Focusing on Science, Justice, and Systemic Solutions at COP28

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The twenty-eighth annual United Nations climate summit—or COP28—has begun here in Dubai, UAE, where I’m joining the UCS delegation for another round of international discussions on how we can turn the global temperature down as fast as possible on our rapidly heating planet. Eight years after the 2015 COP that produced the Paris Agreement, in which the world’s nations agreed to stick to a strict schedule to cut global warming emissions, I’m balancing my hope that humanity can come together to commit to even more ambitious goals.

The reality is that we have a very heavy lift ahead of us if we are going to affect the transformative change needed to secure a livable future. But at UCS, I am buoyed every day by the possibilities for progress that science shines a light on. Hope also certainly feels more alive here in Dubai standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the smartest and most committed leaders and activists from around the world.

That said, this COP is being held against the grim backdrop of our accelerating climate crisis. We are already seeing the deeply inequitable consequences of our refusal to stop burning fossil fuels all around us, and I know I’ll be hearing from people from around the world about unbelievably extreme weather events over this past year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment, released this spring, warned us of what science has been telling us for decades: without swift dramatic changes, we will soon exceed 1.5˚C in global average temperature, the point at which irreversible climate damage will cause more even more extreme disruptions to life as we know it.

Our task at COP28 is to hold and speak these hard truths with courage. As my colleague Kristy Dahl writes:

“[E]ven if we know it’s unlikely we’ll be able to hold warming to 1.5°C or less, we need to behave as if we can hold warming to 1.5°C or less—while also preparing communities for a more dangerous world where we have blown past that.”

Our task is also to balance those hard truths with another truth: that in the United States, it’s still entirely within our reach to meet our goals to cut heat-trapping emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieve net zero emissions no later than 2050. There are several levers for the structural and systemic transformation that we need that can help us get there—and the UCS delegation is bringing these priorities and our skills into COP28 to advocate, educate, listen, connect, and learn so we may best deploy them.

#1: Fossil fuel companies must be held accountable

At COP28, the UCS team will be representing our cutting-edge climate science attribution work that links specific climate change impacts—including degrees of global average temperature increases, the acidification of our oceans, inches of sea level rise, and most recently, percentage of acreage burned in Western US and Canadian wildfires—to the world’s major fossil fuel companies. This evidence is crucial to making a legal case for these wealthy companies to pay for the damages they’ve caused, to stop deceiving the public about the risks of their products, and to change their business models altogether to stop extracting fossil fuels. As more cities, states, municipalities, and countries file lawsuits against Big Oil, UCS offers a dedicated forum—our Science Hub for Climate Litigation—where researchers and practitioners can convene to help accelerate the publication and application of such litigation-relevant research. To date, nearly three-quarters of all lawsuits against Big Oil across the United States have cited research from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

While we’re meeting with fellow advocates, activists, and members of frontline communities from around the world, we’ll be sharing our research and strategies to inspire stronger demands for accountability from the fossil fuel industry. And we’re also going to make sure that Big Oil’s corporate representatives and lobbyists at COP28 aren’t drowning out the voices of those most affected by the climate crisis, with their tactics of greenwashing, delay, and downright denial.

#2: Justice for climate-vulnerable countries

This year, some of the most important negotiations will center around funding for the international Loss and Damage Fund that was approved into existence at last year’s meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. This fund is intended to provide resources to climate-vulnerable, low-income countries, most if not all of which have contributed the least to climate change, to help them cope with its extreme impacts.

COP28 began promisingly, with the nations assembled adopting an agreement to operationalize the Loss and Damage Fund. This agreement wasn’t a guarantee, considering the difficult negotiations around the fund for the past year, as wealthier countries that are far more responsible for climate change, including the United States, petitioned for conditions on funding perceived as unfair by less wealthy countries.

The UCS delegation will continue to push for the United States to do as much as possible to operationalize and commit to resourcing the Loss and Damage Fund, so it can provide funding for low- and middle-income nations reeling from extreme climate impacts. At UCS, our position is that climate reparations are a crucial part of ensuring justice for climate-vulnerable nations.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a huge loss to the international community of scientists and activists working on Loss and Damage. The expertise, kindness, and moral clarity that Dr. Saleemul Huq brought to these conversations will be deeply missed, along with his steady presence. This will be the first-ever COP without Huq, who passed away at home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in October. We will do our best to carry his message forward.

#3: We’re all part of the solution

To our solidarity with an exceptional array of partners—as of course, no one organization alone can affect the solutions we need!—we at UCS bring a vital blend of science and advocacy and our deep bench of experts. At home in the United States, we partner with more than 1,000 organizations to identify and address regional challenges with community expertise and buy-in, to support each other’s work and priorities, and to amplify our shared demands for science- and justice-based policies.

Our partnerships help us center racial and economic equity in our science-based solutions, strengthen our advocacy, and help us expand our reach far beyond what we could do on our own. For just one example, the NAACP teamed up with UCS before COP28 to amplify the reach of our call for climate and environmental justice at the summit, sharing a letter to President Biden signed by more than 650 scientists, urging him to commit to bold climate action to improve public health and address environmental racism.

And here in Dubai, in addition to advocating for the US to support a fully operational and well-resourced Loss and Damage Fund, the UCS team and I are ready to press our leaders and representatives to commit to the drastic, rapid, and sweeping cuts in emissions we need so urgently; a complete phaseout of fossil fuels. We’re uniting with frontline community representatives, grassroots organizers, and national and international organizations like ours to call for our leaders to make science and justice-centered decisions at the convening—because every tenth of a degree of warming that we can prevent will have huge consequences for the world.

Focusing on Science, Justice, and Systemic Solutions at COP28
UCS Climate & Energy Program Policy Director Rachel Cleetus speaks at a Climate Action Network (CAN) press conference on November 30, the first day of COP28. Photo credit: Sanjali De Silva/UCS

Because the climate crisis affects everyone in the world, we are all part of its solutions. And the radical transformative change we need to our systems can only be achieved when we can truly see how interconnected they are. One of the most exciting aspects of these convenings is the potential for true systemic change, thanks to the rare opportunity to break down the silos of distance and borders and problem-solve together, as a global community.

UCS staff is accustomed to taking a systemic approach to the planet’s most pressing problems. In fact, it is what we are well known for in the advocacy space. Our scientific and technical experts work to identify the intersections of problems in energy, agriculture, and transportation that contribute to the climate crises, and to develop systemic solutions that solve for multiple variables and benefit each sector. We’re looking forward to the chance to step back from our own systems and take a global view, for global solutions, with our partners and colleagues.

I’ll be thinking of every UCS supporter, partner, and activist over the next week while I’m in Dubai. Your support helps us center science and justice in these important international convenings: thank you.