Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News on COP28

COP28, or the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, took place recently in the United Arab Emirates. With representation from nearly every country in the world, COP28 is the most important annual climate summit in the world. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk with Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News who went to Dubai to cover the conference. We discuss the goals of the summit, talk about the irony of holding an environmental conference in one of the world’s largest oil producing countries, and look at some of the key takeaways from COP28.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Bob Berwyn (BB) | 00:19 – These are serious people who politically represent island nations, and they’re saying, “you know, I’m not gonna sign my own death warrant.”

Narrator | 00:29 – COP 28 or the 28th meeting of the conference of the parties to the United Nations Climate Change Conference took place recently in the United Arab Emirates with representation from nearly every country in the world. COP 28 is the most important annual climate summit in the world. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk with Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News, who went to Dubai to cover the conference. We discussed the goals of the summit, talk about the irony of holding an environmental conference in one of the world’s largest oil producing countries, and look at some of the key takeaways from COP 28.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:37 – I am joined now on Sea Change Radio by Bob Berwyn. Bob is a reporter at Inside Climate News. Bob, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Bob Berwyn (BB) | 01:46 – Hi, Alex. Thanks for having me, and it’s nice to be back.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:49 – I wanted to have you on again because you just got back from the COP 28 Climate Summit in Dubai, and I wanted to get your reactions to what it was like being there, and then break down some of the policies that were discussed as well. Why don’t you first walk us through what it’s like to go to a climate summit in one of the capitals of the fossil fuel industry?

BB | 02:13 – Yeah, so it’s the annual conference of parties under the United Nations framework on Climate Change Convention, which is not a phrase that really rolls off the tongue very easily. It’s really a bunch of jargon, and we’ve come to to call them cops. And this was the 28th COP and was held in Dubai from November 30th to December 12th, and as you said, in the heart of fossil fuel country. And it’s a very interesting and actually disconcerting juxtaposition of concepts, you know, on the one hand of trying to address a climate crisis that’s, that’s, uh, caused by burning fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas, primarily, I think 80% or close to 90% of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that’s heating the planet comes from burning fossil fuels. And so it’s clearly at the heart of the problem, yet it’s never been mentioned officially in a, in a COP document specifically by the term fossil fuels. 

AW | 03:21 – Yes. How did that duck under previous 27 cops, without mentioning the phrase fossil fuels?

BB | 03:27 – Well, it’s because the, the oil barons and the carbon cowboys have had a big important seed at the table all along. It turns out. Um, but Dubai itself is just, you know, really a, a sort of a symbol of the, of the excess of this fossil fueled extreme capitalism that’s based on consumption, that’s actually driving the problem. That’s what’s causing this incredible surge of greenhouse gas emissions. 50% of all greenhouse gases in the air have been emitted since the first COP, um, you know, as compared to 50% in the 150 years before that. So, wait a minute, what’s going on here? Um, and, and you have a chief executive of a, of a major oil company as the sort of the presiding officer over the, over the proceedings, you know, and you walk down the street, you could rent Maseratis by the hour, and the lights are on all the time. It’s like Las Vegas on steroids. So, interesting choice for location. 

AW | 04:40 – And what’s it like talking to some fellow environmental journalists, environmentalists, all these important leaders in the space are also not blind to what’s going on around them. Was there some kind of group dissonance, or were people acutely aware of what was going on?

BB | 04:58 – I think the people who were actually negotiating the technical diplomatic language stay really narrowly focused on climate. They were asked questions about, uh, things like, well, is what’s going on in Gaza, a distraction from the, from the climate talks? A high-level German diplomat was asked that question at a press conference and she said, no, we really stick to climate and, you know, that’s what we’re here to talk about and it doesn’t distract us. And somebody else asked the same question about the, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whether that’s hindering or, you know, and again, the answer was it doesn’t really play out in these rooms, but it is part of the context of the, in the greater background. And there have been ongoing conflicts in the world also since the COP talks started, uh, at the beginning this year. You know, I, I heard people say, wow, with this new conflict, it’s going to make it harder than ever. So I look back at a list of wars, thanks Wikipedia, going back to 1990, and there’s been conflicts in the world every year and during that span that the cops have been going on, including in Europe and the Balkans, you know, for, so I’m not sure that this year is any different. We always think like, oh man, the crisis is worse. And, you know, and, and what that shows to me is that these two things are also related. I don’t think you’re ever going to find a, a real true just climate solution in a world that’s constantly at war that can’t share the resources that are there. How are you going to, you know, find a totally collaborative path on, on climate in a world like that? I don’t know. I don’t think you can. 

AW | 06:51 – I’m sure Dubai put on an amazing spread for the guests who are attending the conference, and it was very comfortable. And, and you’re, you’re including the oil industry, so to speak, in, in the discussions, which is good on one hand, but it must really obscure some of the more urgent calls for climate action. 

BB | 07:15 – I would say that it does. And, you know, to go back to your sort of initial comment about the setting, Dubai is also a place that is staffed by people from, it’s a service economy primarily, and then oil and gas as, as well, you know, that’s their primary, primary economic activity. And it’s staffed by people from Bangladesh and Pakistan, people who told me they want to go home, but they can’t because their village was wiped out by a flood caused or worsened by global warming from the emissions from the country that they’re now working in. You know, so climate refugees are working in this country that’s producing all these climate killing gases, and they rely on those people. That’s, that’s one of the reasons that people are talking increasingly, even at COP, at least among civil society, talking about the climate crisis in a colonial con uh, context, you know? And, uh, and that goes for looking forward too, when you, when you read about things like deals where a rich country buys several thousand square miles of forest in a poor African country and calls them carbon credits, that allows them to keep polluting, to keep burning fossil fuels that pollute because they’re protecting this forest that they bought and keeping the locals out, that kind of makes you question the whole thing too. Right?

AW | 08:53 – Absolutely. And I know, know, it’s an adjacent country in Qatar, but the, uh, world Cup was there recently, and I remember reading a lot of dreadful stories about these stadiums were being built by slave labor where they were bringing people in from very poor countries, keeping their passports, forcing them to live in, in subhuman conditions. And it was appalling. But, you know, it was one of those ends justifying the means where they had these beautiful stadiums and could sports wash their activities. And the COP 28 kind of reminded me of that in a lesser scale, but it is a form of greenwashing. I think you’ll agree. 

BB | 09:33 – Yeah, it is. And I haven’t heard any similar allegations about Dubai, just, just to be clear. But at the same time, you know, my taxi driver who took me to the airport when I left, you know, has been working there for two years, and he said, well, they’re, they’re, they’re not letting me bring my family, and I only get to see my two daughters like twice a year. He was from Pakistan. And he said, it’s because they just want the workers, you know, they don’t want, they don’t want to have to provide housing for families of the workers. It’s just messed up. And to go back to something you said earlier about, you know, does this distract, I mean, there are a lot of people at COP who are there because they deeply believe that they can do something to save lives, to help people. And I saw and felt a lot of, a lot of emotion, and I saw a lot of tears. I talked to people who were crying when I talked to him, and I cried while I was there too. You know, people for whom the talks there are, are life and death, you know, it’s like, what’s going to happen to my country? What’s going to, what am I going to tell my daughter about what happened here and how it affects our future and where you live? And if you’ll still be even able to live here when you, when you’re as old as I am, it was deeply emotional at times. You know, I came across a table sponsored by the International Red Crescent and Red Cross, and they had built a table out of, um, things that were collected from climate disasters, uh, in different places in the world, wildfires and floods. And I looked at some of these things and I saw like a burned, you know, a burned piece of a tree. And I’m like, “wow, what if that’s from Colorado and was a fire that, you know, affected somebody that I knew?” And then there was a little, uh, sort of a plastic kid sandal that was stuck on the table too. And I thought about the man from the man from Pakistan who told me about, you know, experiencing those, those floods last year driven by global warming. And as I was looking at these bits and pieces, I, it, it really, you know, I, I felt, I felt really sad and, and it, at the same time, it made me determined to try and figure out, do these talks matter? Does anything happen here that you know is going to help us in any way? It also made me realize too, that, you know, the people who put this together obviously, probably felt a lot of what I felt, and they wanted to find a way to show it, and they put a lot of effort into it and showed it to a lot of, you know, to a lot of people from all over the world. So hopefully maybe somebody quote important, saw it and was touched by it a little bit in the same way that I was, you know, and that altogether when you, when you have things like that, that you can move ahead and make some change. And overall you could say, uh, this is, it’s maybe not the best metric, but some science reporter, I’ll use it. Before the Paris Climate Agreement scientists were saying, we were on, on a schedule to warm about, you know, four to five degrees Celsius, which is almost unimaginable. And now we’re on a, on a track to go between 2.7 and 3. Those are truly the best scientific estimates based on what we know right now about emissions, about how emissions will change in the future. And so, is that a coincidence or have these global efforts made a difference to bend that arc of projected warming? I can’t answer the question a hundred percent, but I try to ask myself that before I totally dismiss this global effort, which definitely needs reform and needs much more scrutiny and criticism than it gets right now, in my opinion.

(Music Break) | 13:45

AW | 14:45 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Bob Berwyn from Inside Climate News. So Bob, the COP 28 summit that you covered in Dubai, there’s probably a lot of listeners who aren’t really that familiar with COP 28, 27, the first one back in 1995. Why don’t we catch listeners up a little bit to what policies were discussed, and if you could give a, an executive summary of what the parties decided upon, that would be terrific. 

BB | 15:19 – An Olympics meets Roman Circus vibe is, is sort of the impression in something that I wrote in my notebook as I was, you know, in the Central Plaza area. And, um, the, uh, the annual talks really, uh, you know, the highlight of this whole series of talks was the Paris Agreement, where the world set a goal for itself to limit global warming. And since then, the focus has been on implementing these promises that individual countries have made. And this year was the first year that what, that they did what was required by the Paris Agreement starting this year, which is a global stock, take a checkup, a climate checkup, where are we at on track to meeting these goals of the Paris Agreement? 

AW | 16:05 – And the Paris Agreement was 2015, is that right? 

BB | 16:07 – Correct. That was 2015. It basically says the parties will do, that’s the 198 countries that signed it, you know, will, will offer individual plans to make sure we meet this common goal and countries can adjust those plans. And if we find we’re off track, we will try and ratchet them up. And each country has to account for its own national circumstances. It’s all very voluntary. So the, the stock take was the technical, one of the main technical focuses of this conference. And it showed, as was already indicated by reports ahead of time that we’re still short. As I said, the goal is to limit global warming to well under two degrees as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. Well, we’re already at 1.3 as of right now, so we’re getting really close. And the projected warming is to, to go to somewhere close to three. So we’re still well off track. Everybody knew that going in the, the idea of this meeting COP 28, that also was to say to countries, by the time you come back to the next COP, have a new plan that’s more in tune with getting us to the skull of global warming. That was the technical focus of, of this particular COP. And then the tone was that right from the beginning, they were going to actually mention fossil fuels directly for the first time. And, uh, more than a hundred countries ahead of time we’re calling for a fossil fuel phase out, some sort of language that would suggest that. So that was being reported on a lot. And as this conference proceeds, they put out various iterations or new drafts of what will be the closing statement and decisions of the conference. And a key thing was is this phrase fossil fuel phase out going to be in the document.

AW | 18:13 – And I know you’re a big animal lover, and wildlife conservation has not really been a big focus of the COP conferences in the past, but was this year a little different? 

BB | 18:27 – It was a little, it was a little different. Yeah. There was incremental progress in that area too. It shouldn’t be left out because it’s also in these original founding documents of the COP process where, you know, simultaneously to the climate COP, the Rio Convention in 1992 at the Earth Summit or 1990 also created the Biodiversity Convention, which hasn’t met quite as often, so there’s only been 15 of the biodiversity cops. And the last one was just a few months ago, and there was big progress made there on, again, on setting global targets of preserving wildlife and ecosystems and so on. So I think that brought, you know, a little more focus to it at COP 28 in Dubai. And there were a lot of interesting sessions on how climate and, nature preservation and restoration go together and how it’s really, and the Paris Agreement acknowledges this very specifically as well, that we, we can’t solve the climate crisis without taking nature into account. We need healthy forests and oceans and field ecosystems, wetlands, rivers. When Rita reminded me, he said, “Bob, you left rivers out of your story.” He’s a river advocate. You know, so they need to be included too. 

AW | 19:57 – Yes, you cite Oswald Schmitz, a Yale Ecology professor in your December 14th Inside Climate News piece, and Schmitz says that “wildlife conservation is a key to mitigating climate change.” So to not have it be at least discussed in the conference is a disservice.

BB | 20:17 – Yeah. It’s been discussed on and off, but you know, the people who’ve been focusing on this think that it should be much higher on the agenda and they want, for example, they would like to see a sort of a, what’s called a, in, in the un parlance, a working group formed to, to actually set, you know, more specific targets and bring it up higher and get countries to make specific commitments. You know, they’d like to see more actual action on it. So they did manage to get it placed higher in these documents, and that can bring prominence, you know, again, it’s a very obscure parliamentary procedure. You make incremental progress. It took 30 years to get fossil fuels mentioned. I think it’s really good. So some of the sessions at COP 28 talked about it in the context of rewilding too, and bringing back keystone species that can have sort of cascading effects that have a, a climate benefit by what Schmitz calls reanimating, the carbon cycle, the biological carbon cycle. And, they also talked about this in the context of, of indigenous knowledge and indigenous land management. And, you know, really trying to not just see nature as a, as a commodity or as a carbon tool, a carbon management tool, but as something that is sort of ex, you know, fundamental to our existence that we depend on this to live and to try and get people to think about nature in a, in a different way, you know? So I think elevating it in, in, in a, in a, at a COP can, can help move us to that place a little bit incrementally. It’s a lot more important what happens on the ground in individual countries and, you know, in communities. And, you know, it’s one thing for a COP to say, yeah, we need to get people more aware that nature’s important in the climate. What that means is like making sure that there’s environmental and ecological literacy taught from an early age in schools, from, you know, from kindergarten up through every layer of education. You know, that ecosystems, healthy ecosystems in a healthy climate are the basis of our existence. And if we destroy those things, it’s grim. It’s going to be grim. We will be living in bubbles or caves.

AW | 22:52 – Circling back to the fossil fuel phase out language, I wanted to read a quote from a, a, a piece that you had shared on your Twitter feed from Genevieve Gunter of the New Republic. The piece was entitled The Secret Weapon of Climate Negotiations Language. I guess that’s the subtitle. The title was COP Out. She writes that moving forward, journalists and citizens as well should recognize that oil and gas producers increasingly sound like climate advocates, using the same words and phrases that call for the end of the fossil fuel era. This is their new greenwashing strategy. What is she talking about there in terms of the specific phase out language that is open to criticism?

BB | 23:36 – Well, the language that we ended up with in, in the document refers to a transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems. And so this fossil fuel era, end of the fossil fuel era language may be a nod to, um, something else that I’ve seen, Genevieve post about is this idea that the, some of the fossil companies think that they’re going to transition to doing more, you know, stuff with plastic and, you know, and using the fossil fuels for that. And, you know, honestly, there are some countries there that are not there in good faith, you know, and it’s time to do more name and names, you know, so Saudi Arabia really jumps out. There was a report that came out just the head of this COP, you know, that just showed how they’ve been stonewalling this thing the whole time. And they have every intention of being, of selling the last drop of oil on the planet that will ever be sold. And it needs to be said. And there are many other petro-states that have played similar roles in different magnitudes over the years, including the United States. And the United States is the biggest single producer of fossil fuels right now on the planet by far 40% more than the next two countries, which are China and Russia. So we’re producing more on a daily basis, 40% more than either China or Russia. So, um, you know, it’s one thing for, you know, the mainstream media to, to say Kerry supported this fossil fuel phase out language. But I think at the same time, you have to recognize that there’s, there are no specific plans to slow down fossil fuel production to phase out fossil fuels in the US right now, 

AW | 25:33 – In that same piece, Gunter sites Ad Knock, which is the United Arab, Emirates state oil company, which is definitely not moving away from oil and gas, and they may drill a full 42% more than it’s currently drilling overall by 2030 according to independent analysts. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And then I just spoke to Matt Simon of wired about plastics and microplastics, how the world is producing a trillion pounds a year of plastic, and their target is over the next 30 years to triple that to 3 trillion pounds a year. And that’s all fossil fuels.

BB | 26:10 – Yeah. And I’ll just want to circle back these groups that represent, you know, environmental groups like the big ones that you know about Sierra Club and, you know, indigenous communities all over the world. And, and they were the ones that were really struck by this when this fossil, you know, more direct fossil fuel phase out language was removed because Phase Out wasn’t used. It was changed to transition away from in energy systems. So that’s quite different. 

AW | 26:44 – Absolutely.

BB | 26:45 – And these are serious people who politically represent island nations, and they’re saying, you know, I’m not going to sign my own death warrant, you know, and some of those countries apparently were not in the room when the, this COP accepted this final document by under their rules, it’s a consensus based acceptance. They don’t have any voting procedures. And so it ended on a really sour note, but there’s been so much sort of greenwashing of the results since then that that kind of goes under, just like these people islands are going under it. That’s why I’m highlighting them and trying to elevate their voices again, because, you know, I was standing next to them when they were crying and, and, and I was crying myself because they’re talking about their country’s basically disappearing because of Sea level rise, and they know that this COP didn’t really make a significant change to that trajectory of history. And that’s just the sad, sad truth. 

AW | 27:47 – Well, it makes me optimistic that good people like yourself are covering these events, at the very least. So thank you for doing that. 

BB | 27:55 – You’re welcome. 

AW | 27:56 – Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

BB | 28:01 – Yeah, thanks for having me. 

Narrator | 28:16 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise, additional music by Elvis Presley and Jackson Browne. To read a transcript of this show, go to Sea Change Radio dot com stream, or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.