In a final speech to a delegation of some 200 countries on Wednesday, United Nations COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber called this year’s climate agreement “historic.” The pledge, he said, would keep rising temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
But environmentalist Bill McKibben watched the annual UN climate change conference proceedings from afar — held this year in Dubai — and had a different perspective.
“Virtually every word that Sultan Al-Juber said is nonsense. The text does none of these things,” McKibben told Boston Public Radio on Thursday.
McKibben, the co-founder of 350.org and founder of Third Act, pointed out there have already been days this fall where global temperatures exceeded the 1.5-degree threshold, and summer 2023 temperatures were the hottest since global records began more than 150 years ago.
These COP28 talks were instead more “business as usual” with only slight concessions, McKibben said.
He opted not to attend COP28, in part, because of the hypocrisy of hosting climate change discussions in a leading oil country, the United Arab Emirates. The BBC reported that the UAE planned to use its host role to discuss oil deals with other nations.
But there was one victory from this year’s climate talks: the words “fossil fuel” were included, for the first time, in the annual pledge to combat climate change.
“You would think that since it's been entirely obvious from the start of this entire process that that's the problem, they might have come around to that somewhat sooner,” McKibben said. The agreement pledges the world will begin transitioning away from fossil fuels, the burning of which create greenhouse gases that warm the planet.
McKibben urged climate activists to make use of that wording and pressure policymakers to follow through on the pledge.
“It will only be a significant victory if we make it one,” McKibben said.
But, for domestic climate advocates, it will be a big lift: the United States is one of the largest exporters of fossil fuel around the world. In the first half of 2023, the U.S. exported more liquified natural gas than any other country, according to data from an international association on natural gas.
Not only does exporting liquefied natural gas continue the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, but the process of liquifying, chilling, shipping and burning it creates more greenhouse gas than burning coal, according to one 2023 analysis from Cornell University.
But overseas exports from the United States have continued to expand. This week, more than 230 groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, urging them to halt the approval process on a new export facility in Louisiana. The facility would produce 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the Willow oil project in Alaska, said McKibben.
Whether the Biden administration approves such an expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure will be a test of its promises in Dubai, McKibben said.
Electrifying the power grid is the “only way forward,” McKibben said. “That's where we are right now in a planet on fire.”