Baku Oil Pumps Baku Oil Pumps. Source: Ceever - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

With fossil-fuel interests now openly and repeatedly in charge of Cop summits, their failure of legitimacy must be confronted, argues John Clarke

Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that ‘Cop29, the next round of UN talks to tackle the climate crisis, will be led by another veteran of the oil and gas industry.’ Mukhtar Babayev, who is presently Azerbaijan’s ecology and natural resources minister, has been selected as the president-in-waiting who will oversee the next Cop summit when it takes place in November of this year. Before venturing into politics, ‘Babayev spent 26 years working for the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (Socar).

A precedent was established last year and Cop28 was conducted under the guiding hand of Sultan Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, who ‘heads the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, known as Adnoc.’ At the time, this choice was somewhat jarring and produced significant controversy, but it now appears to have become an established pattern.

Al Jaber’s performance was predictably shameless as he discharged his new responsibilities. He assured everyone that he looked forward to the transition to sustainable energy ‘when the time comes’ but that this future event would be subject to the need for ‘practical solutions’. He circumspectly avoided mentioning that, even as he chaired the Cop gathering, Adnoc was ‘overseeing a major expansion of the company’s oil and gas output.’

Fox guards the hen house

When people who have made lucrative careers as senior representatives of the very industry that is at the heart of the climate crisis are put in charge of a supposed effort to deal with that crisis, the well-known expression ‘the fox guarding the hen house’ comes to mind. In this regard, it should be understood that the elevation of people like Al Jaber and Babayev is part of a very deliberate and calculated strategy.

When Al Jaber became Cop28 president, he brought along with him a veritable retinue of fossil-fuel bureaucrats. At least a dozen Adnoc employees were appointed to roles within the hosting team so that ‘the oil company’s staff … played a critical role in shaping the summit.’

This leading role of fossil-fuel interests, while it has now been taken forward very significantly, is no new development. ‘The fossil fuel industry has been deeply involved in the annual COPs since they began in the 1990s, sending hundreds of lobbyists each year.’ The large-scale involvement of the oil and gas industry is based on the notion that climate disaster shouldn’t be contained by challenging these interests, but through a collaborative effort in which they play the leading role.

Based on this approach, handing the directing role to a fossil-fuel representative is the logical next step. US climate envoy, John Kerry, hailed Al Jaber’s appointment as a ‘terrific choice’ and Cop28 spokesperson Alan VanderMolen stated that ‘It is in our common interest to have someone with deep experience across the entire energy value chain in this role.’

Al Jaber’s performance as a green convert wasn’t entirely flawless, but it was quite revealing. He slipped up during the summit when he blurted out that ‘there is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5.’ On that basis, he insisted that he would not be ‘signing up to any discussion that is alarmist.’

With this highly problematic outburst, Al Jaber went badly off script and he had to hastily summon a press conference to assure everyone of ‘his commitment to climate science.’ It wasn’t that he opposed moving away from fossil fuels, he suavely explained, but he wisely understood that ‘we need to be real, serious and pragmatic about it.

Apart from missteps and damage control, the Cop28 charade unfolded as it was supposed to. Efforts to win ‘a clear statement that fossil fuels must be phased out,’ along with any plan to put this into effect, were thwarted and, in place of this, ‘a call to “transition away” from fossil fuels, shot through with loopholes’ emerged.

Mukhtar Babayev has not yet had time to show how he will conduct himself in overseeing Cop29 but he can be expected to play a very similar game. He spent decades working as a representative of oil and gas interests in a ‘country [that] relied on oil and gas for more than 92.5% of its export revenue last year.’

While Babayev speaks of the need to deal with the ‘severe ecological problems’ that fossil-fuel extraction has created for Azerbaijan, he is careful to stress ‘that any fall in oil prices could hamper efforts’ to deal with these problems. The ‘real, serious and pragmatic’ approach of his predecessor appears to be the order of the day.

Stalling tactics

Any assumption that the yearly Cop gatherings are being organised and conducted in good faith would be a serious political miscalculation. The summit process and those directing it are entirely committed to the mythical notion that the oil and gas companies can be cajoled into transitioning away from fossil-fuel extraction, playing the role of partners in this process.

The fossil-fuel interests themselves have worked to promote this concept of self-reform. In a review I wrote for Counterfire of Nicolas Graham’s Forces of Production, Climate Change and Canadian Fossil Fuel Capitalism, I noted how the author draws out the clash between the profit needs of oil and gas companies and the necessity of rapid transition. As Graham puts it, ‘it is vital to again recognize the contradiction between the quest to valorize massive, fixed capital investments and the requirement to decarbonize energy in a rapid and socially just manner.’

Graham shows how fossil-fuel companies in Canada are promoting a fraudulent ‘greening of carbon extractive development.’ With an array of ‘tech fixes’ and no end of empty assurances, these companies want to convince us ‘that fossil-fuel extraction can be rendered less ecologically damaging while, at the same time, an incremental process of transition from carbon unfolds.’

Yet, the dire results that flow from such cynical stalling tactics are readily apparent once it is understood  that, such ‘an approach simply does not square with the scientific consensus on the scale and time frame for transition beyond carbon.’ 

Colombian president, Gustavo Petro, wasn’t wrong when he told the Cop28 delegates that ‘we are facing a confrontation between fossil capital and human life.’ Yet, leaked letters from the Opec oil cartel to its members that emerged at this time, responded to calls for a phase out of oil production with the ironic warning that ‘politically motivated campaigns put our people’s prosperity and future at risk.’

We must understand that the Cop gatherings are being organised to fail in terms of their supposed objective of meaningfully addressing the climate crisis. In this regard, they produce particularly destructive results for the countries of the Global South.

With the imperialist countries overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis, those of the South were promised, in 2009, that they would be provided with $100 billion a year to deal with climate impacts by 2020. This target was only met belatedly but the pathetically inadequate scale of the measure becomes obvious when you consider that, according to the World Bank, ‘developing countries spent a record $443.5 billion to service their external public and publicly guaranteed debt in 2022.’

The intensifying disaster brought on by climate change and the context of global inequality in which it is playing out are exposing the shameless agenda of the oil and gas industry and Western governments. As this happens, the credibility of the Cop process is eroding rapidly.

As preparations get underway for Cop29, with fossil-fuel interests in the driving seat, Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza is playing out. The continuation of this horror has been made possible because the US and a few Western allies have allowed Israel to continue its attack in the face of worldwide condemnation, including overwhelming votes at the General Assembly of the UN.

The pretence of any real multilateral decision making process at the international level is becoming hard to maintain. The dominant political and economic players bring such disproportionate power and influence to the table that they set the agenda to an overwhelming degree. That is clear in the case of the slaughter in Gaza but it is also obvious in the international response to the climate crisis. The gap between the fiction of a meaningful international decision-making process and the reality of gross inequality is impossible to disregard.

It is essential that the Cop summits be seen for the exercises in deception they really are and that we not try to shore up their crumbling legitimacy. Sitting around the table with the institutions of fossil-fuel capitalism and their political enablers is considerably worse than a failed approach. When it comes to these gatherings, the strategy of consultation must give over to one of confrontation.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.