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Global climate talks begin in Dubai, with an oil executive in charge

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber at the opening ceremony for the annual United Nations climate summit, held this year in Dubai.
Peter Dejong
/
AP
COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber at the opening ceremony for the annual United Nations climate summit, held this year in Dubai.

Updated November 30, 2023 at 12:58 PM ET

The United Nations annual climate negotiations begain today in Dubai, with hundreds of world leaders expected to attend over the next two weeks.

The goal of the meeting is to make progress on reducing emissions of planet-warming gasses, and come to an agreement about how to pay for the enormous costs of a hotter planet.

Right off the bat, delegates took a big step forward on that second goal. They agreed to officially establish a fund for loss and damage from extreme weather events that will be housed at the World Bank and will support developing countries hit hardest by climate change.

The United States joined a handful of other countries announcing they would contribute to the new loss and damage fund. The U.S. pledged $17.5 million, Japan pledged $10 million, the United Kingdom pledged $75 million, and Germany and the United Arab Emirates each pledged $100 million. Other European countries are collectively expected to put in $125 million, for a total of more than $400 million.

While it's a start, the contributions so far are also an order of magnitude less than the amount of money – $300 billion per year by 2030 – that is needed for developing countries to adapt to climate change, according to the U.N. Environment Program.

One of the most controversial aspects of this year's talks is the person leading them. The petroleum-dependent host country, the United Arab Emirates, named the head of its main state oil company, Sultan al-Jaber, as the climate meeting's president. That has led to concerns among many climate experts and activists, who point out that humanity must stop burning fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, al-Jaber acknowledged that there may not be consensus among world leaders over whether, and how, to phase out oil, gas and coal, but he pledged to lead transparent talks. "We feel, as you feel, the urgency of this work," he said. "And we see, as you see, that the world has reached a crossroads."

This year's negotiations come at the close of the hottest year ever recorded on Earth. Extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, wildfires and heat waves, are increasingly deadly and disruptive.

"So many terrifying records were broken [in 2023]," said Simon Stiell, the head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, at the negotiations' opening ceremony. "We are paying with people's lives and livelihoods."

Scientists warn that greenhouse gas pollution must plummet immediately in order to avoid catastrophic climate change effects, such as mass extinctions and runaway sea level rise by the end of this century.

Not all world leaders are attending this year's negotiations. President Biden will not travel to Dubai, although Vice President Kamala Harris did announce last-minute plans to attend, along with special climate envoy John Kerry.

Chinese president Xi Jinping will also skip this year's talks, although he is sending a delegation of high-level officials in his place. Earlier this month, Biden and Xi agreed to resume work on tackling climate change, after suspending official collaboration on the topic last year due to broader tensions between the two nations.

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Even without their leaders present, the U.S. and China are expected to play major roles over the next two weeks. China is responsible for more emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses than any other country, and the vast majority of new coal-fired power plant construction is occurring there. Coal is the most intensely polluting of the major fuels, and must be basically eliminated in order to rein in warming, scientists say.

Another major topic on the table is whether the countries most responsible for causing climate change will follow through on promises to help the most vulnerable countries foot the bill for adapting to a hotter world. The United States is front-and-center in that debate: the U.S. has released the most cumulative planet-warming pollution into the atmosphere overall, going back to the mid-1800s.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
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