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Putting humanity at the heart of climate talks

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By Joanna Sullivan

· 7 min read

Beyond the horrors of the Ukrainian war, it’s the climate crisis and the scale of instability that’s getting everyone anxious.  The Arctic Summer ice is melting. New York is choking on Canadian wildfire, And here in Northern Europe, we’re in the midst of another drought. 

Can we hope that this year’s COP28 climate talks will fix it all? Climate challenges are no longer a distant drama but a daily dose of climate migration, floods, droughts and extreme heat.  We are driven to shelter our families, but the world must step up to shelter the whole of humanity from this most democratic of crises. Everyone is affected. 

Climate crisis and a COP in crisis

There’s already concern about COP28. How serious can these upcoming climate talks can be with oil executive Sultan Al Jaber as COP28 President and at the same time, head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company? 

100 policymakers have written to the United Nations, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. President Joe Biden calling for the removal of Sultan Al Jaber, warning that fossil fuel companies are exerting “undue influence” over the negotiations. 

“The decision to name as president of COP28 the chief executive of one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies — a company that has recently announced plans to add 7.6 billion barrels of oil to its production in the coming years, representing the fifth largest increase in the world — risks undermining the negotiations.”

The policymakers urge limits on the corporate influence on COP climate talks. “It is essential that we protect climate policy from polluting interference by adopting concrete rules that limit the influence of the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists in the [U.N.] decision-making process.”

More lobbyists than humanitarians

A COP28 that lacks ambition and fails to achieve progress would feed into broader concerns about the effectiveness of the COP summits. There was strong criticism of COP27 where more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend.

It’s clear that COP climate talks tend to gather ever more lobbyists every year, from the largest and often most polluting corporations to compete for climate credentials. Climate greenwashing has become de rigeur at a plethora of panel debates and dazzling dinners bringing policymakers together with lobbyists to discuss business as usual. 

Policy ambition in line with climate science

COP28 president Sultan Al Jaber has drawn more criticism for speaking in favour of “phasing out fossil fuel emissions”. This means using carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels, instead of phasing out fossil fuels. Compare this to the European Union which is pushing for the phase-out of fossil fuels and also raising ambition for worldwide targets for renewable energy.

Scientists are clear that reducing production and use of coal, oil and gas and keeping fossil fuels in the ground is key to meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels. Moreover, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that new fossil fuel projects begun after 2021 are not compatible with reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

Is it too late, some would say? Aren’t we anyway close to the 1.5-degree tipping point that we were warmed of a decade ago? Is keeping 1.5 alive just another fairy story to give us hope?

Within the next five years, the world is likely to experience at least one year in which the global average surface temperature exceeds 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. That was the prediction of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in its recent climate forecast.

Straying beyond 1.5C could lead to potentially irreversible effects on the global climate system, scientists have warned, including the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, the abrupt melting of permafrost, rising sea levels and bleaching coral reefs. 

Worrying trends for humanity

Meanwhile, millions are suffering from fuel poverty, locked into oil and gas price hikes at the whim of suppliers. Millions are seeing their forests razed, their water polluted, and their nature decimated. Millions more are suffering extreme heat, extreme drought and extreme flooding. Humanity is screaming for help. As is the planet. 

It is late in the day to get serious about climate action. But countries and regions are starting to take steps. Business is innovating to keep 1.5 alive.  Although too many are lobbying to keep the status quo. 

In Europe, The Centre Right Party (EPP) is overtly opposing new EU regulations to restore nature. Industrial aquaculture is polluting delicate marine ecosystems. And global supply chains continue to scar the ocean beds. All of this negativity means that nature, land and oceans are absorbing less and less global emissions. The climate crisis is speeding up.    

Put humanity at the heart of climate talks 

It’s time for new global regulations to moderate our profit-obsessed economy. which is driving planetary instability. It’s time for new global structures to pursue systemic ecocide. It’s time for new global institutions to mandate climate justice. Beyond party politics, national borders and regional competition, it’s time for global governance. 

It’s also time to tell ourselves new stories and stories that we’ll feel comfortable telling our grandchildren. 

What did I do to help in the climate crisis?

Motherhood was a wake-up call for me 27 years ago, just as COP climate talks were born, so were my firstborn twins. I threw myself into the ideals and passions of the people and planet movement for social justice and environmental protection, as a dedicated Earth Mother. 

Those were the times of the Battle of Seattle when civil society groups came together to warn of the negative impacts of unfettered globalization. They were right. I was right. But business interests dominated politics so the wake-up call has been extremely slow in the business community, limiting policymaker ambition.

Fast forward 27 years and more extremes of economic inequity than ever we could have imagined. A world of billionaires. An environmental crisis on an unimaginable scale. Microplastics in our food. Pesticides in our water.  A planet still burning fossil fuels. Mountains of plastic waste. Food systems that are largely unhealthy for people and the planet. The era of polycrisis. 

The worst excesses of globalization have been realized, as predicted.  We are now facing multiple interlinked crises, and arguably the most life-threatening is the climate crisis. 

Yet so far, the Paris Agreement has spurred growth strategies for renewables, batteries and electric cars. And so more problems are created. Deep ocean mining. Endless consumption. More waste. 

As globalization grew, democracy withered. Governments now have little power over global forces. Individuals have more net worth than entire regions. And global power structures exclude the voice of humanity at world summits.  

Where is humanity in the climate conversation?

We are in a multi-crisis world because globalization was not balanced by humanity.  Elected officials, institutions and businesses placed economic interests over all other interests. Humanity has suffered. And humanity remains excluded. 

How to humanity at the heart of climate talks: 

  1. Ask your suppliers to participate in your climate plan
  2. Give artists and scientists a voice in your climate plan
  3. Get together with colleagues and make a climate plan 
  4. Survey workers – ask them what kind of world they want
  5. Call a meeting with the boss and ask for legacy leadership
  6. Demand ambition from elected officials
  7. Tell your children stories about your climate actions 

Let’s make COP28, the COP of the people. 

If you work in government: include citizens in your delegations

If you work in industry: include supply chain workers in your delegations

If you work in institutions: include teachers in your delegations. 

If you are fossil fuel lobbyists: send indigenous leaders, elders, women, artists and philosophers instead. 

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Joanna Sullivan is founder and CEO of Conscience Consulting, the Brussels-based systems change agency. Conscience helps clients with sustainability policy, strategic communications and campaigns for good. Joanna is Professor of Climate Diplomacy at the CIFE, teaching strategic coalitions, and is a writer, speaker and event moderator, living in Brussels, with three children.

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