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Opinion: What do you expect when an oil executive runs the climate talks?

Opinion by John D. Sutter

(CNN) — As someone who’s been reporting on the climate crisis for more than a decade, I can say that the most insidious threat to climate action isn’t denial or apathy.

It’s doubt and confusion.

That’s why the news from COP28 in Dubai is so infuriating.

The COP — an international peer-pressure meeting meant to avert disastrous global warming — is supposed to be a moment of resounding clarity, when world leaders come together to re-up their commitments to abandon fossil fuels and promote a future that’s, you know, livable.

The message should be clear: The world can and should abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible in favor of cleaner energy sources like wind and solar.

We have the technology and the political levers we need to succeed.

Instead, the COP28 talks have been mired in controversy and confusion.

The United Arab Emirates, a petrostate, is hosting the talks. The COP president is Sultan Al Jaber, the head of a renewable energy company and also the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Appointing an oil exec to run global climate negotiations is not unlike letting the NRA facilitate a symposium on gun control.

No surprise, then, that Al Jaber made some, well, stupefying comments, including that abandoning fossil fuels — which, again, should be the point of these talks — risks putting us “back into caves.” He also claimed, falsely, that there is “no science” supporting a total phase-out of fossil fuels in order to meet temperature goals that are the center of the negotiations.

“Please, help me, show me a roadmap for a phase-out of fossil fuels that will allow for sustainable socio-economic development, unless you want to take the world back into caves,” he said on November 21, in the days leading up to the COP28 summit. The remarks were part of a conversation with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN special climate envoy, and were first reported by The Guardian, which posted a video of the discussion.

“There is no science out there, or no scenario out there, that says that the phase-out of fossil fuel is what’s going to achieve 1.5C,” he said, referencing a temperature target from the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

report issued Sunday during COP28 by Future Earth, The Earth League and The World Climate Research Programme, states that “a rapid and managed fossil fuel phase-out is required” to meet global climate goals.

Al Jaber tried to walk back the comments at a press conference on Monday, saying that he respects science and that the comments were subject to “misrepresentation.” “I have said over and over that the phase-down and the phase-out of fossil fuels is inevitable,” he said.

By then, however, the damage had been done.

Observers are right to question Al Jaber’s intentions and the intent of this entire process. And the public could understandably be confused about whether these efforts are even worthwhile.

That’s tragic, especially in light of the long and frustrating history of fossil fuel interests injecting doubt into policy conversations about the climate crisis. The broad strokes of climate science have been well understood for several decades now.

But starting in the 1970s, fossil fuel companies took a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook and started injecting doubt and confusion into well-settled science. The fallout of that doubt still haunts political conversations about the climate crisis today. It leads to years and decades of stalled or flimsy action.

It’s also frustrating given that the public has few opportunities to focus on global warming — and the annual COP meeting tends to be one such moment when the world pays attention.

In the United States, only 35% of adults talk about the climate crisis at least occasionally, according to a 2021 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Slightly less — 33% — hear about it at least once a week in the media.

Not quite what you’d expect given that the habitability of our planet is in jeopardy. We are living with the consequences of a world we’ve warmed today — in the form of wildfires, extreme weather, searing drought and a burgeoning extinction crisis in the natural world.

If there’s a silver lining to the fact that Al Jaber’s comments have been wildly distracting, and disruptive, it’s that there is some benefit to plainly observing the predicament we are in.

Heat-trapping pollution from fossil fuels continues to go up year after year.

There are plenty of people and companies who profit from it.

Perhaps calling for Al Jaber to resign is part of a short-term solution to restore the credibility of COP28 and all the COP meetings still to come. But there’s a bigger point on which there must be absolute clarity in the public mind: We must demand a total phase-out of fossil fuels.

World leaders at COP28 can and should deliver on that promise.

And the public must hold them to account.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the producers of the 10 New Insights In Climate Science report.

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