Between November 30 and December 12, the biggest yearly event in climate politics will take place: the 28th Conference of Parties (usually referred to as COP 28). COP meetings, which have taken place at least once a year since 1995, are where the world's nations get together to discuss the most difficult and important climate problems.

It's tempting to dismiss the COPs as an elaborate, pointless show. There certainly is a lot of Davos-level cluelessness here, as negotiators fly in from all over the world, emitting tons and tons of carbon, so that they can attend cocktail parties and sit through inane panel discussions with titles like "Innovate for a Net Zero Tomorrow."

But we shouldn't dismiss the COP entirely. Climate change is a problem that requires international cooperation, and conferences like this are what international cooperation looks like. Diplomacy requires a certain amount of repetitive bloviation, where negotiators make nice, learn to trust one another, and build relationships that can eventually allow them to accomplish real things.

We won't be able to address climate change without coordinated government policies, and there are almost 200 separate governments on the planet, each with different economic incentives and domestic politics. Without international negotiation (and pressure), rich and powerful countries won't take responsibility for their role in creating climate change, and vulnerable ones won't get the help they need. These meetings, as frustrating and pointless as they sometimes seem, are absolutely crucial.

A couple of COPs have even resulted in crucial breakthroughs on climate policy. At the Kyoto meetings in 1997, many countries committed themselves to reducing their emissions (this might have been a more significant breakthrough had the United States Senate not overwhelmingly refused to ratify the treaty). At Paris in 2015, most countries agreed to set emission-reduction targets with a goal of keeping global temperature rise under 2 degrees. These agreements were late, incomplete, and imperfect, to be sure, but they were absolutely better than nothing.

This year's COP probably won't see a major breakthrough like Kyoto or Paris, but delegates will negotiate some crucial issues. Countries are expected to revise their emissions targets to get them closer in line with Paris goals — current policies are expected to get us closer to 3º of warming than 2º. Wealthy countries will work on providing investment funds so that poorer nations will be able to afford green technology and cope with the effects of climate change that will take place. Delegates may also change the rules around carbon credits and offsets, which have been a notoriously easy opportunity for greenwashing.

But, despite the potential for modest progress, this year's COP also poses a real danger. The UN's climate process seems to be under assault by a parasitic entity — the fossil fuel industry.

For decades, oil and gas companies (and the countries that rely on them the most) denied the reality of climate change, lied to their customers and shareholders, and generally tried to stand in the way of climate action. Now, fossil fuel producers have arrived at a more sophisticated strategy: they're infiltrating the climate movement in an attempt to steer it, like that fungus from The Last of Us.

The most visible evidence of this is the location of this year's COP — delegates will be meeting in Dubai, and the meetings will be presided over by Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. ADNOC, as the company is known, pumps 4 million barrels of oil and 11.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.

The idea here is to "bring the fossil fuel industry in from the cold," a deliciously ironic phrase. There's some logic to it, I guess — it's theoretically possible that, by including them, the UN will make the world's biggest emitters partners in solving the problem that they're creating. But it seems like fossil-fuel producers don't want to be a part of the solution so much as they want to make sure that the world chooses "solutions" that will allow them to keep making lots of money by producing fossil fuels.

This year's meeting is not the first COP to be held in a petrostate (Doha, Qatar was the site of COP 18), but it's not just the location of this year's meeting that is worrisome. Recent COPs have been increasingly full of fossil-fuel lobbyists in recent years. According to the Washington Post:

The industry sent more delegates than any country to the 2021 talks in Glasgow, Scotland, the advocacy group Global Witness reported that year.

At least 636 representatives of the industry registered to attend the 2022 talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, according to Global Witness and other groups. That dwarfed the number of delegates from any single nation except the United Arab Emirates.

So not only will COP 28 be hosted by one of the world's biggest emitters, it will be crawling with smooth-talking lobbyists who are there to make sure that any and all agreements are compatible with maximizing the profits of their employers. The strategy is a win-win for the fossil fuel industry: they get to spread the message that they are committed to climate solutions while quietly ensuring that international policy doesn't harm their bottom line.

What do all of these lobbyists and representatives from the fossil fuel industry want? Well, it isn't to shut down their core business, that's for sure. ADNOC, Abu Dhabi's oil company, is planning to double its oil and gas production, which already accounts for 14% of the globe's total. Most other fossil fuel producers are doing the same, making long-term investments that indicate a clear intent to keep producing fossil fuels for many decades.

Fossil fuel companies are using semantics to confuse the issues around climate change. They've introduced a clever new phrase into the climate negotiations: "unabated fossil fuels." The idea here is that it's fine to burn fossil fuels as long as you "abate" them by sucking the carbon back out of the atmosphere and storing it somewhere. The fossil fuel industry wants to create a standard where it's fine to emit as much carbon as you want as long as you can say you have a plan for "abating" that carbon someday.

Here's the thing — carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a promising and necessary technology. We will need to capture and store a lot of carbon if we are going to reach our climate goals. But CCS is quite expensive and rare today — the world currently captures 4% of the carbon that we will need to remove by 2030 to keep up with climate goals. It would obviously be better if we used our limited CCS capacity to reduce the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere rather than using it to offset new carbon emissions.

The goal of the fossil-fuel producers, as I've written before, seems to be to have their cake and eat it too. They want to pump their oil and gas, burn it, and then get subsidies from the world's taxpayers to remove the carbon that they produce. And now they're trying to infiltrate the UN in order to make this strategy a matter of international policy.

Will we remember COP 28 as a turning point in the world's climate story? Decades down the road, we may see this as a moment when the fossil fuel industry, armed with bags of money and thesauruses full of euphemisms and weasel words, occupied the host body of global climate talks. Or will this year's meeting be seen as a blip, an extension of courtesy to fossil-fuel producers before the world got serious about addressing climate change?

Thanks for reading! If you'd like to receive an email whenever I publish an article, click here. I also write a Substack about historical artifacts and images — check it out! You can "buy me a cup of coffee" here.