The Climate Conferences of the Rich Will Not Save Us

Formal opening of the UN Climate Change Conference COP28. Image source: COP28 / Christopher Pike via Flickr.

On December 13, the 28th annual Conference of Parties (COP28) drew to a close marking the end of another negotiation for global action on climate catastrophe. The conference’s final agreement is filled with empty words, as it asks countries to transition “away from fossil fuels in energy systems.” The result is an agreement that makes empty statements and has no way of fulfilling them. In the words of one climate physicist: “There seems to be a total disconnect between the diagnosis and the treatment. The diagnosis is that of a potentially deadly cancer, due to abuse of fossil fuels. The prescribed treatment is a mixture of wishful thinking and magic.”

The celebrations that call this a “historic agreement” are referring to the fact that this is the first COP to mention that the world needs to “transition away” from fossil fuels. It took them nearly three decades to figure this out!

For 28 years, each COP has ended with the acknowledgment that the problem is critically severe, and an adoption of non-binding agreements that do not address the reality of what has to be done to ensure a livable planet.  As one participant said, “the reality is you can’t fool science, and you can’t fool the reality that we actually need to transition fairly and equitably and speedily away from fossil fuels.”

The science has long been clear. We must completely phase out fossil fuels by 2050 to have a chance at staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius and therefore having a somewhat livable planet. 

The largest oil producers in the world – the United States among them – have signed this agreement. Meanwhile, they are responsible for over half of all new fossil fuel expansion, and the majority of historic emissions. The words of so-called leaders like John Kerry, the U.S. representative, are absolutely meaningless. He has stated that staying below 1.5 degrees is “the North Star” to these negotiations. This is like a slave catcher acknowledging the route to freedom, and continuing to drive enslaved people south.

To truly find a solution would require the oil producers and their politicians to give up the profitable energy sources that brought them to power and continue to make them the richest, most powerful countries in the world. This conference resulted in an agreement to allow emissions to continue. As one critic said, “if you’re an oil and gas baron and CEO, you must be rubbing your hands with glee. This is continuing to be a license to pollute.”

The agreement lacks two major points: mechanisms to enforce a reduction in emissions and transition “away from fossil fuels,” and mechanisms to take wealth from the oil barons and distribute it to the poorest countries hardest hit by climate disasters.

The only investment capital that is mentioned in the agreement is private financing. In other words, the capital required to do anything about climate change will come from big financiers who will expect a big return that will be passed on to the poor one way or another. Financing the transition in this way would ensure that private finance will be in the position to take control of other countries’ energy systems and more.

The functioning of COP28 should act as a window into the functioning of the global capitalist system. The conference was run by the oil and gas industry, with nearly 2,500 lobbyists there. The countries that are facing an existential, life or death situation from climate disruption (low-lying and island nations) were not even in the room as the agreement was passed completely undemocratically. The entire conference speaks to the ways that this society functions, with the owners of wealth are the ones who decide the agenda, and those who are most impacted by the problem have no effective say.

This conference, like all its predecessors, was no surprise. It was a brazen corporate event for oil producers and their lobbyists.

The hope we have does not lie in the conference rooms of the international elite. The climate disasters that are occurring and will increase in ferocity and frequency are points of struggle that we, the working people of the world, must prepare for. The transition of our energy grids, transportation sectors, agricultural and food systems, and so on, to a safe and renewable system will take a series of fights that will require us to organize in our own interests.

The international banks and private capital are proposing to impose increased debt on countries around the world. These debts are also what have forced hundreds of thousands to protest in countries like Sri Lanka, where demonstrators took to the streets against the government management of the debt and economic crisis in 2022.

We know that the proposals agreed upon by the global capitalist class at COP28 will ensure that the climate crisis will continue. The costs will be paid for by the working people of the world, unless we fight back. We can impact the transition away from fossil fuel through our protests in the streets and our organizing in work places and communities. We have to build the forces necessary to impose prioritization of the health of the environment, the most vulnerable people and other living things, and our future over the obscene profits and wealth of the One Percent.

The struggles we have to wage for our well-being will run up against the interests of the capitalist class. We will have to grapple with the question of power. We need build up the forces to depose the rule of the profiteers and their ecological destruction, and replace it with the rule of the workers and the most oppressed of the world. We can and must do this. Then we can celebrate the future.