COP28: Getting the climate party started

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 24, 2023

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The Big Story:

The COP28 climate conference begins in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and it really is like its acronym – the 28th conference of the parties.

  • The COPs held so far have had all sorts of parties – work parties, fringe parties, uber cool parties. But the actual conference of the parties has 198 entities. They are the ones signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty.
  • The treaty’s stated goal is to prevent “‘dangerous’ human interference with the climate system”.
  • COP28 will have a “global stocktake”, the first real inventory of what the world has done in the past decade to reduce “human interference with the climate”.
  • Some ask the point of these annual COPs when 2023 may end with the dubious distinction of being the hottest year in recorded history.

The Backstory:

  • The UNFCCC was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was the first time most nations agreed that economic development should not harm the Earth’s environment.
  • The first COP was held in Berlin in 1995.
  • COP3, in Kyoto in 1997, was the first to oblige signatory countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These gases include carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons, which absorb infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface and radiate it back to Earth.
  • COP21, in 2015, adopted the Paris Agreement, the world’s first binding deal on measures to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Climate neutrality means that everyone – a country, a business, a family, an individual – should ensure their greenhouse gas emissions are equal (or less than) the emissions that get removed through the planet’s natural absorption.
  • The COPs have increasingly become like carnivals, say observers such as Boston University Professor Adil Najam. Often, celebrities show up, notably Leonardo DiCaprio at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.
  • Past the hype, COPs have been effective in keeping climate change on the world agenda.
    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon designated Leonardo DiCaprio a messenger of peace with a focus on climate change in 2014. Image by Colin Chou, CC BY-SA 3.0

This Week, Those Books:

  • A sci-fi novel that offers hope.
  • A blistering look at green capitalism.

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  • The Ministry for the FutureBy: Kim Stanley Robinson

    Publisher: Orbit Books

    Year: 2020

This novel, by acclaimed science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, is sometimes described by listing its most famous reader. That was former US President Barack Obama, who named The Ministry for the Future one of his favourite books of 2020. Clearly, Obama has great taste. This book is right on the button, especially as COP28 begins.

The story opens in 2025 with a graphic description of a deadly heat wave in Uttar Pradesh in north India. Some 20 million people die, more than “in the entirety of the First World War, and all in a single week and in a single region of the world”. An Indian delegation to an emergency international meeting of the COP signatories is livid about the world’s “failure to agree to the terms” of the 2015 Paris agreement. While the world reels from one extreme weather event to the other, the Paris deal is seen as “a performance without substance, a joke, a lie.” In any case, the first “global stocktake” of 2023 “didn’t go well”, the novel says. These are words one hopes won’t emerge from COP28.

A new international organisation – the Ministry for the Future – is created to serve as an advocate for future generations of citizens. Its head, Irish politician Mary Murphy, works very hard to convince central banks that currency and market stability will be affected by climate change. American aid worker Frank May, who survives the Indian heat wave, is the other main protagonist. Crucially, this story, which ends in 2053, is one of hope. Anette Mikes and Steve New of Oxford’s Said Business School say Robinson has inspired “a liveable future – an optopia – that we can still forge from where we are”.

  • The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green CapitalismBy: Adrienne Buller

    Publisher: Manchester University Press

    Year: 2022

How do you put a price tag on a whale? How about another sentient life form? In which species should we invest? In 2019, researchers from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) priced a great whale at two million dollars each. The value was based on what the great whale contributed to ecotourism and how much carbon dioxide the animals could store, thereby helping us fight global warming. The IMF suggested that at $13 per person on Earth, it would be worth our while to invest in whale conservation. But is $13 really the value of whales? Or would we lose something priceless if the last whale were to die?

Canadian researcher Adrienne Buller asks searing questions about the black hole within so-called green capitalism, ie, the “effort to defend and minimise disruption to existing economic systems”.

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