School athletics taught us that anyone can be good at high jump; the trick is to keep the bar low enough. The same, it appears, is true for climate negotiations.
Take the Dubai COP28 that ended last week in a self-congratulatory frenzy with the sleep-deprived, caffeine-sozzled delegates victoriously clutching a ‘historic’ deal. The reason for their euphoria was that after three decades of wrangling, they had agreed to ‘transition away’ from fossil fuels, the main culprits behind global warming. That’s it. Only transition away, no phasing out, or down; no roadmap, no deadlines, no responsibilities. A bit like if the Alcoholics Anonymous were to agree after 28 meetings that yes, booze was bad for them and then head to the bar to celebrate.
“Big deal,” you might well say. But that is the reality of the COP system, the self-delusionary circus where corporate interests, development imperatives and political posturing are all finessed by clever drafting. Incremental progress is the best the system delivers, never mind that the burning need is progress by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, the international community can salve its thick-skinned conscience by saying that this consensus-based system best balances all interests.
But for someone like Anne Rasmussen, the doughty lead-negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, this was not good enough. In calm, measured tones and with a flower tucked behind her ear—a Polynesian cultural trademark—she underlined the “litany of loopholes” that make the agreement woefully inadequate to achieve the required deep reductions in emissions. The Alliance was however checkmated by Sultan al Jaber, the president of the COP, and ironically the head of the UAE’s national oil and gas company, (real men scoff at old-fashioned ideas like conflict of interest); he gavelled the deal through when the small island delegates were not in the room. Multilateral negotiations often succeed by sleight of hand.
But from Tuvalu to Dominica, from the South Pacific to the Caribbean, climate change is an existential threat for low-lying island states. Though least responsible for global warming, they face the maximum damage: rising sea-levels, coastal erosion, loss of marine biodiversity, cyclones and hurricanes, loss of coastal habitats and so on. Nevertheless, these states have shown remarkable resilience and capacity to adapt: the enhanced sea defences and early warning systems of the Maldives; Fiji’s strengthened buildings and elaborate relocation plans; the restoration of mangrove forests and so on. The Loss and Damage Fund activated at COP28 should theoretically help; however, while the annual global damage is about $400 billion, the contributions amount to only $700 million, with the US giving a paltry $17.5 million.
Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry, that had over 2,400 lobbyists at Dubai, is splurging. Sultan Al Jaber’s company will invest another $150 billion over seven years. Shell will expand activity in the Gulf of Mexico; ExxonMobil will increase capital spending by $4 billion by 2027. TotalEnergies is all set to drill deep into South Africa’s Orange Basin. Rishi Sunak has vowed to “max out” the UK’s fossil fuel resources through intensive North Sea drilling. Everybody claims they are on target for net-zero except Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate, who calls global warming a ‘hoax’ and promises to roll out more oil and gas projects. “We’re going to drill, baby, drill,” he recently assured gleeful oil executives.
All this must be very intimidating for Rasmussen when she takes issue with the powerful petro-states and the double F-word lobby. When asked in an interview how she managed, she responded, “I pray a lot.” In 2023, the warmest year in recorded history, we would all be well-advised to join her.
The writer is former high commissioner to the UK and former ambassador to the US.