The United Nations was created, in the aftermath of two disastrous world wars, primarily in the hope that a third such war, shadowed by the then new threat of nuclear annihilation, could be avoided.
So far, the UN has succeeded, if at times only barely, in averting that catastrophe. Our will to survive has, through diplomatic negotiations and democratic mobilisations, won out over our deeply rooted political and ideological rivalries.
That achievement offers some hope that the UN’s Cop28 conference on containing the equally existential threat of human-generated climate change, taking place in Dubai, could make real progress. After all, the scientific consensus on the causes of, and the solutions to, catastrophic climate collapse is now beyond reasonable doubt.
Moreover, the evidence is that this collapse is already underway, as shown by global heating and the resulting wildfires, floods, crop failures, mass migration and climate-related conflicts. A scientific report this week spoke of a “disastrous trajectory.” As UN Secretary General António Guterres told the conference: “The science is clear: The 1.5C limit [the target set by the 2015 Paris Cop Agreement] is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce, not abate. Phase out – with a clear timeframe.”
So we know what the problem is, and we know what to do about it. We also know that achieving a just transition to decarbonised world economies will be extremely challenging – though achievable, as shown by the increased used of renewable energy. And it seemed heartening, in the Cop’s opening days, to learn of increased commitments from the big carbon emitters to ‘loss and damage’ funding for countries suffering worst from climate change. Moreover, the conference president, Sultan al-Jaber, indicated early on that he was aligned with Gutierres’s crucial insistence that “phasing out” fossil fuels was necessary. Since he is also head of the UAE’s national oil company, this seemed to be a major concession.
But this optimism was shattered by the revelation that al-Jaber had, just prior to the conference, been recorded testily dismissing Mary Robinson’s call for clarity on this issue. He declared bluntly, and wrongly, that there was “no science” to show that phasing out fossil fuels was necessary to achieve the Paris target.
Though he has attempted to step back these comments, they indicate that the embedded resistance to real change by the financial and political interests vested in the fossil fuel industries may be the biggest threat to the survival of our civilisations. It will require not only enormous diplomatic skills, but much more effective mobilisation of the forces who grasp the urgency of the climate crisis, to produce a truly hopeful outcome from a conference where these vested interests wield such unacceptable influence.