Hungarian Conservative

COP-Out in Dubai

Aerial view of an unidentified person walking on a deserted road covered by sand dunes with the Dubai skyline in the background. Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Aerial view of an unidentified person walking on a deserted road covered by sand dunes with the Dubai skyline in the background. Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Shutterstock
‘It is debatable whether the COP negotiations themselves achieve much, given that a global consensus is typically only possible when the wording is so vague as to mean anything, which is closer to meaning nothing than something...What is clear, however, is that COP has been co-opted by the very form of political economy that provoked its existence. Much like Dubai itself, this is the sort of event that only late-stage capitalism might produce—a monument to the branding-industrial complex. One cannot help but sense that in its contradictions and shallow affect, COP is less a cure for what ails us, but rather a symptom of the problem to be cured.’

This article was published in Vol. 4 No. 1 of our print edition (its current date was December 2023).


In Mostly Harmless, the ‘fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Trilogy’, Douglas Adams wrote that ‘in New York…if you are keen to breathe, the best plan is to open a window and stick your head in a building’.1

I am reminded of this as I step off the aircraft onto the apron of Dubai airport, and into the dead heat of the Arabian Peninsula. There can be few cities on earth more divorced from the human experience than Dubai. Two generations ago the Emiratis were herding, fishing, and doing some light regional trade. Then some British geologists in overalls flew in over them, and found what lay under them, and they have reaped the windfall. The result is predictable: monuments to tasteless excess because where price is no object, value loses all meaning.

The city’s skyline is well known. But what is less obvious is that it is a city without architectural undergrowth. Because this city did not evolve from a smaller or older one. It was simply launched to the stratosphere from the sand. It is ones and zeros. A digital metropolis of one-upmanship. Nothing here is analogue. There is nothing to be read between the lines. There are only the lines, each as straight as a die, or perhaps as flat as a heart monitor after death.

The Emirates have over nine million people. Only a million are local. The rest—East Asians, South Asians, Africans, and Europeans—all seem to have prescribed roles in the economy: the East Asians care, the Africans clean, the Indians labour, and the Europeans push paper and bad taste. The Emiratis? They float about in their white thoubs, listlessly stepping in and out of luxury cars, wandering with detachment around the endless malls. They seem pickled by limitless wealth. A proud culture forged under the fire of the desert sun now seems frozen by fortune. The biggest mall even has a ski slope.

It is early December 2023 and I am here to attend the last days of the 28th ‘Conference of the Parties’, or COP28, the annual climate negotiations, which have quickly become perhaps the world’s largest annual international gathering of the MacBook & lanyard class, and undoubtedly the most high-profile. The purpose of COP, of course, is to determine global policy on how to both mitigate and adapt to anthropogenic climate change. This year, all the talk is of the ‘operationalization’ of the ‘loss and damage’ fund—an international aid programme for countries ‘on the front line’ of the ‘climate crisis’.

With an atmosphere that is something of a cross between the World Cup Final and Burning Man—particularly this year as it is being held in the desert, but more generally given COP is the final round of year-long negotiations, and has rapidly developed a festival atmosphere since it began in 1995—this year’s event is fascinating as much for the questions it provokes about the state of ‘global civil society’ as for what answers it has to offer for climate change itself.

COP is being hosted at a vast Expo Centre on the outskirts, but all the hotels are in the city centre. At breakfast, the room is full of people in lanyards. Regardless of whether they are technocrats wearing ties and close-cropped hair, or NGO project managers in open neck shirts or with sustainably sourced handbags, it is clear from their inexpressive hands and blameless faces that they all share the same vocation: PowerPoint.

An army ant trail of them leads me to the nearest metro station, fifteen minutes’ walk away. From there, a free metro pass for all COP attendees whisks us not just out of the skyscrapers, which tower about on all sides like an invasive species, but quickly into scrubland entirely surrounded by what look like oil refineries, with their barber’s-pole chimneys. The irony is so unmissable that it surely must be the point: if COP is about tackling climate change because of runaway fossil fuel consumption, then how to explain holding it in a city built on oil, by oil, and for oil? A city whose very existence is not sustainable in any sense of the word, having no roots in the past, or the shifting sands.

While the ‘Conference of the Parties’ is winding down, the COP party itself is in full swing, inasmuch as a party at a concrete Expo Centre, in dry heat and with a dry bar, can be in full swing, or even a party. The negotiations themselves involved only several hundred people, but 80,000 are supposed to have visited so far, and they are still coming. Today, I am one of them. But what are we all even doing here?

‘It is debatable whether the COP negotiations themselves achieve much, given that a global consensus is typically only possible when the wording is so vague as to mean anything, which is closer to meaning nothing than something’

Exploring the pavilions leaves one none the wiser. The whole event has the structure of a trade show, but with attendees that have little to sell other than assurances that they subscribe to the shibboleths of the moment. Thus, from the British Council to Stanford University, to every imaginable government, international agency, and NGO, everyone with a brand to promote is here with a stand and a stack of leaflets written in corporate vernacular. Everywhere, jet-lagged reps, kept company by small clusters of used paper coffee cups, rock from foot to foot. If you get too close, they will—like video game non-player characters (NPCs)—begin to recite their slogans at you, in vacant voices, their eyes tired and inexpressive. Their blandishments are polished to such smoothness that they immediately slip the mind.

If, instead of making agreeable noises, one instead asks a critical question, for instance what the ‘climate mobility’ rep from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) means by ‘mobility’, they stutter to a halt. Their eyes grow wide, like those of an inattentive student at the back when called on. They were not briefed about this eventuality—someone actually asking them to explain their slogans. This was not in the script. A discussion? No. That is not what we are here for. We just work here. Well, elsewhere. But we are here today. Wherever here is. Is it Dubai this time?

UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 30 November 2023–12 December 2023. PHOTO: Mahmúd Háled/UN Press Office/EPA/MTI

In another pavilion, I sit down to rest by the British Embassy stall, where I am grateful for the free coffee. Unfortunately, they also have community theatre. Even less fortunately, this is a morality play about the ‘climate emergency’. Worse, the audience is deemed interactive. And worst of all, I am wrongly taken to be part of this audience. I am proffered a lanyard saying I am a climate migrant from New Mars. It is the year 2100. We are on a boat, and not one of the yachts down by the world’s most expensive hotel back in town, but a sinking boat on the high seas. We are told, by a gleeful American in a bandanna, that we are surrounded by raiders. And suddenly everyone is shouting. Of the many emergencies attributable to climate change, the one it has created for the medium of community theatre—already the worst of all art forms—is surely among the most real, and the most painful.

It was at this point I realized it was unclear what was more trying: that half the speakers specialized in the new vernacular of doom; or the beatific self-assurance of the other half, mobilizing the glib tropes and shibboleths of positive thinking (‘the power of youth!’). If the former is wearing in its apocalyptic tone, the latter is dystopian in its bromidic optimism.

It is debatable whether the COP negotiations themselves achieve much, given that a global consensus is typically only possible when the wording is so vague as to mean anything, which is closer to meaning nothing than something. Infamously, at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, a commitment to ‘phase out’ coal was changed at the last minute to ‘phase down’, a phrase that has no particular meaning in English. So it goes when political ideals collide with economic reality. What is clear, however, is that COP has been co-opted by the very form of political economy that provoked its existence. Much like Dubai itself, this is the sort of event that only late-stage capitalism might produce—a monument to the branding-industrial complex. One cannot help but sense that in its contradictions and shallow affect, COP is less a cure for what ails us, but rather a symptom of the problem to be cured.

Dubai skyline with the Burj Khalifa in the distance and the Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in the foreground. Dubai, United Arab Emirates. PHOTO: Shutterstock

But there also appears to be something deeper at play, something reflecting less the fashions of current affairs, and more the deeper tides of history that sweep us all along, shaping our thinking, however unwittingly. It was Max Weber who once said that the greatest legacy of Protestantism was secularism, and it is perhaps no coincidence that our overwhelmingly secular and technocratic preoccupation with climate change—an eschatological movement if there ever was one—finds its well-spring, and most fervent champions, in the historically Protestant nations, namely the Anglosphere, and its North European kindred. It is not entirely a coincidence that Greta is a Swede.

While the concern for anthropogenic climate change has now become a global one, it is itself no more native to Catholic, Orthodox, Islamic, or Confucian cultures than were the other Western norms which—following the advent of the modern international system in the image of the West following World War II, and the period of decolonization from the West that coincided with this—were globalized to the ‘rest’, norms that included bicameral governments, managerial best practice, and technological know-how.

From an anthropological perspective, the preoccupation with climate change is not only Protestant in its secular framing, but also has, if we look closely, a strongly Christian and evangelical character to its very roots. Indeed, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Christian millenarian movement, in which the present order is held to by corrupt and sinful, and that the oppressed will rise up, become the ‘elect’, and usher in a new utopia.

Such a framing, of course, most famously emerged in tenth- and eleventh-century France. In the decade prior to AD 1000, there emerged a fear that judgment day was imminent, and that on the millennium of Christ’s birth, He would return, and the world would end. When the date passed without event, this movement briefly calmed, before re-emerging in the decade prior to the millennium of His death (AD 1033). As one writer has noted, ‘mobilizing huge crowds at open-air revivalist gatherings in the pursuit of God’s peace on earth, this millenarian movement may have been the earliest to bring together all levels of society. It thus displayed two key aspects of subsequent millennialism in the West: vast revivalist gatherings and the sense of a social covenant.’2

It is hard to reflect on this history and not see a secular expression of Christian patterns of thought and culture in the contemporary concern for climate change, a preoccupation that does indeed ‘bring together all levels of society’, and moving people to great passion, and which seeks to culminate in the ultimate ‘social covenant’, as the nation states that are our primary way of representing ourselves today seek to arrive at a binding agreement.

Indeed, even the date of judgment matches. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified the 1.5-degree marker as the ‘tipping point beyond which the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages will increase dramatically’,3 and a recent study has suggested that the point by which we are beyond salvation will be reached…in 2033.4

Whether food for thought, or simple coincidence, is unclear. But certainly, such reflexive questions, and considerations of our own assumptions and frames of reference, did not seem to be too much on the minds of the PowerPointers at COP 28. I watched them as they slumped in their seats in the myriad rooms and auditoriums throughout the Expo Centre, sipping their iced lattes, or idly playing with their lanyards or phones. If these are the people most passionate about the fate of society, then we have already flat-lined. If Dubai is an example of why the climate is changing, the people at COP are products of the same culture that created that example. There are no cures to be found here, at COP or in Dubai. Only symptoms of our collective dissipation, or perhaps simply our mania.


NOTES

1 Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless (Pan Books, 1993), 16.

2 Richard Landes, ‘Millennialism’, Encyclopedia Brittannica, www.britannica.com/topic/millennialism/Patristic-and-medieval-millennialism, accessed 20 December 2023.

3 Ivana Kottasová, ‘It’s getting more likely the world will reach a climate tipping point in the next five years’, CNN.com (27 May 2021), https://edition.cnn.com/2021/05/27/world/climate-temperatures-increase-wmo-intl/index.html.

4 Christian Edwards, ‘A dire forecast: Scientists used AI to find planet could cross critical warming threshold sooner than expected’, CNN.com (30 January 2023), https://edition.cnn.com/2023/01/30/world/global-warming-critical-threshold-climate-intl/index.html.

‘It is debatable whether the COP negotiations themselves achieve much, given that a global consensus is typically only possible when the wording is so vague as to mean anything, which is closer to meaning nothing than something...What is clear, however, is that COP has been co-opted by the very form of political economy that provoked its existence. Much like Dubai itself, this is the sort of event that only late-stage capitalism might produce—a monument to the branding-industrial complex. One cannot help but sense that in its contradictions and shallow affect, COP is less a cure for what ails us, but rather a symptom of the problem to be cured.’

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