditioning is a match for the most unsustainable American corner of Sunbelt suburbia; its air quality is increasingly poor. The UAE’s per capita consumption of fossil-fueled energy is among the world’s highest, and, since it has very little groundwater, most of its potable water supply is delivered through seventy power-hungry desalination plants, accounting for 14 percent of the world’s total production of desalinated water. If the UAE, with its jumbo carbon footprint, can someday become green, then anyone can.
In anticipation of COP28, the UAE’s rulers decreed that the country will be net zero by 2050. Indeed, many of the Green Zone’s big pavilions lavishly showcased its plans to innovate technologies that harvest renewable energy, minimize waste, and perform biomimicry. The models on display were surrounded with inspirational messaging like “Be the Impact Maker,” “Treat Carbon Like Money,” or “The Best Investment is Planet Earth,” and the air was thick with the gaseous banter of tech utopianism. Still, there were some large-scale projects with clear value. For example, a solar-powered desalination plant that works through reverse osmosis, and extracts valuable minerals from the brine waste, will have obvious applications for countries in the Middle East and North Africa, which are among the most water-parched in the world. But getting to net zero by purely technical means is no guarantee of ecological justice for any society, let alone one ruled by a clique of highly repressive royal families. A petrostate with an absolute monarchy is arguably the worst place to look to for guidance on social sustainability.
Native-born Emirati are less than 12 percent of the population of the UAE. They are attended by a vast multi-class army of foreign nationals, most of whom, including well-educated expat professionals, can be deported at a moment’s notice. All rich countries have a badly treated migrant workforce, but they are typically a small portion of the population. The predominance of this highly precarious labor pool in the UAE and other Gulf states is a difference in kind, not a difference in degree. Migrant workers are increasingly recruited from climate-stressed regions of the world, and they can be sent back during an economic crunch. It may soon be difficult to determine whether they are economic migrants or climate refugees. Most are working in conditions of bonded labor; they would not be toiling in such substandard conditions (including extreme heat) if they did not have recruitment debts to pay off, and they are constructing or maintaining buildings that are heavily debt-leveraged. Anyone serious about ecological resilience would give low marks to Dubai’s fast-growth investor economy, fueled by dicey credit and serviced through indenture.
COP28 brought into focus another realm of debt, accrued from historic carbon emissions. Advocates of climate justice have long insisted that Global South countries are owed reparations for centuries of colonial exploitation. The development of the Northern high-emitters came at a high cost for poorer nations: resource extraction, population loss, and crushing debt traps, compounded in recent years by the disproportionate impact of climate change on the South. According to the moral accounting of climate justice, the usual North-South relationship of creditor-debtor is reversed.
Since COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, much of the wrangling over the costs of combating climate impacts has revolved around pressing rich countries to acknowledge these historic obligations and to pay their carbon debts in some form or another. To help poorer nations adapt to and mitigate climate change, Northern countries made a pledge in 2009 to commit as much as $100 billion annually by 2020—“the smallest big number they could think of,” as a fellow attendee in Dubai described it to me. The failure of this Green Climate Fund to meet its 2020 targets sowed further distrust in the UNFCCC process. In the intervening years, climate change impacts and rising emissions have magnified the scale of the debt far beyond the 2009 numbers. In the lead-up to last year’s COP27 in Egypt, economist Nicholas Stern published a UN-backed estimate that developing countries, excluding China, would need over $2 trillion in financing to help transition to a low-carbon footing, adapt their infrastructure, and rescue communities hit by climate disaster.
A Loss and Damage fund announced on the first day of COP28 was lauded as a fresh opportunity for developed nations to show they were responsive to their climate debts. Yet a mere $700 million was raised in pledges; the UAE, Germany, Italy, and France topped the donor list with at least $100 million each, while the United States embarrassed itself with a promise of only $17.5 million. This underachieving “victory” set the tone for the rest of the proceedings in Dubai.
The UNFCCC process for reaching multilateral agreements is a long, unforgiving grind. The discussions that take place in dozens of committees and working groups are all aimed at influencing the language of the final text. Since every participant nation has to consent to the outcome, any single party can thwart the will of the majority. Those hoping for a definitive blow to fossil fuel power in Dubai were buoyed by the fact that 130 of the 198 countries declared support for language that called for a phase-out. But a leaked letter from OPEC, and the pre-release of a final draft of the resolution, confirmed that the petrostates would block any mention of it. “This obsequious draft reads as if OPEC dictated it word for word,” Al Gore fulminated. “It is even worse than many had feared. It is ‘Of the Petrostates, by the Petrostates, and for the Petrostates.’”
The final compromise deal calls for “transitioning away from fossil fuels,” without clear obligations or hard timelines. It outlines, in the vaguest terms, the need for ramping up renewable energy capacity. In the weak phrasing that is typical of the nonbinding COP agreements, it recommended “accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies” such as carbon capture and storage, a largely unproven strategy that is the darling of the petro powers. “Transitional fuels”—meaning liquefied natural gas—are given a blessing. This is a particular gift to the United States, the world’s largest producer, whose gas exports are skyrocketing. The language urging developed nations to contribute more climate finance lacks any teeth, in common with other recommended goals such as zero global deforestation by 2030. The many loopholes in the text and generally ersatz commitments left Indigenous participants, frontline communities, trade unionists, and climate justice activists fuming. Bolivia, traditionally the UNFCCC’s most strident critic, bluntly described the final document as a manifestation of “carbon colonialism.”
The UNFCCC and developed nations declared the outcome to be a historic victory—“the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.” But the oil barons left Dubai with smiles on their faces, knowing that nothing in the deal would scare off investors, and that their plans to expand production could proceed apace. In the real world, where their companies toil ceaselessly to open new markets and secure new drilling leases, fossil fuels have actually been phasing up rather than down. Indeed, there was barely time to mourn the slaying of phase-out before Al Jaber himself recommitted to business as usual, announcing that the UAE would continue to be a “responsible, reliable supplier of low-carbon energy” for as long as the world will need “lowest-carbon barrels at the lowest cost.”
As for the rest of us, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that we had been cast as extras in a vast theatrical enterprise, carefully scripted to provide the lead actors—the villains of the piece—with the stage set they needed to get what they wanted without giving up too much. The script has evolved over the years to include acknowledgment of the climate debts and responsibilities of the wealthy countries; the “transition” is supposed to be “just, equitable, and orderly.” But while talk is usually cheap, it is costly when it leads to inaction. In the meantime, the debts will pile up, and the fight for climate justice will continue, away from the hubbub of press conferences, politician photo-ops, and grandstanding from the COP diplomats.
Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU and is the author of many books, including the forthcoming Abolition Labor: The Fight to End Prison Slavery.