At the outset of COP28 in Dubai, the main question hanging over the conference was whether or not a petrostate could adequately host negotiations to fight climate change.
It didn’t take long to get an answer. Hours before the opening ceremonies, a Guardian report uncovered that Emirati leaders intended to use the conference to negotiate oil deals. Then, two days into the festivities, COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber claimed during an interview with storied climate justice leader Mary Robinson that there was “no scientific evidence” for transitioning to renewable energy, forcing Robinson to keep a straight face in front of a boldfaced lie.
In order to understand the dysfunction at the root of the COP process— whether it be in Dubai, Madrid, Katowice or Copenhagen— it is important to see the conference for exactly what it is. Or, rather, what it is not.
COP is not a climate conference; it is first and foremost a diplomatic conference.
The acronym “COP” stands for “Conference of the Parties” to the Paris Climate Accords, a diplomatic treaty negotiated in 2015 that left the details to be worked out over the following years and decades before climate change would render the Earth unrecognizable to the human species.
While the conference includes side events to present climate science, which yields results more galling by the year, the real work at COP is done behind closed doors by diplomats. They are tasked with negotiating climate finance packages and rules to international carbon markets within a two-week window to keep the world on track with its stated goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
Doors closed, that is, to the scientists and civil society groups who flit between pavilion presentations, happy hours and protests, but not so closed to the record number of fossil fuel lobbyists who parlay with diplomats to protect their mutual interests.
Therein lies the problem at the root of every COP negotiation. As the old (and chauvinist) saying goes: “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday, but never her age.”
Diplomats are well versed in saying the right things to the right people at the right time. But beneath the outward statements, a diplomat’s number one job is to pursue the cold, strategic interests of the nation they represent, however that nation defines them.
For host country United Arab Emirates, as with its fellow OPEC countries and the Global North financiers playing both sides of the energy transition, that means keeping fossil fuels alive as long as possible.
Climate change is a globally distributed problem that does not recognize borders or perceived national interests. So as long as the annual conference meant to address climate change is run by agents of national interest, then carefully-worded agreements that side-step the root causes and effects of climate change are what we should expect.
Another irony behind COP is that even if negotiations are not positioned to address climate change at the source, that doesn’t mean real progress can’t be made.
Global health is emerging as one of the most pressing climate issues, and this year featured the first Health Day at COP negotiations. That led to a breakthrough agreement by 124 countries to endorse the Declaration of Climate and Health, followed by a deal to commit $1 billion to deal with the health impacts of climate change.
The deal follows a watershed report by The Lancet in November that took a close look at the impact climate change is already having on global health, and its staggering economic consequences. The report highlighted three key areas in which climate change is aggravating health issues that the newly promised funds could address.
If you saw the opening scene of the HBO series The Last of Us, then you might have an idea of what can go wrong when pathogens adapt to a planet that is getting “slightly warmer”.
Fortunately, the Lancet report does not forecast a fungal zombie takeover, but it does find that infections of arboviruses, a term for viruses that are spread by insects such as mosquitos and ticks, are growing as a warmer planet becomes increasingly hospitable to them.
Compared to a baseline of 1951-1960, the average rate of dengue fever transmission grew in 2013-2022 by nearly 30% from both yellow fever mosquitoes and Asian tiger mosquitos.
The same was found in viruses not as well known in Northern latitudes, such as Zika or Chikungunya, an infectious disease that can cause weeks-long fever and joint pain, occasionally leading to death.
One illness that stands out is dengue fever. Dengue is not the deadliest arbovirus since there are a series of effective treatments that can minimize symptoms when treated early. Still, a 2020 study found that dengue fever infections create around $4 billion in economic losses from reduced productivity.
It’s not just viruses– certain bacteria also appear to benefit from climate impacts. Rising sea levels mean that coastal saltwater is making ever greater incursions onto land and coastal freshwater sources. Those are precisely the conditions where vibrio pathogens thrive, and their domain is expected to grow by 17-25% by mid-century.
Vibrio pathogens, including the vulnificus variety, sometimes known as the “flesh eating” virus, prompted a CDC health advisory earlier this year following serious infections in New York, North Carolina and Connecticut.
The bulk of the funding in the newly announced COP28 Health funds would be directed toward these and other diseases. Roughly $777 million of the initial $1 billion package will be spent on mitigating diseases, led by $100 million from the UAE and $100 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Increased heat is also making it impossible for laborers to work across the world. The Lancet report found that heat exposure led to the loss of 490 billion potential labor hours in 2022 alone, a nearly 42% increase from 1991 to 2000.
On average, each worker in the world lost 143 potential hours of labor capacity. Over 1.3 billion workers, 39% of the global workforce, experienced losses greater than that, and 80% of these were from low or medium-income countries. If temperatures rise to 2°C, the world could see a doubling of potential labor hours lost annually compared with the 1995–2014 period.
All told, over a quarter of the world’s entire workforce did its work outdoors in 2022, meaning that the economic impact in the future could become crippling. A 2°C scenario would create an estimated 117% increase in lost work hours, which would leap to an incomprehensible 458% in a no-mitigation scenario.
Finally, the Lancet found that heat-related illnesses are on the rise as well, creating an opportunity for the COP28 health funds to make an immediate impact.
Annual heat-related mortality of people older than 65 years is projected to increase by 370% above 1995–2014 levels in a 2°C scenario, particularly from the increase in heatwaves and extreme droughts popping up across the world.
The COP28 funds for these impacts could be spent to address city-led efforts that have already begun under the auspices of the World Health Organization.
According to the Lancet, urban centers are home to 55% of the world’s population, and the number of cities reporting that they have completed, are in the process of conducting, or intend to conduct a climate change risk assessment within 2 years increased from 713 cities in 2021 to 848 cities in 2022.
This is one of the silver linings in the efforts to address the climate-health nexus. At the end of 2022, between 80% and 92% of surveyed cities in Oceania, Europe, and North America reported that they had completed a climate risk and vulnerability assessment. That puts them in a position to pre-empt health issues by establishing chief heat officers in cities from Miami to Freetown, Sierra Leone.
One final sticking point is a notable difference between the Lancet’s outlook and the COP28 declaration. The Lancet highlights the role of banks in continuing to fund fossil fuel projects, putting them at the focus of responsibility for climate impacts, including health. The COP28 Health declaration, meanwhile, made no mention of fossil fuels at all.
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