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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

COP28 Unveils a Critical Juncture of Optimism and Challenge in Global Climate Action

Approximately 70,000 individuals convened in the United Arab Emirates, a prominent oil-producing nation, for the United Nations climate summit, COP28. Dignitaries, industry leaders, and diplomats gathered in Dubai for the annual summit, focusing on discussions about reducing emissions from fossil fuels and charting a course towards a more sustainable future. Among the attendees was David Gelles, the author of The New York Times’ Climate Forward newsletter, who spent eight days reporting from the summit, which concluded on Tuesday.

This marked Mr. Gelles’s third attendance at a U.N. climate summit as a reporter. With a background in financial news coverage for The Times, he transitioned to the Climate team in 2022. In an interview, he shed light on how his business reporting experience shaped his approach to covering COP28 and shared insights gleaned from interactions with industry leaders. The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Q: Given your years covering the climate beat, how did your business reporting background influence your approach to COP28, and what did you learn from industry leaders?

A: Having covered the climate beat for a few years, one of the remarkable aspects this year was the widespread encounters I had. Whether it was CEOs of major nonprofit organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, negotiators from various delegations, or executives I had previously interviewed, COP acts as a critical mass of individuals working in the climate space, all converging in one place simultaneously. This created an exceptional experience.

Q: How did your business reporting background play a role in your coverage of COP28?

A: Significantly. For over a year, a substantial part of my climate coverage has focused on the business angle. This encompasses not only how major companies strive to enhance their sustainability or green their supply chains but also how banks and major international lenders, such as the World Bank, are adapting to address the climate crisis more assertively. My 15 years of reporting on business have proven immensely beneficial as I delve into the financial aspects of the climate story.

Q: Could you elaborate on your role at COP28, the meetings you attended, and the people you interacted with?

A: I wore various hats during the summit. Initially, I anchored The Times’s live blog for the first few days and crafted a front-page article after the initial full day of the conference. Subsequently, I transitioned to a phase where I engaged in numerous meetings, both pre-arranged and spontaneous, with CEOs and negotiators on the sidelines. During evenings, I moderated live New York Times events at COP.

On December 4, I conducted a fireside chat with former Vice President Al Gore and interviewed several nonprofit development experts and negotiators. Ajay Banga, the president of the World Bank, a figure I knew from his tenure as CEO of Mastercard, dropped by before dinner. I interviewed him and wrote an article detailing the World Bank’s developments.

Q: How did you manage your time amid the hectic schedule at COP28?

A: Time was in short supply. Typically, I would have between two and five scheduled meetings throughout a day, leaving room for impromptu encounters. These meetings occurred in different locations around the expo area. Sometimes, I would interview someone I bumped into, while other times, I’d spot someone having lunch, sit down with them, and conduct an interview on the spot.

Being opportunistic and unafraid to pull out your tape recorder at any time were crucial. The days were long.

Q: Reflecting on the current state of climate change, considering gains in renewable energy and ongoing disasters, what is your perspective?

A: It’s a moment encapsulating both hope and peril. On the positive side, there are tangible advancements in renewable energy, and there is genuine momentum to reform the global financial system for more effective climate change response. Simultaneously, we are concluding the hottest recorded year, with climate disasters occurring almost weekly globally. Fossil fuel emissions and demand persistently rise, constituting the primary driver of global warming. We stand at a precarious juncture with significant momentum, yet facing substantial danger. Hence, everyone is working ardently to extricate ourselves from this predicament, recognizing the formidable challenges ahead.

Q: How do you perceive the challenges and urgency surrounding the global response to climate change?

A: The stakes are exceptionally high at this moment. The U.N. secretary-general declared a code red for humanity, aligning with scientific findings. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earlier this year unequivocally stated that the planet is warming, human activities induce it, and time is running out for corrective actions.

Climate change impacts are unfolding now, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, occurring in the present rather than the distant future. Enormous urgency characterizes this moment, prompting concerted and swift efforts to navigate through this critical phase. However, the path ahead is undoubtedly challenging.

Q: In your interactions at COP28, did you sense a collective commitment to addressing climate change, or were there challenges and conflicts?

A: Undoubtedly, there is a collective commitment, but substantial challenges persist. Geopolitical dynamics introduce complexities, with vulnerable countries pushing for more aggressive action, while major emitters like the U.S., China, and India grapple with setting more ambitious climate targets. Diplomacy, negotiation, and competing interests add layers of complexity. Challenges also emerge in transitioning away from century-old economic models dependent on fossil fuels. Despite these obstacles, a shared commitment and urgency prevail.

Q: What role do international gatherings like COP28 play in shaping global climate action?

A: Conferences like COP28 play a pivotal role by convening negotiators, leaders, and advocates worldwide to discuss, debate, and negotiate the planet’s future. Outcomes at these conferences determine the global climate policy agenda, funding availability for climate adaptation and mitigation, and countries’ commitment levels to emissions reduction.

These conferences serve as critical moments in global climate diplomacy, significantly influencing the planet’s future. However, they are not the sole determinants. What transpires in the months and years following these conferences, as countries return home to implement their commitments, truly matters.

Q: As COP28 concludes, what are your reflections on the outcomes and the path forward for global climate action?

A: While COP28 showcased progress, it fell short of what scientists deem necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change. Commitments made by countries do not align with the urgency of the climate crisis. There exists a substantial gap between what countries are willing to commit to and what science dictates is imperative.

The urgency of the climate crisis necessitates more aggressive action. The ensuing years will be pivotal, determining whether countries can translate commitments into tangible actions, accelerating the transition toward a more sustainable and resilient global economy.

The journey toward a sustainable future is ongoing, and the international community must persist in collaborative efforts to confront the challenges of climate change. COP28 marks a step in this journey, with the real test lying in the implementation of ambitious climate actions on a global scale.

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