The Fault Lines at Climate Week

Today was the day for The New York Times’s annual Climate Forward live event in Manhattan. David Gelles, Somini Sengupta and other Times reporters talked with some of the climate sector’s most vital newsmakers to share ideas, work through problems and answer tough questions about the threats presented by a rapidly warming planet.

As the day progressed and we heard from people like Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Mia Mottley and Ajay Banga, some common themes emerged.

Resolving the climate crisis is the hardest joint project humanity has ever taken on. On that much, the policymakers, activists and business leaders seemed to agree. But there are still big differences of opinion on how to get the job done. And in the meantime, the cognitive dissonance between hope and despair is enough to make everyone’s head spin.

“The future is very bright and every day is a freaking crisis,” Jason Grumet, C.E.O. of the American Clean Power Association, told my colleague Astead Herndon.

Divisions were most clear over the questions countries are set to consider in the global climate negotiations in Dubai this November: Is it time to start phasing out fossil fuels now? And how much should oil companies be involved in that process?

Al Gore warned that fossil fuel interests are trying to co-opt climate action, especially with a top oil executive, Sultan al-Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, leading this year’s global climate talks in Dubai.

“That’s just, like, taking the disguise off,” Gore, the former vice president, told David. “They have captured control of the political and policymaking process in too many countries and too many regional governments, and they’ve reached out to try to capture the U.N. process.”

Fossil fuel industries, Gore added, “have portrayed themselves as the source of trusted advice that we need to solve this crisis. But they are responding to powerful incentives to keep digging and drilling and pumping up the fossilized remains of dead animals and plants and burning them in ways that use the atmosphere as an open sewer, threatening the future of humanity. It’s enough already.”

But some corporate and government leaders onstage today, including the billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, were adamant that the world is not yet ready to give up fossil fuels. Bloomberg also said al-Jaber was a smart choice to lead the COP28 talks.

“We are not going to get away from using oil for the next 10 or 15 years and we are not going to say everybody that has a gas-guzzling car can’t drive it anymore and they will have to start walking today,” he told David. “Big oil is part of the problem. They are also part of the solution.”

Projections by the International Energy Agency says nations must stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects for the world to keep warming below dangerous levels. Still, oil producing nations and corporations haven’t yet shown any signs that they are ready to slow down.

Britain’s government, a climate leader for years, just announced a change of course that will weaken key environmental pledges, including delays to a ban on the sale of gas and diesel cars.

The prime minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Store, told Somini that this is the century when the world will phase out fossil fuel. But he also said he is against setting a deadline for the transition, and defended his country’s continued investment in oil and gas expansion.

“I believe that the change here will have to come from the demand side and cannot be by having political decisions to cut the supply side,” he said. “By the end of this decade, you will have very good business arguments for not investing in oil and gas and rather investing in solar, wind, hydrogen, these new sources.”

Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados who has become a leader of the climate movement, said that for her country and others it is impossible to get rid of fossil fuels without alternatives in place.

“Natural gas continues to be a bridge in fuel because there is a genuine lack of capacity globally,” she said. “I would love somebody to pay me to keep our natural gas in the ground in our oceans. But in they don’t, how am I going to finance my net zero and how am I going to ensure that my country has access to credible supply of energy?”

Almost four months into his presidency at the World Bank, Ajay Banga said he was looking for intelligent ways to get developing countries enough resources to build up that capacity.

“We’ve created processes to work on this,” he said. “I would tell you don’t think the door will open and the trillions will flood in it. But don’t give up hope.”

But what are countries willing to sacrifice for the green transition? Activists are concerned that impacted communities and ecosystems could suffer.

“We often get caught up in the cycle of trying to move things fast; however, if you want to go further, you have to go together and that often takes time,” Ebony Twilley Martin, executive director of Greenpeace USA, told Astead. “When we don’t do a proper assessment, we see biodiversity loss, economic burdens.”

Still, there was plenty of optimism about the ability of nations and people to change. Some talked about the local solutions, such as cities that are reshaping themselves to cope with increasing heat.

Losing hope is not an option, Gore said. People should, instead, look for ways to organize politically.

“Climate despair is just another form of denial and we have to resist it,” he said. “We don’t have time to wallow in despair. We have work to do and we can do this.”

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, were not invited to speak on Wednesday at a special climate summit convened by the United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres.

His goal was to highlight only the work of countries that are most ambitious about their climate actions — and, as my colleague Max Bearak wrote, to implicitly shame those who are dragging their feet.

Of the world’s four biggest carbon emitters, only the European Union was invited to speak at the summit. The only official from the United States invited to speak was Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who has recently announced that his state would sue Big Oil.

The summit was one of 585 official events happening as part of Climate Week NYC. That included not only several conferences about the most challenging aspects of the climate crisis, but also Earth-focused drag shows and an ice cream giveaway to highlight “climate risks to the flavors we love.”

The week has become a magnet for start-ups, sustainability officers, scientists and policymakers looking to network and forge partnerships.

“This is like Burning Man for the climate geeks,” Oscar Soria, campaign director for Avaaz, an international advocacy organization, told my colleague Cara Buckley.

Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, argued that the breadth of events is evidence that “the climate tent has been growing exponentially the last few years.”

“What do you need to solve the climate crisis?” she said. “The answer is, everyone.”

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