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Despite the urgency and the worrying data accumulating on climate change, the attention of political leaders at COP28 risks being diverted by wars in progress and by the tense economic situation which is polarizing populations.

Analysis | Headwinds at COP28 in a tense geopolitical context | COP28: summit on the climate in Dubai

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COP28 in Dubai faces climate overheating and geopolitical overheating.

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Since taking office in 2020, United States President Joe Biden has not missed a United Nations climate conference. He was in Glasgow in 2021 for COP26 and in Egypt a year ago for COP27. A few weeks ago, he called climate change “the ultimate threat to humanity.”

But in this year 2023, which promises to be the hottest in history, it is conspicuous by its absence at COP28 in Dubai. Senior White House officials have said the war between Israel and Hamas has consumed the president's attention, as has the conflict in Ukraine that has been going on for almost two years.

The American leader will not be the only political decision-maker whose mind is elsewhere this year. If there is climatic overheating, there is also geopolitical overheating. A context of high tension which will most likely disrupt the dynamics of the discussions at COP28 as they progress.

First, because the United Nations climate conferences do not need external wars to fuel their own frictions. Diplomatic disputes are already very heated, outside the tense context of wars.

There are tensions between those who want to go faster and those who resist it; between the countries of the South and the industrialized countries; between the United States and China or between the United States and India; between fossil fuel producing countries and others; etc.

COP28: climate summit in Dubai

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COP28: climate summit in Dubai

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But the usual divergences of a COP are this time exacerbated by the animosities fueled by the two ongoing conflicts. This explosive context makes coordinated action on climate issues more difficult. External clashes undermine the climate of multilateral cooperation that is absolutely crucial for moving things forward and thus reducing the risks linked to climate change.

Russia's posture is a good example. The fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, it has never really been a leader in climate action.

But since she was ostracized by the international community due to the conflict with Ukraine, she has been playing the troublemaker. Since last year at COP27, Moscow has imposed itself in the negotiations as an obstacle to going in circles.

His bellicose attitude has manifested itself in an even more glaring manner in recent weeks, by sabotaging the process of choosing the city where COP29 is to be held, in a year. Under a regional rotation established by the UN, it is in fact the turn of the Central and Eastern Europe region to host the conference.

The member countries of this zone, which includes Russia, should have agreed on the choice of a host country after consultation and informal discussions. This is what is done every year and it normally never poses a problem. By December, we should already know the host city of COP29.

But Russia blocked the process by refusing all applications from European Union member countries, which support Ukraine in the war. Azerbaijan's candidacy was then proposed… but given the war currently between this country and Armenia, the proposal was not accepted.

Several countries criticize Russia for holding the organization of the next United Nations climate conference hostage.

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COP28 takes place from November 28 to December 12 in Dubai.

COP28 is taking place in the shadow of the war between Israel and Hamas. The conflict, which has caused the death and distress of tens of thousands of people, is monopolizing the attention of many policymakers at the moment, and rightly so.

One hundred and sixty-seven heads of state and government were present at COP28 for the Leaders’ Summit on December 1 and 2. Apart from the official speeches on the climate, several of them took advantage of this gathering to discuss the situation behind the scenes with the actors who can influence the course of things. If it can lead to a solution… After all, this is the biggest summit of the planet's leaders of the year, we might as well take advantage of it.

But it shows to what extent the situation in the Middle East is spreading. The effects of such an event on the climate talks should not be underestimated. The differences in positions between countries on the conflict between Israel and Hamas risk percolating into the negotiations in Dubai.

The subject is delicate. Some foreign leaders walk on eggshells when it comes to choosing sides, but others have done so very clearly. These positions, whether we like it or not, end up being invited into a summit like that of Dubai.

In UN climate conferences, the directives that negotiators receive – and this is especially true in the last days – come directly from their head of state or government. Thus, it is not at all forbidden to think that a country would want to take advantage of the COP to punish a rival who supports the side it considers hostile in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

This is without mentioning international aid, which wars disrupt. Industrialized countries have promised to set up a fund of $100 billion per year to support developing countries in the fight against climate change.

They also agreed on the implementation of a fund on the losses and damage suffered by the most vulnerable countries due to climatic changes. Tens of billions of dollars are expected.

However, in response to these wars, military spending in many countries is swelling and creating new budgetary frictions.

For example, the terrible effects of the war between Israel and Hamas or between Ukraine and Russia fuel new needs for foreign aid and create tensions in the American Congress. What help should be prioritized? Add to that the aid for Ukraine, and the cup is full.

This situation is certainly not in favor of developing countries, which are asking for more money to be able to deal with climate change.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas even has ramifications even within the circle of environmental activists. Since October 7, the date of the Hamas attack, the youth climate movement has been torn apart. Greta Thunberg, the activist who greatly inspired him, is roundly criticized for her sharp positions deemed too pro-Palestinian by some.

At a recent Fridays for Future demonstration in Amsterdam, Greta Thunberg, speaking, called for a cease fire in Gaza. The newspaper Le Mondereports that a demonstrator tried to snatch the microphone from him and declared: I came for a climate demonstration, not for a political demonstration, reports the correspondent of the French daily.

On the X network and on Instagram, where the Swedish activist has 5.6 million and 14 million subscribers respectively, her call to strike for the climate in solidarity with Palestine has provoked strong reactions from his supporters, including several Israelis, who criticize him for lacking consideration for the Israeli victims of Hamas.

The international citizen climate movement has already been greatly weakened by the pandemic, as the absence of rallies and the putting on hold of activities have contributed to unraveling a little solidarity. There may certainly be new divisions linked to the political conflict in the Middle East.

Another obstacle facing COP28 is the global economic situation. Across the planet, inflation, the rising cost of living and the deterioration of purchasing power have become – by far – the priority of voters. For governments who want to take firm action to combat climate change, the context is difficult.

How can we justify new constraints or new financial burdens when people are at a loss? How can we convince voters that the future of the world is at stake when they are struggling to make it through the end of the month? How can we promise the end of fossil fuels when it is a country’s cash cow?

Everywhere in the West, we feel a popular backlash against climate policies developing. For politicians, it is the dilemma of action for the long term or action for the electoral period.

Unsurprisingly, we see more and more political groups exploiting popular discontent linked to climate policies, which are often perceived as a fad of the urban establishment. Some demonize the carbon tax, others the lanes reserved for public transport, the penalty to discourage the purchase of large engines, the kilometer tax or the cost of access to the low-emission zone.

In France, it was the fuel tax that was the spark plug for the yellow vest crisis in 2018, a popular movement that channeled a deeper malaise than simply pricing pollution. Marine Le Pen's National Rally, which had never really questioned the role of human activities in climate change until recently, was inspired by this crisis and no longer hesitates to cast doubt on the conclusions of the scientists from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Occupying this land can be politically profitable.

In the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders' far-right party won the recent vote in the legislative elections, indignation is largely channeled through rural populations, who have the impression that the European Union is indiscriminately imposing climate rules that are too harsh.

In Canada, Pierre Poilievre's Conservative Party criticizes the carbon pricing introduced by the Liberals to anyone who will listen. Even if Mr. Poilievre does not offer any solutions to reduce GHG emissions, the speech finds its audience. So much so that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau felt obliged to suspend the carbon tax imposed on fuel oil in the Atlantic.

In Dubai, we feel that Western governments have their foot on the brake, for fear of causing a popular backlash in their country. From the United States to Argentina, via Australia, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Italy, the political groups which question the fight against changes climate have the wind in their sails.

The history of climate diplomacy shows that the boldest decisions in more than three decades were taken when there was a concordance of expectations on the part of countries and actors in society. Ongoing wars and economic concerns monopolize our resources and attention, to the detriment of climate protection.

The COPs sometimes offer us surprises, and we'll see what awaits us by the end. But for the moment, in Dubai, the negotiations are taking place with a strong headwind.

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