According to US officials, President Joe Biden will skip the world leaders’ summit at the 28th UN Climate Change Conference, which begins in Dubai later this week. As president, Biden made it a point to attend the summit in 2021 and 2022 in order to underscore the centrality of climate policy to his political agenda, so his absence from the American delegation this year would be notable.
The annual UN climate confab may be beloved by global elites, but it also frustrates those on either side of the climate divide. As seen in the performative protests of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, much contemporary climate activism invokes apocalyptic horror. The slow-motion logrolling of global summits cannot measure up to that fierce urgency. Conversely, free-marketeers are likely to be revolted by the vision of central planning offered at such global conferences.
And make no mistake: a centralised reconfiguration of the global economy is at the heart of such climate deliberations. Because climate is literally everywhere, climate policy in the 21st century has spread to involve everything – from energy production to land-use regulations to food policy (no to beef, yes to bugs). Aggressive efforts at social transformation to fight “climate change” risk producing considerable blowback and – in the Netherlands and elsewhere – have boosted populist political movements. Meanwhile, the economic pain and social disruption caused by such efforts could threaten political incumbents. Witness Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement softening some “net zero” climate commitments.
If activists are often disappointed by global climate summits, lobbyists are delighted. Financial incentives permeate contemporary climate policy, with hundreds of billions for carbon credits, subsidies for “green” technologies, climate-advising groups, and so forth. Much of this is directed at the national level, but lobbyists have increasingly flocked to these international summits as well – so much so that Club of Rome co-president Sandrine Dixson-Decleve called last year’s UN summit a “circus.”
Exemplifying the large sums potentially at issue in climate policy, this year’s Dubai gathering is expected to try to formalise a “loss and damage” fund. This fund would use pledges from wealthier nations to compensate developing countries, purportedly for the effects of climate change. Some developing countries have pushed for this fund to distribute at least $100 billion annually by 2030. American negotiators have pushed back against some elements of this fund (they insist that contributions should be voluntary, for instance), and the optics of this fund may be one reason why Biden might keep his distance from the summit as he heads into a reelection year.
Between 1995’s first annual UN climate summit and today, the global situation has changed. For years now, many wealthy nations have reduced their net carbon emissions and their carbon emissions per capita. In the United States, per-capita emissions are below where they were in the 1960s, and overall emissions are at early-90s levels. The growth of global carbon emissions is no longer driven by wealthy nations but by developing ones. Those countries have major incentives not to curtail growth by enacting aggressive climate policies. Even if the European Union reached “net zero” carbon emissions tomorrow, that reduction could be swamped by new emissions from developing nations. In 2021, the People’s Republic of China was responsible for close to a third of global carbon emissions.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is not attending the UN climate summit, either.